Fake News: You Can Fool Some of the World All of the Time

No matter how you slice it, some people in some countries are just so gullible.

993311118_69e50e8efe_nKim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea, has had a busy few weeks. Not only did he watch a basketball game in the company of Dennis Rodman, but he also threatened to launch a nuclear missile at the US. He sure knows how to grab the headlines.

Phony News Is Still News
But the dictator whom Rodman calls “awesome” isn’t new to being in the news. Take for instance when The Onion last year named him the “Sexiest Man Alive.” Of course, you and I know that The Onion is a satirical news outlet, so everything it reports is fake news. But it appears that others outside our borders are not so savvy.

Following the bogus proclamation, the People’s Daily in China jumped on board, running its own story on Kim—including 55-photos of the dictator—and borrowing quotations from The Onion, such as

With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-born heart-throb is every woman’s dream come true.

Will Tracy, editor of The Onion, told BBC that he’s not surprised. “I mean, this kind of thing has happened in different forms before,” he said, “so it never totally takes us by surprise, although it’s a total delight whenever it does happen.”

Not the First Time
When has it happened before? Well, 10 years earlier, the Beijing Evening News reworked (without attribution) another story from The Onion, “Congress Threatens to Leave D.C. Unless New Capitol Is Built.”

But China hasn’t been The Onion‘s only victim. Two Bangladeshi newspapers, The Daily Manab Zamin and The New Nation, issued apologies in 2009 after running stories based on an Onion article titled “Conspiracy Theorist Convinces Neil Armstrong Moon Landing Was Faked.”

Last year, the Iranian news agency Fars apologized as well, after publishing a story based on The Onion‘s “Gallup Poll: Rural Whites Prefer Ahmadinejad to Obama.” In the agency’s defense, Fars’ editor-in-chief wrote,

Although it does not justify our mistake, we do believe that if a free opinion poll is conducted in the US, a majority of Americans would prefer anyone outside the US political system to President Barack Obama and American statesmen.

And in December 2012, Ghana’s SpyGhana republished a satirical news story that came from NewsBiscuit, originally titled “Mike Tyson Sex Change Operation ‘a Complete Success’, Say Surgeons.”

Good Thing the US Is Safe
What is it that makes the rest of the world so easily taken in by satire? You’d never read about an American publication believing foreign-born fake news.

For instance, a magazine like Harper’s would never be duped by a report on something like “visual allergies” from, say, the satirical program This Is That of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Harper’s, in its “Findings” section last month, wouldn’t have written, “A Canadian student sued her university for failing to accommodate her allergies to cactuses, escalators, tall people, and mauve,” as if it were true and then wouldn’t have had to follow up in its March issue with “We regret the error.” Of course, that kind of thing would never, ever happen here. Right?

(“China Paper Carries Onion Kim Jong-un ‘Heart-Throb’ Spoof,” BBC News, November 28, 2012; Henry Chu, “U.S. Satire Tricks Beijing Paper,” SFGate, June 8, 2002; “Bangladeshi Newspapers Duped by The Onion’s Spoof Moon Landing Story,” The Telegraph, September 4, 2009; “Iran’s Fars Agency Sorry for Running the Onion Spoof Story,” BBC News, September 30, 2012; Sydney Smith, “Mike Tyson Sex Change Hoax, Part 2,” iMediaEthics, January 16, 2013; “Findings,” Harper’s, February 2013)

[photo: “Red Onion Slice,” by Earl, used under a Creative Commons license]


Roundball Diplomacy in Iran: A Documentary

Here’s another entry in the category of basketball diplomacy*. When director Till Schauder found Kevin Sheppard, a point guard from the US Virgin Islands, playing professionally in the Iranian Super League, he made him the focus of his documentary, The Iran Job. The film follows Sheppard’s season with his team, A.S. Shiraz, and his spirited interactions with the Iranian people. In particular, Sheppard forms a relationship with three women—who bravely face the cameras, remove their head coverings, and share their views about the current culture in Iran. Shauder writes:

Iran is often portrayed as a terrorist nation, a nuclear threat, and a charter member of the Axis of Evil bent on the destruction of Israel. But behind the headlines—and the aggressive rhetoric of Iran’s hard-line leaders—lies one of the most fascinating nations, as sensuous as it can be challenging, with a life-loving people. This film focuses on Iran’s people, rather than its government, and I hope it can challenge perceptions of Iran by providing an authentic perspective that may be crucial when choices are made between war and peace. It is probably safe to say that getting Iran “right” is as impossible as getting any culture “right.” Nonetheless, for their people and for ours, it should be a high priority. . . . More than a fish-out-of-water sports documentary this film focuses on social issues including women’s rights, political freedom and religious conflict, through the lens of a black American basketball player.

