Within hours of Ravi Bhalla’s election as Hoboken mayor on Nov. 7, more than 6,000 Twitter users retweeted a photo of him declaring victory – with one user adding, “Look at all the black and brown politicians out here winning I am so proud.” Social media users and several national news outlets interpreted victories by Bhalla and other minority candidates as a win for tolerance in a year marked by a vocal (and deadly) hate march and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
But within 48 hours of Bhalla’s victory, social media users also began spreading anonymous fabricated stories saying that Bhalla had banned Christmas in Hoboken (not true), saying he’s Muslim (he’s not), linking him to terrorism (no evidence), and begging the president for help. “President Trump, please step in,” read a red banner on top of a false story about Bhalla on a website called Reaganwasright.
The sites that published these stories are similar to “fake news” websites and social media accounts that have proliferated in the last few years – some created by Russians to sow the seeds of discord among groups of Americans, some run by citizens who want to make a buck off their neighbors’ naiveté, others run by political groups meant to direct anger toward opponents. During the presidential election in 2016, several “fake news” sites were found to have been created by Macedonian teenagers who became wealthy by duping Americans.
In the last two weeks, the spread of false stories and doctored photographs ramped up, ironically just after U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller issued indictments (on Feb. 16) of 13 operatives in St. Petersburg, Russia for allegedly creating websites, social media accounts, and ads to mislead Americans during the 2016 election.
Rather than being harmless or aimed at politicians only, fake news stories have resulted in death threats toward private citizens and threats to small businesses. Two fake Facebook pages created in 2016 even spurred groups of Americans to protest against each other in public. (The latter feat was accomplished by Russian operatives, according to news reports, who set up both anti-Muslim and pro-Muslim Facebook groups.)
Websites that carry false stories are designed to look like mainstream media but rarely have a staff box, don’t run corrections, and usually lack the print presence that would make them more susceptible to longtime libel laws and held accountable.
Anyone can wind up the subject of a false story these days, although media outlets and fact-checking sites have been working to debunk the falsehoods. Yet, some political officials and social media users have attempted to delegitimize those outlets too.
The Bhalla stories from November were shared on Facebook, Twitter, and even Youtube for over a month, until various outlets began correcting them.
Last week, Bhalla said he and his family received death threats between the election and taking office on Jan. 1, both in online comments and in e-mails. He didn’t know if they were due to the fake news stories, but he mentioned those, saying City Hall got “dozens” of calls from people who believed the story about him banning Christmas (none of the calls came from within Hoboken, he said).
In parts of the country with less tolerance, such a story could have a chilling effect on someone wanting to run for office, to dress their family in their traditional religious garb (turban, hijab, yarmulke, cross), or to criticize their government – the rights some Americans take for granted.
In Rochester, Minn. two weeks ago, a female Muslim mayoral candidate received a threatening note posted on her Google Plus account, urging the execution of Muslims in America. The candidate, Regina Mustafa, wears a hijab (or veil) as part of her Muslim religion. She is still in the race.
Bhalla, who was born and grew up in New Jersey, practices the Sikh faith, a Northern Indian religion distinct from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Sikhs wear a turban out of respect to God.
Bhalla said even though he’s not Muslim, he doesn’t appreciate slurs toward Muslims either.
“The thing that I find that goes to a different range of offensiveness,” he said, “is when there is fake news put out about a Muslim mayor trying to impose Sharia law. I find that offensive not only as a Sikh American but just as an American. There should be no religion castigated or painted in a negative light simply because of some tie of the Islamic faith to extremism, or [claiming they’re] banning Christmas or imposing Sharia law. It’s offensive to me as an American.”
Bhalla said he found the idea of him banning Christmas “laughable” and “silly” – but local law enforcement said that because people fall for false news stories, they had to take the matter seriously.
Police Chief Ken Ferrante said that the day after the election, an FBI agent contacted the department to say they were seeing threats and there should be extra security at Bhalla’s inauguration in January. Ferrante said law enforcement was able to identify and talk to the people who allegedly made the threats, but he preferred not to elaborate except to say none of the suspects was from Hoboken. There was a concern not just for the mayor, officials noted, but the surrounding community as well.
