How a celebrity death hoax made its way into the mainstream media

The Week in Fact-Checking is a newsletter about fact-checking and accountability journalism, from Poynter's International Fact-Checking Network & the American Press Institute's Accountability Project. Sign up here.

Media mistakenly kill Oscar-winning director

“Celebrity death” is a popular subgenre of misinformation. This type of hoax takes no time to write and travels well on social media.

Unfortunately, traditional media are not immune to false death reports. At a time when we are at pains to distinguish “real news” from “fake news,” falling for these shallow fabrications undermines the argument.

That happened last week as the AP and many others announced the death of Oscar-winning Director Costas Gavras. The sole source was a tweet by the Greek Minister of Culture. As it turns out (shocker), the unverified account was an impersonator — claiming to be Tommaso Debenedetti, who has pulled this trick long before “fake news” became sexy. (We are wary of confirming it was him because his first name was misspelled in the revelatory tweet.)

Gavras nonetheless had to confirm to reporters that news of his death was greatly exaggerated.

But it wasn’t over. Several Greek media misunderstood what happened and claimed that the minister had fallen for a prank, when in fact she hadn’t tweeted at all.

At the time of writing this on Wednesday night, the AP wire story was still on The Washington Post — even featuring as the top result in one Google News search about Gavras.

Misinformation reported in traditional news outlets is still misinformation. And journalists need to get better at avoiding it, fast.

Deepfakes
This image made from video of a fake video featuring former President Barack Obama shows elements of facial mapping used in new technology that lets anyone make videos of real people appearing to say things they've never said. (AP Photo)

This is how we do it

This is bad

  • An Italian debunker has received numerous death threats after debunking fake news stories online. Now he’s going to the police.
  • German officials are blaming fake news for fueling anti-immigrant, right-wing violence in the city of Chemnitz. Here’s the backstory.
  • Here’s how an anti-Semitic Iranian conspiracy theory was published in Israel’s most widely circulated newspaper and shared by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Red Hot Chili Peppers
(L-R) Bassist Flea, drummer Chad Smith and singer Anthony Kiedis, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, perform on stage at the Verizon Center on Wednesday, April 12, 2017, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP)

This is fun

A closer look

  • BuzzFeed News published an in-depth story about how Facebook has enabled misinformation and pro-regime propaganda to spread in the Philippines.
  • The Washington Post was criticized for its fact check of a U.S. Senate candidate’s comments about police shootings of black children.
  • Misinformation has long been a part of several creative industries in the Philippines.

Vaccine
(Shutterstock)

If you read one more thing

For The Atlantic, Nat Gyenes and An Xiao Mina wrote about how online health misinformation is having real consequences around the world — which the authors call “misinfodemics.”

15 quick fact-checking links

  1. In a column for The Guardian, Jenny Rohn argued that trying to change people’s minds with science is no longer effective. But not everyone agreed.
  2. Russian operatives were booted off Facebook for creating fake pages. Then, they snuck back on.
  3. The Myanmar army published a book about the Rohingya crisis, but faked some of the images.
  4. WhatsApp has launched a 46-station radio campaign in India asking people to verify messages before they forward them.
  5. A French law has been mischaracterized around the world as one legalizing pedophilia. AFP Factuel goes through the facts.
  6. People are quoting fake excerpts from Bob Woodward’s upcoming book about the Trump administration.
  7. The New York Times reported that traffic to InfoWars, a website run by notorious conspiracist Alex Jones, has been slashed after it was banned from YouTube and Facebook.
  8. The featured box in Google search results doesn’t always turn up accurate information.
  9. Is it time to fact-check the dominant theory on who killed the dinosaurs?
  10. Two words: Honey fraud.
  11. ICYMI: TripAdvisor is “not a fact-checking business.”
  12. There’s a new promise-tracker in Pakistan called Khan Meter.
  13. Italy ranks No. 1 in Ipsos MORI’s Misperception Index. Among the things Italians guess wrong: Unemployment and immigrant statistics.
  14. Is fake news really the problem? Maybe real news is worse, a Bloomberg columnist wrote.
  15. Not even maps are safe from misinformation.

Until next week,

Daniel and Alexios

Editor's note: The headline on this article originally referred to a death hoax that appeared in The Washington Post. As the rumor originated in the Associated Press and was disseminated to more media outlets than just The Post, the headline was updated to reflect that.

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