The lifespan of a failed celebrity death hoax

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.

When Twitter hoaxes fail

Establish a credible enough Twitter presence. Post a hoax with the goal of tricking the media into covering it. Come out as a hoaxer. Rinse and repeat.

That’s a classic strategy used by some misinformers on Twitter. And BuzzFeed News’ Jane Lytvynenko elucidated it step by step in a thread on Tuesday.

First, a hoaxer made a Twitter account look like it belonged to William Nordhaus, an American economist and Nobel laureate. Faux Nordhaus’ early tweet expressed thanks for the recognition. A few reporters were tricked into sharing it.

Then, the user posted a death hoax about Alan Greenspan, former chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, apparently with the goal of tricking more reporters into amplifying it. But this time, some journalists called it out as false and Twitter suspended the account.

The person behind the whole scheme is Tommaso De Benedetti, a Rome school teacher whom The Guardian profiled six years ago. He told the newspaper that he creates misinformation to expose how weak the media can be.

Just last month we reported on how one of De Benedetti’s celebrity death hoaxes made its way into the Associated Press. Lytvynenko, who reports on misinformation for BuzzFeed, tweeted that these kinds of hoaxes are fairly common — and they specifically target reporters with hopes of amplification.

“This isn't a new strategy but can be an effective one,” she said. “Reporters have to remember that we're targets for disinformation and need to be vigilant accordingly to avoid (amplifying) lies and the authors of those lies.”

FemFacts
(Screenshot from FemFacts)

This is how we do it

  • Feminist fact-checking projects are cropping up around the world. The goal: "counterbalance the dominant male perspective.”
  • Following The New York Times, Mother Jones and others, Politico has launched its own project aimed at covering disinformation during the U.S. midterm elections.
  • Alexios, El Objetivo’s Joaquín Ortega and PolitiFact’s Aaron Sharockman wrote defenses of fact-checking for Agência Lupa ahead of this month’s election in Brazil.

This is bad

  • Speaking of Brazil, misinformation about voting irregularities made the rounds on social media — much of it on WhatsApp. Fact-checkers at Aos Fatos and Lupa have been debunking some of the top hoaxes.
  • The latest instance of hoax studies making it past peer review sounded alarm bells. But the generalizations of the perpetrators should be taken with more than a pinch of salt. (We recommend reading these BuzzFeed and Washington Post articles on the matter.)
  • Indonesian authorities have been battling misinformation about other natural disasters in the aftermath of a tsunami that killed more than 1,400 people.

Daniel Radcliffe
Daniel Radcliffe attends the Turner Networks 2018 Upfront at One Penn Plaza on Wednesday, May 16, 2018, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

This is fun

  • Daniel Radcliffe got a taste of journalism when a New Yorker fact-checker called him to fact-check a story about his own experience fact-checking a story for the same magazine. “Very meta” was the comment of the actor, who is starring in a Broadway adaptation of “The Lifespan of a Fact.”
  • France’s commission for neologisms (we’re not making this up) decided that the French word for “fake news” is “infox.” Don’t be getting infoxicated, folks.
  • On France 24, “Nuns dancing to hardcore techno? Sadly... no.” *Clicks*

A closer look

  • What does fact-checking look like on WeChat, in China? There’s little about politics, which gets censored out, and more about health. Abacus News, a project of the South China Morning Post, has the explainer.
  • Wikimedia boss Katherine Maher’s answer to whether the online encyclopedia is an “arbiter of the truth” is worth reading in full.
  • The New York Times wrote about the status of Facebook’s fact-checking partnership in the Philippines.

Facebook dating
(Shutterstock)

If you read one more thing

For Afghans, creating fake Facebook profiles to date and skirt gender roles has become a popular pastime, The Atlantic reported.

12 quick fact-checking links

  1. This name correction in the WSJ made our week.
  2. The New York Times reported that a top Donald Trump campaign official solicited proposals from an Israeli company to create fake identities on social media.
  3. Both Trump and a U.S. senator promoted a conspiracy theory claiming that anti-Brett Kavanaugh protesters were paid by George Soros.
  4. Don’t run headlines like this.
  5. The Hill mistakenly ran a photo of Condoleezza Rice for a story about Susan Rice. It’s at least the fourth example of a publication mistaking one black woman for another in photos this year.
  6. Politico wrote about how policymakers are always two steps behind those who peddle misinformation.
  7. Taylor Swift hoaxes are a thing now.
  8. As are Twitter accounts impersonating Bellingcat.
  9. Alexios wrote an ode to caveats for Mozilla.
  10. The website for Comprova, a collaborative fact-checking project, went down on election day in Brazil.
  11. A feature-length documentary about Bellingcat will premiere in November.
  12. Amazon’s “Today’s Deals” page is full of fake discounts, BuzzFeed News reported.

Until next week,

Daniel and Alexios

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