Calling established media “fake news” delegitimizes the main outlets with the resources to correct misinformation.
How the stories proliferated
The earliest false Bhalla stories appeared on a site called Reaganwasright.com, whose companion Facebook page has 23,407 followers. The day after the election, the headline blared, “New Jersey’s first Muslim Mayor vows to ‘Glorify Allah in every decision’ ” and included a photo of a man in a turban who isn’t Bhalla (it’s Hollywood actor Waris Ahulwalia who, like Bhalla, is a Sikh Indian).
The same day, Reaganwasright added a false story claiming Bhalla has terrorist ties, also falsely claiming he grew up in Pakistan. On Nov. 9, it ran the story that caught on throughout the web, claiming Bhalla had abolished Christmas in Hoboken in order to “respect other religions.”
The websites beforeitsnews.com, defenseusa.com, and tradcatknight.blogspot posted versions of these stories, even though a brief internet search would have told them that Hoboken had several Christmas events planned, Bhalla was not Muslim, and he would not take office until Jan. 1, 2018.
Because of “confirmation bias” — a desire to spread stories that conform to one’s views — people tend to share articles and photos without checking them first. It’s even quicker to spread memes (photos with slogans), which experts say can be a new form of propaganda.
On Thursday, Nov. 9, a Twitter user with 5,761 followers shared the “Muslim mayor” story without commentary. His profile says he is “Here to share with those who believe in our president.” The same day, a woman with 9,003 followers Tweeted about the article, “We have Muslim’s as Mayor’s won’t be long before Jersey goes Sharia now…you’ll never get them out.” Four people Retweeted her Tweet.
It was on Nov. 10 that BeforeItsNews.com, which frequently posts conspiracy theories (sometimes about UFOs), posted the Bhalla/Christmas story. The post elicited slurs against Muslims beneath it. But another reader protested: “You are going to have to delete this article since the Gentleman concerned is a Sikh the blue turban is a dead giveaway.”
The post’s original author replied, “I don’t delete articles. I added an update to express your concern and also a video to break down the difference between Muslim and Sikh. I honestly am not an expert on over seas religions … PS either way he seems to be offing Christmas. But I’m sure that could be debated as well.”
That website’s companion Facebook page has 56,674 followers.
On Nov. 10, the Bhalla/Christmas article was retweeted by a Twitter user called “Dog” who has 21,200 followers and says in his profile that he likes “beer, motorcycles, and women.” The day after that, a blogger on Facebook, who hosts a radio show, shared the story with his 195,000 Facebook fans.
The story played into increasing rhetoric against Muslim Americans based on the actions of radical terrorists, even though there are more than 3,000 Muslims serving in the U.S. armed forces, according to the Pentagon. The anti-Christmas themes were buoyed and given credence by statements over the past few years by political commentators and ultimately by Donald Trump during his presidential campaign. The issue evokes non-Christians or those pushing “political correctness” in battle with others. This past Christmas Eve, Trump Tweeted, “People are proud to be saying Merry Christmas again. I am proud to have led the charge against the assault of our cherished and beautiful phrase.”
Who will counter these stories?
If anyone can say anything about anyone on the web, or doctor their photos, who will stop it?
Despite the shrinking resources of media outlets, there are still outfits that work to counter misinformation. In December, the longtime myth-busting website Snopes.com added entries to counter the false claims about Bhalla, pointing to Bhalla’s own Twitter account in which he wished others a “Merry Christmas” and posed with schoolchildren and at the local Elks Lodge celebrating the holiday.
The false stories were also debunked in mainstream media with wide audiences, including the Associated Press’s weekly compilation of “fake news” that appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Nov. 10 (the Tribune is owned by Tronc, which also owns the L.A. Times and New York Daily News). The claims were likewise countered on the NJ101.5 radio station and in a column for Bloomberg News.
Snopes is one of the oldest fact-checking websites and, before the recent election, was often invoked by Facebook users to bust urban myths. However, in the last two years, the site has taken on more significance. Just two weeks ago, memes meant to discredit Snopes itself spread around social media, an apparent effort to stop the site from being able to debunk claims. The anti-Snopes meme claimed that Snopes has no staff (actually it lists its staff on its website) and said the site had been discredited by myth-busting site Factcheck.org in 2009 (untrue; Factcheck’s story concluded that Snopes had been fair in debunking falsehoods from both the political left and right).
