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“Fake news” or fluff?

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, there has been lot of debate in the media about “fake news.”  In particular, critics are concerned that a wave of fake news, spread on social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, were able to demonize Hillary Clinton at will and could have helped tip the election in favor of Donald Trump.

A study by Craig Silverman at BuzzFeed found that in the days leading up to the election, “fake news” outperformed “real news” in terms of Facebook engagement, giving exposure to blatantly fabricated headlines such as “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president” (from endthefed.gov) and “FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apartment in murder-suicide.  Even Barack Obama has weighed in on the deleterious effects of fake news:  “If we are not serious about facts, and what’s true and what’s not…if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems. ”

Of course, Barack Obama isn’t the first President to warn us about fake news:

The latest controversy involved a conspiracy theory, dubbed #PizzaGate, which spread across the internet like a meme and convinced many people that a Washington, D.C., pizza joint was the base of a pedophilia ring involving top Democrats like John Podesta and Hillary Clinton.  BuzzFeed tracked how the rumor spread from Facebook speculation, to Twitter speculation, to collaborative conversations on message boards hosted on 4Chan, GodlikeProductions, and Reddit.  The #Pizzagate saga concluded with a man strolling into the pizzeria with an armed gun.

The recent brouhaha about “fake news” has focused on how non-legitimate stories get spread by non-legitimate websites and platforms.  However, there is a lighter form of “fake news” that also gets spread easily, and which gets spread among mainstream blogs and entertainment sites.  These are the celebrity gossip stories, the provocative second-hand quotes, and the humor stories that are often aggregated on social media.  For a case study, I looked at how one story spread from the social media site Reddit to dozens and dozens of legitimate news sites.

Reddit is a social site where all the news and discussions are submitted by readers.  It was recently ranked by Alexa as the 7th-most visited site on the internet.

Reddit contains a variety of forums subreddits, each devoted to a topic.  Some subreddits are dedicated to concrete news stories.  If you visit /r/news or /r/science, you will only find links to credible sources.  If you visit a sports reddit such as /r/NFL or /r/NBA, you will find a mixture of news stories, gifs, videos, and opinion pieces.  Fundamentally, there are only two categories of posts:  Links, and text.  For the sake of this article, my concern is only with the text posts, because it is the text posts–not the links–which are aggregated in the news.

A frequent target of re-blogging are the celebrity interviews, known as Ask Me Anythings.  Patrick Stewart participated in an AMA back on August 20, 2015, causing a torrent of coverage:  Digital Spy gushed, “8 things we learned from the hilarious Patrick Stewart Reddit AMA.”  Inverse reported: “Sir Patrick Stewart Proved His Worth in Reddit AMA”  UpRoxx squealed: “That time Patrick Stewart’s Reddit AMA confirmed he’s awesome.”  E Online recapped: “The Best Nonsensical Answers From Sir Patrick Stewart’s Brilliant Reddit AMA.”  Mental Floss informed its readers with “10 Things We Learned from Patrick Stewart’s AMA.”  More and more recaps followed, from IndieWire, Jezebel, Thrillist, UpWorthy, Pajiba, Dorkly, and The Mirror,

Another popular source of aggregation is the “AskReddit” subreddit, in which the poster gives a prompt and asks for contributions.  For example, on May 26, 206, there was a popular AskReddit thread with the question, “What is the dumbest 100% serious thing someone has said to you?”  The funniest answers were then compiled by the Daily Mail.

Yet, there’s a particular variety of text post which contains the juicy sort of self-contained anecdotes that make for great fodder and discussion.  These are the “confession” posts, in which a Redditor admits to something embarrassing or controversial and seeks feedback from the readers.

On August 4, 2014, a Redditor named “thr111” created a text post on /r/OffMyChest, titled “Am I a Bad Person For This?”  He described an incident from 2012 in which he was waiting in line at Burger King, and was annoyed by an out-of-control kid with a non-attentive mother.  The kid screamed and wailed, and yelled at his mother: “I want a fucking pie.”  After several minutes, the man came up with a plan for petty revenge:

 I then decide to ruin their day. I order every pie they have left in addition to my burgers. Turned out to be 23 pies in total, I take my order and walk towards the exit. Moments later I hear the woman yelling, what do you mean you don’t have any pies left, who bought them all? I turn around and see the cashier pointing me out with the woman shooting me a death glare. I stand there and pull out a pie and slowly start eating eat as I stare back at her. She starts running towards me but can’t get to me because of other lineups in the food court. I turn and slowly walk away.

The post proved very popular, accumulating over 5,000 karma points.   Several commenters questioned the accuracy of thr111’s story, and a few days later thr111 wrote an addendum, explaining that he did have any proof for the incident, since it happened back in 2012 and the receipt ws long gone.  In regards to accusations that the incident resembled a scene from the TV show 30 Rock, thr111 said he had never seen the show.  Shortly thereafter, thr111 permanently deleted his Reddit account.

