Why, in the age of disinformation, we need to fact-check pranksters

Citing a Latvian scientific paper, Prima claimed that a regular dose of Mother’s Ruin increased calorie burn by 17%.

Word of that spread, as did a snazzy £40 bottle flavored with your raw grain alcohol however you like it. It was picked up and widely reiterated by online journalists who fought their Sisyphus battle to capture, bottle and sell viral stories.

The only problem was that the Gin & Slim story was a joke. Prima had published an April Fool’s joke with all the unsubtle references to the genre: The researcher cited was called Thisa Lye.

The magazine wanted to entertain its readers, not mislead them. There was nothing worse than a father sending his six-year-old next door to borrow a can of tartan paint.

But one thing April Fools reminds us: We can all be Gowks. We often fall for stories that reinforce our beliefs and habits, even funny ones. Can humor be used to spread more harmful misinformation, maybe even disinformation? Well, of course it can.

We’ve all heard the “just kidding love, calm down” defense for cruel or inappropriate words or behavior, including lying.

However, there are clearly people who do not recognize – or pretend not to know – that satire, hoaxes, parodies and gags can be used and abused to spread untruths and even hatred.

There was an odd little episode on Scottish social media last week that highlighted both this problem and a disturbing stupidity in efforts to counter it.

A pro-British account on X, the old Twitter, released a short mash-up video in which SNP and Green Party leaders were allegedly mocked by the stars of the TV show Dragon’s Den.

There is a lot of this type of content online. Think of all the pictures of Nicola Sturgeon as Jimmy Krankie. Or even the current image of Rishi Sunak as a vampire.

Hey, maybe there are people who find this stuff funny. Me? I suspect the target audience is bipartisan people who clap, jeer, and cheer rather than laugh.

This partisan bullshit can be recycled for malice. And in this case it was. A portion of the “satire” from The Dragon’s Lair was filmed and widely shared. It featured an embarrassed Patrick Harvie of the Scottish Greens saying something remarkable in the subtitle: “For the well-being of most people in the world the industry is dying, will die, must die.”

One particularly ardent online trade unionist who posted this new meme declared Mr Harvie to be “worse than a Marxist”, a “dangerous extremist”.

The Ferret — an independent investigative journalism platform — decided to fact-check the claim. Did Mr. Harvie really want the entire industry to die? No. The quote was taken out of context. The Green Minister spoke about the fossil fuels causing the climate emergency.

What happened next was fascinating: Fact-checkers faced a backlash that made tiresomely grim but now routine allegations of bias against journalists.

There is already some hostility towards the type of work The Ferret does, from those who see reality as a prison cell and facts as its bars.

All sorts of malicious partisans, mavericks, adversaries, and tons of other BS artists hate the idea of ​​anyone “monitoring” their speech… if only to point out the things they say that are clearly untrue.

But there was particular resentment that The Ferret was reviewing what allegedly started as a hoax.

Disappointingly, the Dean of the Faculty of Law, Roddy Dunlop, was among those who preferred ridicule to understanding.

“In its latest journalistic report, The Ferret is also able to reveal that contrary to Spitting Image’s claims, David Steel was actually not small enough to fit in David Owen’s pocket,” the KC posted on X in response to the fact check.

OK, Mr Dunlop was probably trying to be funny, but he also missed the point in spectacular fashion.

“Spitting Image” was something clearly labeled satire – and it contained, well, puppets. It was a lot harder to mistake for reality than a screen-captured meme with a deliberately misleading quote.

In my opinion, there is little excuse for not knowing that online satire can be intentionally or unintentionally misleading.

Experts have been warning of this for a long time. Last year, a French politician was questioned on TV about things he was supposed to have tweeted but were actually from a parody account. That caused some discussion on the other side of the channel.

Journalists looked to America, where parodies, including malicious ones, have long been used to mislead. “Given that I’m finding new examples of how people fall in love [satire] Any day,” Ohio University’s Shannon Poulsen told Agence France Presse, “I would say that this is a remarkable and consequential form of misinformation.”

There are many followers on the internet who just don’t care if they’re telling the truth or not. They are so convinced that their opponents are evil that they believe misrepresentation is legitimate. Some of these liars—let’s be honest about who they are—will hide behind “humor.” Will such wrongdoing spread to the political mainstream? Perhaps.

An MP apologized last month for sharing a manipulated image of the Prime Minister drinking a pint with far too much foam on top.

This is not a call to shut down parody sites, ban April Fools’ Day Jokes, or quell the rabid fanatics who post replicas of their political opponents on social media. But reality-based journalism and fact-checkers like The Ferret do us all a service by correcting the nonsense that pranksters, even malicious ones, sometimes create.

It doesn’t matter if an untruth begins as a deliberate attempt at misdirection or as an innocent innuendo, like Primate’s Gin swindle. We need to sober up in the face of the threat of “just laughing” misinformation. And fast.

Grace Reader

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