The Parkland factor
The anti-Snopes memes were spread amid a recent upswing of fake news in the last two weeks due to a politically divisive event: the Feb. 14 fatal school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. After the tragedy, several students spoke on TV in favor of gun control and against politicians who take money from the National Rifle Association. The teens swiftly became the objects of web conspiracy theories claiming they were actors who didn’t attend the school. Some Tweeters spread the teens’ old Instagram vacation pictures to suggest that they didn’t live in Florida.
The theories were popularized by right-wing sites such as Infowars.com, which had previously helped propagate theories about other school shootings. Last week, YouTube removed a video posted by Infowars about the shooting, which had referred to the students having been coached.
By the end of last week, two of the teenagers said their families had received death threats.
Opening the country up to more?
The term “fake news,” until recently, meant what the dictionary spells out — fabricated news, no matter who made it up. Russia has been known to spread it in other countries, and those governments (such as Finland, which shares a border with Russia) cracked down by encouraging citizens to educate themselves. In 2015, Finland President Sauli Niinisto acknowledged the threat, hired experts, and undertook a program of education to resist the country’s neighbor.
But in the United States, the term “fake news” has been co-opted to encourage distrust of all major media outlets. This results in delegitimizing the organizations most able to counter false stories.
Last month, Donald Trump announced that he would give out ten “fake news” awards. On Jan. 17, the “Highly Anticipated 2017 Fake News Awards” were posted on the website of the Republican National Committee. The top “award” went to an opinion columnist for the New York Times, Paul Krugman, for his opinion that the financial markets would not recover after Trump’s election.
The other awards were split by six media companies: ABC, CNN, Newsweek, Time, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. These awards were indeed for errors in fact, although they were corrected, or staff demoted or fired, when pointed out.
In the explanation for one award, Trump used a Washington Post story to verify an error in the Times.
None of the awards, or the president’s recent Tweets about “fake news,” took to task foreign websites spreading false news about groups of Americans.
Rather than using terms like “biased” or “slanted,” which many politicians have believed various outlets to be toward them at one time or another, Trump has Tweeted the term “fake” or “fake news” more than 100 times in the past two years.
Last month, a Gallup/Knight Foundation poll said, “Four in 10 Republicans consider accurate news stories that cast a politician or political group in a negative light to always be ‘fake news.’ ” (https://knightfoundation.org/reports/american-views-trust-media-and-democracy)
With news outlets under fire, it raises the question of who will counteract propaganda. Experts say that neutralizing the fact-based media opens the door for misinformation.
Writing in the New York Times in December, Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk opined that politicians and others who spread falsehoods set the stage to erode democratic norms.
“A hundred people telling a thousand lies quickly exhaust the ability of news outlets to disprove each claim, and of citizens to keep track of all the real and invented scandals,” he wrote. “Overwhelmed by the noise, they take refuge in believing whatever their own team tells them. The public sphere quickly degenerates into a battleground.”
Why spread the Bhalla stories?
So who wrote the Bhalla stories and why did people spread them?
Reaganwasright is run by Christopher Blair, a Maine resident who has sparred with various fact-based media sources while defending what he does. Blair describes himself as a “liberal troll” who says the stories teach a lesson to people who spread fake news.
On the very bottom of Reaganwasright.com is a disclaimer labeling the stories as satire. The box doesn’t appear when people share the stories, and people often see the headlines or Facebook posts without the label. Articles on the site often don’t exaggerate situations for effect, as satire does, instead including completely false details.
A click on the “about” part of Reaganwasright brings up this message: “Everything on this website is fiction. It is not a lie and it is not fake news because it is not real. If you believe that it is real, you should have your head examined. Any similarities between this site’s pure fantasy and actual people, places, and events are purely coincidental…not taking the time to Google before sharing them as news would be asinine.”
Last week, Blair said, “While what we do looks like the face of pure evil, the rewards far outweigh the perceived harm.”