Needless to say, the story went viral:  Not only was the petty revenge itself an ingenious act, but it’s a story that invites everyone to provide judgment on thr111’s inherent goodness or badness.  And, while some outlets did question thr111’s story, or even outright call B.S., a majority of sites presented the story as factual, as documented below:

  • The earliest aggregation appears to have occurred at on August 5, at 8 P.M., on the women’s style site Refinery 29.  Daniel Barna shared the tale, claiming  “This Reddit Post Sums Up All of Humankind.” Barna took great amusement in the story, beginning with the lede, “A hilarious/troubling story was posted on Reddit yesterday.”  At no point did Barna attempt to question the veracity of the story, but she did ask readers to say where their sympathies lied.  VERDICT: TRUE
  • On August 6, at 10:00 A.M. Daniela Galarza at Eater.com made a one-paragraph post about the Reddit confession, titling it “Man Buys 23 Burger King Apple Pies to Spite a Small Child.”  Galarza does not attempt to verify if the story is true, either, but he leads off the paragraph with the important adverb “apparently.”   Wrote Galarza:  “Apparently, after waiting in line in front of a careless mother and her screaming small child, a man who was having a bad day (and had a headache) decided to ruin that family’s day.”  VERDICT: SLIGHT HEDGING
  • The next day, August 6, Myka Fox of Someecards.com reblogged the saga.  However, Fox who was completely tongue-in-cheek about her presentation, exclaiming how “[thr111] took to the “offmychest” section of reddit and proceeded to tell the most true story anyone has ever told on the Internet.”  VERDICT: TONGUE-IN-CHEEK
  • On August 6, Chris Morran of Consumerist dished out the confession, with a caution: “Cue the disclaimer that his entire story may be B.S., but it’s worth discussing anyway.”  VERDICT:  CAVEAT
  • On August 6, Brandon Wenerd of BroBible copied and pasted the entire confession in a matter-of-fact post titled “Redditor Buys All of the Pies at a Burger King To Spite a Spoiled Brat Kid.”  VERDICT: TRUE
  • On August 6, at 3:09 P.M., Dayna Evans of Gawker presented the story as mostly true, with the only hedge occurring when she said the man claims to have bought all 23 pies.  This one post by itself received 2.15 million pageviews.  VERDICT: SLIGHT HEDGE
  • On August 6, at 7:25 P.M. John Bonne of eOnline creatively framed the story as a 3-act Shakespearian drama, before asking the audience to vote on thr111’s ultimate goodness or badness.  Despite the dramatic interpretation, Boone still presented the underlying story as true.  VERDICT: TRUE
  • On August 7, an anoymous author at Geekologie gave a straight-laced recap of Piegate, presenting the story as though it were true.  VERDICT: TRUE
  • On August 7, Daisy Melamed Sanders at Delish reiterated the story, crediting Eater.com.  VERDICT: TRUE
  • On August 7, at 12:10 P.M. Peyton Lawrence at EmptyLighthouse.com recapped the drama.  The story was presented as basically true.  VERDICT: TRUE
  • On August 7, Pix 11 wrote “Man allegedly buys all Burger King’s pies to stick it to whining kid,” and included a detailed recap, along with the speculation from other Redditors that thr111’s story was bunk.  Pix 11 took the further initiative of contacting Burger King corporate headquarters and asked about the company policy for “when a customer walks into demanding all of a certain item were not returned by the time of publication.  VERDICT: NEEDS A FACT-CHECK
  • On August 7, a CBS outlet wrote about the confession in a post titled, “This Guy Dealt With a Bratty Child at Burger King in the Most Hilarious Way Possible.”  The author, Matt Dolloff, acknowledges many Redditors were dubious of the story, but he himself doubles down in his belief: “People have called BS on the story, questioning certain aspects of it. But the guy seems confident that he’s telling the truth and doesn’t care if you don’t believe him. He didn’t really NEED to tell it, anyway, so we’re going to believe him here.”  VERDICT: TRUE
  • On August 7, Albert Burneko of Deadspin  wrote a screed about the praise thr111 was receiving, in a post titled “Don’t Buy All The Pies At Burger King To Spite A Child, You Asshole.”  Burneko clearly does not believe the story is true, stating: “the story reads as—and pretty obviously is—a work of lazy revenge-fantasy fiction,” and later concludes “Even if this story is true—especially if it is true (and it isn’t, not for a second)—thr111 is an asshole.”  VERDICT: B.S.
  • On August 7, OC Weekly recapped the story.  The author, Charles Lam, concluded with the sentiment: “Real story? I really hope so, ’cause that’s pretty bad ass.”  VERDICT: PROBABLY TRUE
  • On August 7, Metro.co.uk ran the story, presented as true, and asked readers to weigh in on whether the man was a hero or a villain.  Metro even emphasized the utter truthfulness of the tale, writing: “It sounds like a scene from a movie, and audiences would probably laugh and think the man had dealt with the woman and her child very creatively.  In real life however, is the man a hero or a villain?”  VERDICT: TRUE
  • On August 7, Josh Kurp of UpRoxx copied and pasted, the entirely of thr111’s story.  Kurp signaled his overall skepticism (albeit in a subtle manner) with the concluding line:  “I believe every part of this story except one detail: Burger King sells pies?”  VERDICT: TONGUE-IN-CHEEK
  • On August 7, at 11:40 A.M., Perez Hilton gobbled down the pie story, even stating that “An anonymous Reddit user confessed” to buying up the pies:  VERDICT: TRUE
  • On August 7, Jonathan Wolfe of OpposingViews recapped the story without questioning its truthfulness.  VERDICT: TRUE
  • On August 7, a Fox affiliate ran a report from Tucson News Now about the confession.  The TNN report used the word “claimed” multiple times, and concluded: “We have contacted Burger King about this story and are currently waiting on a response.”  VERDICT: SLIGHT HEDGE WITH A FACT CHECK ATTEMPT
  • On August 8, at 9:30 A.M., Michelle Maffei of AllParenting presented the story as true, proclaiming that “most [people], myself included, are hailing Thr111’s bold move as an act of awesomeness.  VERDICT: TRUE
  • On August 8, Maria Guido of Mommyish railed about Piegate, exclaiming that thr111 himself was the one acting like a spoiled child.  Guido does think thr111’s claim about the mother using the term “sweetie” to address the child was B.S., but Guido presents the overall story as true.  VERDICT: TRUE
  • On August 8, Anastassia Somorodinskaya of Guff.com recounted the confession, presenting it as true, and calling the man an “inspiration.”  VERDICT: TRUE
  • On August 8, the HuffingtonPost reported that thr111 had deleted his account.  The author, Simon McCormack, presented various pro and con arguments from the comment section of the Reddit post, in which people tried to determine if thr111’s story was valid.  McCormack also said the Huffington Post specifically reached out to a Reddit spokesperson, who confirmed thr111 had deleted his account, and to Burger King, which simply said “We have nothing to add to the story at this time.”  VERDICT: FACT CHECK ATTEMPT
  • On August 8, the Evening Standard recapped the story and mentioned the entire story was based on one person’s account, saying:  “The unnamed man is reported to have taken the step after a child standing in the queue behind him started demanding pie from his mother.”  VERDICT: SLIGHT HEDGE
  • On August 9, Cassie Boss of Inquisitr wrote about the story, presented as true, and asked her readers to weigh in on the conversation.  VERDICT: TRUE
  • On August 10, the New York Daily News provided a recap.  The lede of the article states:  “A Burger King customer bought all 23 remaining apple pies in a restaurant to spite the mother and screaming child behind him in the line.”  The incident is presented as a fact, without any questioning of its veracity.  The Daily News does not even mention the Redditor’s username.  VERDICT: TRUE
  • Finally, on August 12, at 1:26 P.M. Stuart Heritage, of TheGuardian, penned a humorous commentary piece about the incident.  About midway through his 900-word article, Heritage includes this interesting qualification:   “Even if this all turns out to be a desperate fiction written by a lonely man who had just watched that episode of 30 Rock where Tina Fey does exactly the same thing but with hotdogs – which is likely – it no longer matters. The public has latched on to the story so ferociously that it’s as good as true now anyway.”  Heritage goes on to argue that the bratty kid’s mother is deserving of sympathy, and that Burger King Pie Man’s actions were rather dickish.  VERDICT: TONGUE-IN-CHEEK