The Iran Job is being screened in selected US theaters, and DVDs are available at Kickstarter.

*For more examples of basketball diplomats, see my other posts on Stephon MarburyYao Ming, and Jeremy Lin.

[photo of a basketball goal in Varamin, Iran: “Retired hoop!” by Blake Amin Tabrizi, used under a Creative Commons license]

Volleyball and Football: New Dress Codes

Up until  two weeks ago, female beach volleyball players were required by the International Federation of Volleyball (FIVB) to wear a one-piece body suit or a bikini . . .  and not just any bikini, but one “with a maximum side width of 7 cm [2.76 inches].” Who knew? But now that’s all changed, as the FIVB has changed its rules to allow for “shorts of a maximum length of 3 cm [1.18 inches] above the knee and sleeved or sleeveless tops.” This new rule will be applied in all official beach-volleyball tournaments, including the 2012 Olympic Games, which will take place this summer in London. The reason behind the change, as stated on the FIVB site “is to respect the custom and/or religious beliefs.” While it is easy to think of countries with customs and religious beliefs that would have kept them from competing in revealing swimwear, the US as a whole would not be included in that category. But it will be interesting to see if individual senses of modesty will affect American uniforms. It will also be interesting to see if anyone is challenged or disqualified during an extremely close match for wearing too-long shorts. Where exactly does the knee start, anyway?

(“Uniform Change for All Beach Volleyball Events,” Fèdèration Internationale de Volleyball, March 18, 2012)

This isn’t the only recent change in women’s sports uniforms. The International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), has now decided to allow women to wear head coverings during football games (soccer games for us Americans). In June of last year, the Iranian team was disqualified from playing its Olympic-qualifying games against Jordan and Vietnam because they refused to remove their hijabs. FIFA considered the head coverings, which also wrap around the neck, as choking hazards. (Three Jordinian players were also banned for wearing hijabs, but the rest of their team stayed in the competition.) But now, following an effort begun by FIFA vice president, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan, and the development of a newly designed hijab, which uses Velcro instead of pins, the rule has been changed. Willfried Lemke, the UN secretary general’s Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace, praised the decision, saying it will give everyone “an equal chance to participate in football, without any barriers and regardless of gender, race, ability, age, culture or religious beliefs.”

(Jens Juul Petersen, “Football Now a Game of Inclusion for Muslim Women,” Common Ground News Service, March 20, 2012; Graham Dunbar, “Hijab Scarf Rule Comes to a Head as Iranian Women’s Soccer Team Banned,” Toronto Star, June 6, 2011)

[photo: “Beach Volleyball,” by Blake Bokky Bentley, used under a Creative Commons license]

Ken and Barbie, Not Welcome in Iran

Back in 1996, religious leaders in Iran declared Mattel’s Barbie un-Islamic because of “destructive cultural and social consequences,” but toy sellers largely ignored their edict. Starting in December of last year, though, Iran’s morality police initiated an official ban on the doll (and her companion, Ken). Who will fill the empty shelves? Enter Sara and Dara, created by the Iranian government’s Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults in 2002 “to promote traditional values, with their modest clothing and pro-family backgrounds.” The pair of dolls are modeled after eight-year-old children, and even though that is young enough for Sara not to have to wear a headscarf in public under Islamic law, one is provided with each of her outfits. Quoted in Islam for Today, Masoumeh Rahimi, a toy seller in Iran, welcomes Sara and Dara’s arrival. “I think every Barbie doll is more harmful than an American missile,” she said. Another shop owner, agreed, calling Sara and Dara “an answer to Barbie and Ken, which have dominated Iran’s toy market.” But a Reuter’s report quotes a toy seller in Tehran who has a different opinion of the changes: “We still sell Barbies but secretly and put [dolls covered with veils and wearing loose-fitting clothes] in the window to make the police think we are just selling these kinds of dolls.” And Famaz, a 38-year-old mother, said, “My daughter prefers Barbies. She says Sara and Dara are ugly and fat.” Made in China, a Sara doll sells in Iran for about US$15, compared to US$40 for a real Barbie, and US$3 for a copy.

(Mitra Amiri, “Iran: Morality Police Cracking Down on Barbie Dolls,” Huffpost World, January 16, 2012; “Dara and Sara—Iran’s Islamic Alternative to Ken and Barbie,” Islam for Today)

[the photo is of girls in Iran with a Barbie backpack: “Picture 980” by cordelia_persen, used under a Creative Commons license]