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]