From satire to hoax to incitement: Ebola on the Web

#IAmALiberianNotAVirusIn a post last week, I opened up the subject of differentiating satire from hoax in the era of Facebook shares and careless posts seen by millions.

I cited a fabricated story about Michele Bachmann that fooled many of the most popular progressive sites: a combination of weak (or outright deceptive) satire and a lack of due diligence that’s repeated again and again, to the detriment of our intellectual integrity.

Pretty sleazy stuff, but we have to descend another several circles of Hell to gaze on some of the intentionally false content about the Ebola virus that’s made the rounds the past week.

If you accept the notion that these pieces are somehow satire, the objects are immigrants from the West African nation of Liberia. (Liberia is one of the countries most affected by the disease.)

If you consider these stories provocation, Liberians are potential victims.

Caveat: I include links to the following two pieces with reluctance. The clearest motive for their existence is monetizable traffic to the sites that created them. However, considering the modest reach of my blog (and the importance of citing sources!), I figure it’s worth the incremental clickthroughs.

False story No. 1 — repeated verbatim on several sites and spread by Twitter — reports that U2 lead singer Bono contracted Ebola from a dying Liberian man. 

False story No. 2 — introduced by the increasingly reprehensible “satire” site National Report — claims that 17 Texas kindergartners contracted Ebola from a Liberian exchange student.

You may read the stories if you want, or you can take my word for it: Neither story includes a hint of anything resembling humor. The Bono story is somewhat clumsier than the account of the infected kindergarten, but both include enough spurious detail to lend them superficial credibility.

Perhaps the original intent is simply unthinking greed, but I consider the effect far more chilling at a time when real Liberians are being targeted for abuse by Americans fearful of Ebola.

As the Guardian reports, Liberians in the U.S. have organized an online campaign behind the hashtag . The two false stories give countless readers the opposite impression.

I remember the early 1980s, when AIDS first reached public consciousness in the United States: It was the “gay plague,” you’ll recall, but its occurrence among Haitians stigmatized that population as well. (A mordant joke I learned from the gay community: “What’s the hardest thing about having AIDS? Convincing your parents you’re Haitian.”)

This account describes the misinformation and mistreatment Haitian immigrants faced in response to AIDS fears, including beatings and at least one shooting in New York … And this was before one intentional falsehood could spread geometrically via the Web.

In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court established two conditions to identify speech too incendiary to merit First Amendment protections:

The standard developed determined that speech advocating the use of force or crime could only be proscribed where two conditions were satisfied: (1) the advocacy is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action,” and (2) the advocacy is also “likely to incite or produce such action.”

I don’t think these false stories come close to meeting Condition 1 of the Brandenburg Test, but I consider them more than likely to contribute to the sort of violence identified by Condition 2.

The authors may somehow think their words represent satire (of what, I have no idea). They’re actually provocation for frightened people to take violent action against classes of people they consider threatening,

These stories are false from start to finish, but they’re putting real people in real danger.

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