Fake news stories: They walk among us. The Onion and the Daily Show have become cultural icons, and as the internet has sped up the dissemination of information to previously unimaginable speeds, so too has it accelerated the spread of misinformation.
As newspapers, magazines, and websites rush to beat each other to the finish line on breaking news, thorough source-checking has been known to lose out. Perhaps that's why a number of these fake news stories were promoted a bit longer than they ought to have been.
However, these egregious mistakes — ranging from sexy North Korean leaders to all-inclusive "abortionplexes" — sure do make for great comedy. Here are some 2012 examples of fake news in the real world.
1. Kim Jong Un is the Sexiest Man in the World
Kim Jong Un, the current Dear Leader of North Korea and heir to Kim Jong Il, is something of a cipher at the moment, as he attempts to fill the large (and eccentric) shoes voided by his father and grandfather. One thing is for sure: The moon-faced 27-year-old is not often referred to as sexy in polite company.
That didn't stop the People's Daily Online, the Chinese state government newspaper, from accepting wholesale an Onion report that Kim had been named the "Sexiest Man Alive for 2012," claiming that with his "devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman’s dream come true."
Once the mistake was discovered, the People's Daily Online swiftly took down the story. We're guessing someone may have been fired. But it will live on — in our hearts.
After the internet caught wind of the Kim Jong Un mania, a pack of pranksters deluged Time Magazine's Person of the Year online voting — and you guessed it, Kim Jong Un won. The editors of Time by no means have to honor this ... and they didn't, opting instead for Barack Obama. But come on, just look at that face. How can you say no to that face?
2. Iran Falls for (and Plagiarizes) The Onion
Iran's partially state-run Fars News Agency not only believed an Onion piece claiming that rural Americans preferred President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over President Barack Obama. Fars actually plagiarized it — putting the story up on its website and claiming it as its own.
After many thousands of people pointed and laughed, Fars removed the story and issued an apology— though they did point out they stood by the spirit of the parody:
"Although it does not justify our mistake, we do believe that if a free opinion poll is conducted in the US, a majority of Americans would prefer anyone outside the US political system to President Barack Obama and American statesmen," the agency stated.
Including, presumably, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The Onion, says CNN, actually played along with the gaffe and proudly claimed that Fars "has been our Middle Eastern bureau since the mid 1980s, when the Onion's publisher, T. Herman Zweibel, founded Fars with the government approval of the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini."
3. "Every Style of Parenting" Results in Miserable Adults Horrifies the Internet
Some modern parents are known to be rather involved in their children's lives, so a news story claiming that every style of parenting results in "profoundly unhappy adults" led to shock and horror — even if it did come from the Onion.
The Onion credited the story's research to a real institution, the California Parenting Institute of Santa Rosa — which was not pleased to find out it had been associated with a widely disseminated joke story, says the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
CPI was quickly hit by numerous indignant phone calls and emails, and was forced to put out a press release disavowing all connection to the phony "research" — or the belief that all children are slated to end up miserable and riddled with existential ennui.
Is it actually true that even the best, most thoughtful style of parenting could potentially result in miserable progeny? Well, yes. But don't tell the upwardly mobile that.
4. Veritable Hurricane of Fake Sandy News: Sharks, Photoshop, and the Flooded Stock Exchange
Natural disasters induce panic in the most stolid among us, meaning we're that much more vulnerable to being taken in by erroneous news reports. That principle certainly held true when Hurricane Sandy hit the US East Coast in October, as faux or mistake news reports, images, and even videos began to flood the media.
Not just Facebook amateurs were taken in, either: CNN's own Piers Morgan and the Weather Channel falsely reported that the New York Stock Exchange was "under three feet of water," panicking financial analysts.
Other popular Sandy memes? You almost certainly saw this menacing image of the impending storm — cleverly Photoshopped, not actually representative of the dismal weather blowing through the city. But numerous people believed it was all true.
Then came the sharks. Whenever a hurricane hits a major area, it seems that photos of sharks swimming around normally bucolic suburban areas will surface soon after — call it a primal human fear of having Jaws attack us in our very own driveways. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these Deadly Shark photos are almost all fake as well. (Though tell that to rapper Sean Kingston, who appears to have bought into it completely).
Should making fake tweets during a time of disaster — with the intention to confuse — be made illegal? If so, kingpin fake-tweeter @ComfortablySmug might be in a bit of trouble. But he's safe for now.
Currently, Twitter is considered to be approximately the same as a conversation, according to Gigaom.com, and lying, while not exactly the nicest thing to do, is not illegal. The debate's begun, and will almost certainly continue for the foreseeable future. Humanity has never found it so easy to push out mass misinformation — with bad intentions — before.
5. Louisiana Congressman Thoroughly Convinced "Abortionplex" Is Real
Here's how it all began: A May 2011 Onion story about an $8 billion Planned Parenthood "Abortionplex," featuring shopping, entertainment, and a nightclub, said the facility was intended to make abortion a "more social event."
This piece would strike most viewers as high satire, but that wasn't the case for John Fleming, a Republican US representative from Louisiana who might require a lesson or two in the art of checking one's sources.
In February 2012, Fleming breathlessly shared the story on his Facebook page, writing "More on Planned Parenthood, abortion by the wholesale," says Politico.org.
His post soon attracted the scorn of those aware the Onion is not exactly the world's most reputable news source (by design) — and it was kinda old fake news, to boot. One reader responded with: "The Onion is satire. How exactly did you get elected?"
Fleming quickly took it down. The wound to his dignity, however, may still be unhealed.
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