Since the months leading up to that whole election thing last year, the term “fake news” has been a regular topic of conversation in newsrooms across the country. As a purveyor of the so-called Truth (with a capital “T”), I find it worrisome to see the public’s increasing consumption of A) hyper-partisan media that skews the facts; and B) inaccurate or downright false news spreading like wildfire through social media.
But what is “fake news”?
In some cases, it’s massively followed websites and Facebook pages masquerading as news outlets that subtly or blatantly cater to partisan biases, with inaccurate articles that take information out of context from credible outlets. On the other end, it’s unhinged blogging outlets like InfoWars, which peddle in both far-right and far-left conspiracy theories.
Most of these outfits are slinging international and national-issue tall tales, but there are also local-focus social media accounts that purposefully distort the truth. Athens recently received its own rendition with a Facebook page originally called “Athens/Athens County Ohio,” now called “Athens City aka Roundabout USA."
Editor's note: The page is now called "The Athens Enquirer." It apparently changed its name again after we published this story.
Most of the posts on the page only get a few likes or shares, but two in particular recently have taken off with dozens of shares, likes and comments.
The problem? They’re completely, patently false.
One of those stories, about the city of Athens building a new “92 million dollar outdoor water park,” was shared 499 times and had about 200 likes and 90 comments as of Tuesday afternoon. The post used an overhead diagram of a water park lifted from the web and lightly edited to look like it came from the city of Athens, and used some of my reporting on the city’s ACTUAL plan for a new city pool (with a price tag of about $7.1 million) to make it look real.
“Keith Dambrot principle architect for the new attraction says The park will include up to 8 water sldes (sic), a large wave pool and a full service bar and restaurant,” the post reads. “The project initially will be funded by taxpayers. Operation costs will be offset by entry fees as well as the possibility of East State St. becoming a toll road.”
None of that is true. For starters, the city’s total budget for this year – for recreation and everything else – is about $40 million alone.
The page’s administrator, whom The NEWS reached via Facebook message but declined to give his or her name, argued that the page is satirical, and meant to poke fun at Athens city administration.
“The city of Athens does so much crazy sh*t that even when you put something out there that is so over the top that there is no way it could be true... it is believeable (sic) in Athens,” the page’s administrator wrote.
Other than one or two posts that are transparently bogus, the only indication of the page being satirical, is a small blurb buried in the “Services” section of the page that says, “We are here to mock the City of Athens and all the crazy stuff the government and people here do.” The page’s “About” section doesn’t mention anything of the kind.
The page mixes the real with the fake in its posts, which does nothing but confuse readers about which is which. It shared a real article from The NEWS without comment about the new Menards store coming to Athens, for example. The page also, at least initially, lifted my writing directly from Athens NEWS articles via copy and pasting from our website to construct its posts.
And the posts are frequently about real issues that I’ve written about, beyond the city pool – for example, one post about the city moving to ban the practice of “conversion therapy,” which is true. It rewrites some of my reporting from an article about that effort, but the post goes way off-the-rails by saying that “dozens of clinics have popped up (locally) in the past few years,” which is totally not true, and totally irresponsible to say.
The administrator, after being contacted by me, changed the name of page from “Athens/Athens County Ohio” to “Athens City aka Roundabout USA,” and did edit some of the posts to remove the more plagiarism-tastic elements of posts that lifted my writing. But those things don’t change the underlying issue with the page: It’s spreading false information in the guise of the truth, and people are falling for it.
Effective parody isn’t intended to mislead people into believing fabrication and lies; rather, it uses obvious exaggeration to make a point about society, government, culture or whatever (think Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” or Mad Magazine). If people are commenting as if the false story is true, and then sharing it to other gullible people on social media, the content isn’t parody; it’s lies.
The page’s administrator, who claims he or she resides in Athens, attempted to rationalize the fundamental dishonesty underlying his/her Facebook page.
“People I talk to daily feel the City is so anti-business that they would prefer that no new company would ever open in town,” the admin said. “I have yet to speak with one person who thinks bike lanes on East State Street are a good ideal. How about Menards and the 700-tree requirement. The $100,000 bicycle bridge to nowhere. The tiny Union Street roundabout at an intersection that didn’t really exist… So when I put out a fake story about dozens of roundabouts or a 92-million-dollar water park, some people are bound to believe it.”
I don’t buy these arguments, outside of the administrator’s acknowledgement that people are bound to believe this stuff. Some people don’t have the time or the knowledge to know that what they’re sharing is false.
This page only serves to further muddy the water in an already murky ocean of information consumption online. It also further erodes people’s already-shaky trust in local government. It’s false information meant to incite them, plain and simple, and that’s why “fake news” in general is so dangerous to our information economy.
After all, reputable news sources (not fake news) have established that fabricated news circulated by Russian intelligence agencies and their proxies last year was intended to undermine Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump get elected. If that’s not proof positive of the hazards of fake news, I don’t know what is.