He said he and acquaintances typically “troll” gullible people who need to learn to fact-check. During the election, his page sent invites to people over 55 “who had liked Donald Trump and Sean Hannity,” asking if they loved America. “We had 100,000 followers within a year by posting typical right-wing memes about Obama being a secret Muslim,” he noted.
He said such stories often draw racist comments, and those posters are then banned from social media for a time. “We’ve had dozens of fake profiles, both racist alts and Russian bots, removed altogether,” he said.
He said in other cases, people thanked him for getting them into the habit of fact-checking. “For the first time as a Liberal Troll,” he said, “I saw progress from those I torment.”
He discovered people from Macedonia stealing his “work” during the presidential campaign, he said, and got 22 misleading Facebook pages and nearly 40 websites banned, with 10 million fans among them.
He said most of his stories don’t get circulated far. The Bhalla stories came about, he said, because his associates noticed that on conservative sites, people were responding negatively to national stories about Bhalla.
He said these stories had a positive effect: At first, people would leave negative comments on them, but by the fourth Bhalla story, they were responding, “He’s a Sikh.” Thus, Blair says, they were learning.
He has said right-wingers share false stories more often than the left, and without fact-checking them first.
“As for Trump using the term ‘fake news,’” he said, “He’s turned a legion of idiots into little minions who are easily twisted to believe whatever he wants. It’s amazing.”
He noted, “It takes 30 seconds to Google before sharing, especially when the article you read was written by Flagg Eagleton in the category, ‘Everything Bagels with Cream Cheese.’ ”
(Blair denied personally writing the Bhalla stories, “but I completely support the writer who did.”)
He said that he doesn’t worry about people being hurt by these types of stories, as they’re usually about politicians and celebrities. However, some of the Bhalla articles did contain photos of him campaigning with other people in the neighborhood.
A check of the homepage for Reaganwasright last week showed stories about Malia Obama, former Pres. Barack Obama, a raid on a mosque that supposedly netted “11 Isis terrorists” (a completely false story, according to Snopes), and a story about U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller supposedly committing suicide (in case there’s any doubt, he was alive at press time).
Snopes has questioned whether the site should qualify as satire. In regard to the Isis story, Snopes wrote, “In January 2018, the self-described ‘satirical’ web site ReaganWasRight published the inflammatory and false claim.”
In 2016 and 2017, several Americans experimented with creating “fake news” sites. A 23-year-old Maryland man saw a completely fabricated story of his go viral during the election, about finding a cache of fraudulent election ballots for Hillary Clinton.
Local residents share memes
So are people learning to be more careful?
In Hoboken, one local community leader, a volunteer commissioner on the board that oversees the city’s 1,300 units of low-income housing, shared last week three memes on his public Facebook page about the Parkland high school students.
The commissioner, Hovie Forman, came under fire in December of 2016 for sharing a meme about slavery and the Civil War, which some complained was racist. At the time, Forman said he actually shared it because he thought it was unfair, and should have taken more time with the post. “Actually, on top of it I should have put ‘yeah right,’ ” he told the Reporter at the time (https://tinyurl.com/memeapology). He also noted that he had grown up in the housing projects and had a good relationship with residents there.
Last week, he shared memes against various Democrats and three making implications about David Hogg, a 17-year-old Marjorie Stoneman Douglas student who’s been speaking out about gun control. Hogg – who wants to become a news reporter and whose father is a retired F.B.I. agent — has become a target of theories saying he’s an actor and not a student. Some of the theories were popularized by Infowars.com, which also famously helped popularize a theory linking Hillary Clinton to a supposed criminal enterprise in a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. (The website’s commentator, Alex Jones, last March issued a rare six-minute video apology for those stories: “We regret any negative impact our commentaries may have had on [the restaurant owner].” The apology came four months after a man entered the pizzeria with guns.)
Last week, a few of Forman’s Facebook friends called out his posts about Hogg. One woman also responded to a different fake story he shared, saying, “These memes are literally a threat to the very heart of American principles…If we continue to disseminate these lies we are nothing more than agents of it.”