“As good as true” is an incredibly shrewd way to describe content on the internet.  A story will have impact depending not on whether it’s true or false, but depending on whether it’s accepted as true or false.  It’s the acceptance that matters.

In the end, thr111’s story was never proven conclusively true or conclusively false.  In the end, the realness of #Piegate will not impact the world.  Nonetheless, there are lots of fluffy stories floating around the internet on any particular day, and it is interesting to see how journalists report on the of fluffy stories which could be total B.S..

One tactic is to use the hedging adverbs:  Apparently, supposedly, allegedly, purportedly, etc… which indicate a story is not 100% confirmed.  Then, there are the hedging verbs, the most common of which is “claims.”  It’s good journalistic practice to be skeptical.  As the old saying goes, “”If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”  However, there may be a tendency among internet writers to use these hedges as a substitute for the hard-work of fact checking.  In which case, the story spreads all the same.

Other bloggers will provide a quick caveat–e.g. ‘This story might not be true,” but proceed to run it anyway.  Alternately, the blogger may use hyperbolic humor as a means of distancing themselves from having to give judgement.  These tactics allow bloggers to have their pie and eat it, too.

Some bloggers will outright call a story is B.S., but then offer their take on the incident all the same, albeit in a hypothetical manner–  i.e. Let’s suppose this were true.  

Certain news outlets will actually reach out to the parties involved to seek a comment or do some preliminary fact-checking.  Pix11, the Huffington Post, and Tucson News Now all reached out to Burger King for a reaction.  Pix11 was the most thorough in providing arguments from those doubting the story.  However, unless a story is outright proven false down the line, the story itself will remain up on the site.

 




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