“Fake news!” is the common frustrating chant that we at my company hear too often.
Often the allegation comes from people who disagree with or choose not to believe the verified information. Sometimes cries of “fake news” come from people who actually make the news and who, for obvious reasons, might try to discredit stories about them.
Other times, reporters are accused of fake news because we made honest mistakes that could be construed as “false” because, well, it is. In other words, incorrect information was unintentionally reported. When this happens, reputable news agencies, like this one, admit the error and immediately issue a correction.
But in the world we live in, “fake news” appears perhaps most often on social media posts. It spreads quickly, not because people intentionally try to spread untruths, but because the story is usually so outrageous or sensational that people who accept it as accurate simply want to share it.
The Associated Press provides a weekly “AP Fact Check” article examining and debunking widely circulated misinformation, primarily on social media.
Fake news spreads incredibly quickly on social media, but please don’t believe everything you read, especially on social media. The best way to verify the accuracy of what you read is to go to reliable sources of information, seek attribution to reliable sources in history, and seek a balance between the two sides of a problem.
But what if information on social media was shared for the distinct and diabolical purpose of deceiving. Unfortunately, that’s what happened this week.
Most Americans who watch in horror are disgusted and heartbroken by the atrocities in Europe.
In my world, I live the news all day long. We are surrounded by news feeds and national news from several televisions in the newsroom. Our reporters are constantly covering local news events seven days a week. Even when I’m off work, I’m not off work. I constantly monitor the development of stories, calling the newsroom to check.
It’s safe to say, with the endless exposition, that I’m news-hardened.
This week, however, even I was shaken.
A photo by AP photographer Evgeniy Maloletka showed a swaddled little newborn snuggled up to his mother’s side on a stretcher at a hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, almost as if to hide from the horrors around them. The day before the delivery, the baby’s mother, Mariana Vishegirskaya, fled the hospital when a Russian airstrike hit.
Her face bloodied, she grabbed her belongings from a plastic bag and walked down the debris-strewn stairs of the hospital in her polka-dot pajamas, AP reported. Images of destruction at the Children’s and Women’s Health Hospital have shocked the world.
Vishegirskaya gave birth to her baby to the sound of shellfire.
Then, faced with global condemnation, Russian officials began tweeting false claims – that the hospital had been taken over by far-right Ukrainian forces and emptied of its patients and nurses. The Russian Embassy in London’s Twitter account claimed the woman was not a victim, but a beauty blogger and model posing as two different pregnant women.
The story is partly true. Vishegirskaya is a Ukrainian skincare and cosmetics blogger, but the AP reports there was no evidence she was anything other than a patient. She’s posted several photos and videos on Instagram documenting her pregnancy over the past few months, and in one, she’s wearing the same polka-dot pajamas from last week.
The embassy also released side-by-side images of two Associated Press photos, one depicting Vishegirskaya and the other of a woman being carried away on a stretcher, placing the word “FALSE” on them in red text. The legend claimed: “Maternity has long been non-operational” at the time of the strike.
AP journalists in Mariupol who documented the attack saw first-hand casualties and damage – and there is no evidence that the hospital was used as anything other than a hospital.
Twitter has since deleted the tweets from the Russian Embassy.
The attacks on a children’s hospital and a maternity ward have indeed pushed the war to a new, increasingly sickening level.
Similarly, Russians’ attempts to discredit reputable horror reports give despicable new meaning to the term. “fake news”.