The headlines — widely circulated on social media and a variety of right-wing websites — certainly are attention-grabbing: “Fox News Designated Hate Group by Southern Poverty Law Center” and “Juggalos Classified As Hate Group By Southern Poverty Law Center.” And many of the posts promoting the pieces on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere clearly seem to take them at face value.
There’s a big problem, though: The stories are complete fakes.
The Fox News piece was published earlier this week at a satirical “news” site called the Free Wood Post, where the motto is: “News That’s Almost Reliable.” The post contained no links to any such SPLC report because, of course, none existed.
That didn’t stop the Free Wood Post from doing its thing. “Their hatred was tolerated for a long time as freedom of expression,” the site said dramatically of the news channel, “which they are still free to do, however, the time has come to no longer ignore their obvious bigotry broadcast to millions of like-minded folks, and label them what they are — a hate group.”
Needless to say, Fox News has never come under consideration for hate-group status by the SPLC, nor is it ever likely to. A news channel, by definition, includes many voices with many different opinions — even if those displayed on Fox are virtually all conservative — and so it is fundamentally different from a group whose members all sign on to the same ideology. Nonetheless, by Thursday, the post about Fox News had garnered over 30,000 shares on Facebook.
You’d think folks might have figured out that the story was a spoof. After all, the site carries a pretty clear disclaimer: “Free Wood Post is a news and political satire web publication, which may or may not use real names, often in semi-real or mostly fictitious ways. All news articles contained within FreeWoodPost.com are fiction, and presumably fake news.” But enormous numbers didn’t.
Similarly, the Juggalos piece, which ran before the Fox News tale, first appeared in a post at another satirical “news” site, the National Report. That site uses a url beginning with “nytimes.com.co,” leading many to assume that the story actually originated with The New York Times, whose url is similar but not the same.
Juggalos is the name used by members of the fan club of the hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse, who are known for making controversial comments.
The story said, in part: “The Southern Poverty Law Center has classified Juggalo’s [sic] as a hate group among 17 states including the entire Midwest (North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio), in addition to California, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Oregon.”
That, too, was laughably false. While the members of Insane Clown Posse do indeed make incendiary and insensitive remarks, they fall far short of the behavior — namely, having “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics” — that earns a hate-group designation by the SPLC. Moreover, there were some pretty obvious clues. The story claimed the SPLC was asking citizens to “keep an eye open” for a list of behaviors including “Making or responding to a ‘whoop whoop’ call” and “Drinking or spraying their enemies with Faygo (an inexpensive soda).”
However, at least one right-wing blogger — Jay Syrmopoulos at the Free Thought Project — initially succumbed to the hoax and published a breathless post that swallowed the entire tale whole. Afterward, upon learning that the piece was satire, he edited the story to indicate that the source of information was a spoof, but redirecting his ire at the FBI, which had classified the Juggalos as a gang. “This is the level of absurdity to which our government has risen,” he raged. “They have criminalized an entire fan base with a blanket label over anyone displaying typical rabid fanatic behavior… hence the term fan, short for fanatic!”
Contacted by the SPLC, Syrmopoulos, who is described in his author summary as an “investigative journalist,” was defiant: “The reality is that the SPLC isn't an unbiased research organization, but rather a leftist anti-hate activist group masquerading as a center of legitimate, academically sound research,” he huffed. “Sadly your group is so extremist that the story, as farcical as it was, seemed totally plausible given the SPLC's track record, hence me being duped. On a side note, upon realizing the story was satire I changed the title to state that it was satire and added an update apologizing to my readers and explaining how I was duped. Any other changes made to the piece or title after that did not involve consultation with me.”
“We have no beef with people writing satirical articles, and in fact enjoy satire as much as anyone,” said Mark Potok, the SPLC senior fellow who wrote Syrmopoulos. “But it says something important about today’s right-wing media that so many are snookered so easily, and by such transparently false and ridiculous narratives. The ‘investigative journalist’ and others who credulously repeated these fairy tales as if they were actually true really ought to take up a different line of work, one that doesn’t require such mental effort.”
Sites such as National Report and Freewood Post are symptomatic of what many observers see as a growing problem on the Internet: the proliferation of fake news sites that, as the Washington Post put it, “profit — handsomely, in some cases — from duping gullible Internet users with deceptively newsy headlines. Their business model is both simple and devastatingly effective: Employ a couple unscrupulous freelancers to write fake news that’s surprising or enraging or weird enough to go viral on Facebook; run display ads against the traffic; gleefully cash in.”
And it helps, of course, to have gullible “journalists” out there to help them along.