From Momo to Hate Crimes, Skittles Parties, and Sex Trafficking, Fake News Is Clearly a Problem
Fake news is real. Momo is not.
Palm Beach County finally unblocked Youtube on its school computers Monday after falling for the viral "Momo challenge" conspiracy peddled by countless news outlets. Having learned from breathless, sensational local reporting that a creepy character named Momo was convincing kids to harm or even kill themselves, the Florida school district had thought it prudent to restrict its 193,000 students' access to the internet.
Perhaps it would have been wiser to restrict the adults' access to local television. The Momo challenge is a full-on hoax: There are no videos of Momo—in reality, a statue called "Mother Bird" made by a Japanese artist named Keisuke Aiso—telling kids to hurt themselves. There has been no rash of Momo-inspired murders or suicides. There are no victims of Momo. Put another way, Momo is pure fake news—and a shocking number of journalists are guilty of spreading it.
But this should surprise no one. Though President Trump mainstreamed the term "fake news" after the 2016 election in order to delegitimize perfectly deserved press criticism, people of all ideological persuasions should beware the frequent spread of nonsensical, sensational, conspiratorial, and utterly false news stories—everything from obvious fakes like Momo to the slightly more robust yet equally absurd contentions that sex trafficking and hate crimes are ever-worsening epidemics.
A terrific piece for Nieman Lab names and shames many of the gullible fools in local media who were guilty of spreading the Momo hoax. KBJR 6 in Wisconsin noted that "there's no proof the Momo challenge is real," but uncritically interviewed a bunch of people who were scared about it, anyway. An ABC station in Tampa explained that "the challenge is to meet Momo and to do that one must follow a series of instructions, which can include harming others or yourself," even though no part of this statement is accurate. KUTV News in Utah claimed a terrifying video was encouraging kids to kill each other, and had infiltrated "popular children sites like Youtube Kids." It hadn't. It's made up.
Unfortunately, the media, particularly local media, falls for these kinds of hoaxes all the time. Every year around Halloween, news outlets prey on parents' unreasonable fears of sex offenders abducting their kids, or malicious strangers feeding them poisoned candy, even though neither of these things ever happen. (Spoiler: The parents did it.) Sometimes a concerned citizen drives the news cycle, like when a woman claimed she got into the wrong Uber and very narrowly avoided being sold into sex slavery. (Fact check: Nope.) Sometimes the hoax gets an assist from the police or schools, as was the case with Momo.
Trump has called fake news "the enemy of the people." Unfortunately, the president is a serial purveyor of falsehoods, especially relating to immigration. To take just one example: in January, Trump promoted a Washington Examiner article about ranchers finding prayer rugs at the souther border, an indication that not just Mexicans but Muslims—or terrorists, who really knows?—were entering the country illegally. The story is far-fetched, and relies on a single anonymous source. Trump and his conservative supporters often criticize negative White House reporting that cites anonymous sourcing, but when the anonymous sources are pushing an agenda they approve of, then it's okay.
Conservatives spread fake news as eagerly as anyone else, of course. At the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, Sara Carter, a visiting fellow with the Independent Women's Forum, told the audience, "Our kids are having parties, they call them Skittles parties, where they bring pills and put them into bowls, and everybody just kind of picks whatever pill they want and they take them. It's kind of a shocking thing when I heard about this, just randomly taking pills. Some of these children, unbeknownst to them, are taking a Xanax that's actually a contraband Xanax, and they are dying immediately."
Woah, if true. But it's not. The Skittles party rumor appears to be a reboot of something called a pharming party; Politico's Jack Shafer has debunked its existence over and over again. Yes, teenagers experiment with alcohol and drugs, but they are actually drinking less heavily they used to, and their drug of choice is the comparatively harmless marijuana. In any case, there is little direct, firsthand evidence of teens ritualistically contributing pills to a general supply and then consuming them at random.
Fake news can be used to scare people into supporting terrible public policies. Such is the case with the so-called sex-trafficking epidemic, the existence of which has been carefully refuted by Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown over and over again. Now the narrative—which holds that hundreds of thousands of kids are at risk of being sex trafficked every year, even though those numbers are based on nothing, and almost certainly false—has ensnared Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who was arrested in February as part a human-trafficking sting. Kraft is accused of frequenting the Orchids of Asia Day Spa, where women were forced into "modern day slavery," according to Sports Illustrated. Salacious? Yep. Fake? Of course.
"There's no allegation that anyone engaged in human trafficking," Palm Beach District Attorney Dave Aronberg admitted. By all accounts, this was garden variety prostitution, not sex slavery.
Then there's the hate crime spike. Organizations like the Southern Povery Law Center and Anti-Defamation League have claimed that the U.S. hate crime rate is surging under Trump—the implication being that racists, anti-Muslim bigots, anti-Semites, and homophobes are emboldened by the president's spiteful rhetoric toward minorities and immigrants. Many celebrities, activists, and politicians opined that they were not surprised when two Trump supporters allegedly attacked Jussie Smollett—the gay, black star of the TV show Empire—in the streets of Chicago and shouted "this is MAGA country." It now seems overwhelmingly likely that the attack was a hoax perpetrated by Smollett himself.
In fact, it's not even clear that the prevalence of hate crimes is actually increasing. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has tracked hate crimes for more than 20 years, and the 2017 total is actually lower than the 1996 total. The number has gone up some years and down others, but it's hard to know what's really happening since the number of agencies submitting data to the federal database had increased over time—nearly 1,000 additional municipalities submitted information in 2017 versus 2016.
Data is often deployed for misleading ends. As I explained during a recent Fox News appearance, the ADL's claim that anti-Semitic hate, for instance, has spiked 57 percent in the last year is not nearly as compelling as it seems: A rash of bomb threats made by a single Israeli teenager was largely responsible for the jump, and anti-Semitic assaults had actually fallen.
We don't have to call all these things "fake news" if the term has simply become too politically loaded. But we do need some way of describing this phenomenon, since the basic idea that the American people should not automatically believe everything they hear on TV or read on social media—even if it's being pushed by a seemingly reputable news outlet—is sound. Be wary of politicians trying to escape scrutiny by claiming their naysayers are peddling fake news, but also be wary of people in the media trying to sell you on the idea that sex traffickers, hate criminals, migrant caravans, and Momo are coming to get you.