Forman said, when contacted by the Reporter, that he posts such things because “Essentially it’s like a talking point everyone can put their opinions on… If someone tells me it’s fake news and shows me what I posted is wrong I have no problem commenting it’s fake news or taking it down.”
He added that he’ll be more careful, but “When you fact check things and it looks real, you can double check it, and can still look real… I think the average person including myself isn’t a journalist and doesn’t know how to really research something they may have a strong opinion on.” (See sidebar on identifying a fake news site.)
Dr. Jeff Hemsley, an assistant professor at Syracuse who studies viral events and has become an expert on fake news, said, “Propaganda has been around as long as there’s been politics. So this whole phenomenon isn’t new. What’s new is that so many more people have a megaphone.”
How ‘fake news’ has spurred threats
“Fake news” stories aren’t just spreading misinformation; they’re spurring violence. Examples:
–The president has routinely taken CNN to task for its reporting. On Jan. 9 and 10, a 19-year-old Michigan man allegedly made 22 calls to CNN, saying, “Fake news. I’m coming to gun you all down,” according to an affidavit. “I am on my way right now to gun the f****** CNN cast down.” He also allegedly made disparaging statements about Jewish people and African-Americans. He was charged with transmitting interstate communications with the intent to extort and threat to injure.
–On the afternoon of Dec. 4, 2016, a 28-year-old man from Salisbury, N.C., walked in the front door of a Washington D.C. pizzeria, with an AR-15 rifle and revolver. He apparently went to investigate online conspiracies about a child-abuse ring supposedly led by Hillary Clinton. The man surrendered to police after he couldn’t find any children. He pleaded guilty to two charges and was sentenced to four years in prison.
–On June 17, 2015 mass murderer Dylan Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. and killed nine people during a prayer service. Roof, a white supremacist, was reportedly a reader of Daily Stormer, a site containing racial conspiracy theories and fake news. He also followed the teachings of a white nationalist group calling itself the Council of Conservative Citizens, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, that uses feeds from three far-right fake news sites.
–Over the past year, in Myanmar, human rights groups say false news spreading on Facebook has stoked violence against the Rohingya Muslims. Violent post-election protests resulted in more than 20 deaths.
How to quickly check ‘fake news’
Fake news isn’t always easy to spot, since some sites try to look like established news organizations. Here are some quick things you can do:
Is the story about a politician? Type the person’s name and other keywords from the headline into Google or any search engine you trust. You’ll often bring up counter-stories identifying your original as false.
Is the publication accountable?
Does the webpage provide a way to contact the staff if something is incorrect, so they can write a correction? Does it provide an address in general, or is it really a foreign site?
Does the site actually post corrections, the way established media does?
Check the ‘about me’
Some websites identify themselves as “satire” in the “about me” section of their pages.
Don’t be fooled by titles
Some fake sites include words like “federal” and “patriot” to trick you into thinking it’s patriotic to believe stories without fact-checking. Others contain “Tribune” or “News” to mimic established publications.
Search the author
Often, with a quick Google search, a reader can check an author’s credibility and ensure he or she is a real person. If there’s no byline, proceed with caution.
A column isn’t an article
While op-eds and opinion columnists are supposed to state their opinions, straight news articles are not. Check if it’s an article or column.
Look at where the quotes and facts come from
Reputable journalists say where their numbers come from, so look for links to credible sources, such as a government website or legal case. Actually click the link to see if the statistics and decision are as described in the story.
Check with other media or fact-checking sites
Several websites have dedicated themselves to fact checking, like FactCheck.org, Snopes.com, Politifact.com (a project of the Tampa Bay Times and Poynter Institute) and TruthorFiction.com. Chances are they have already fact-checked the viral articles.
All of this is not to say that existing media and even the fact-checking sites don’t deserve questioning – they do. Just because something is a conspiracy theory, doesn’t mean there aren’t conspiracies to be found. But legitimate reporters, who sift through hundreds of documents and articles each week, should correct their mistakes. If a story seems off-base, do research and ask questions.
Do they communicate?
A legitimate publication or website will publish its contact information, phone number, address, and email, so you can express opinions or concerns. Many outlets have corrected errors, apologized, or fired employees after making a mistake. A website with hidden ownership is less accountable.