What was fake on the Internet this week: Supervolcanoes, Robin Williams’ pics and Justin Bieber saving a man from a bear


At left, Justin Bieber. At right, a bear. Neither has anything to do with the other. (AP Photo/Miami Beach Police Dept; Emmanuel Keller/Flickr)

There is so much fake stuff on the Internet in any given week that we’ve grown tired of debunking it all. Fake Twitter fights. Fake DHL ads. Amazing viral video? Nope — a Jimmy Kimmel stunt!

So, rather than take down each and every undeservedly viral story that crosses our monitors each week, we’re rounding them all up in a quick, once-a-week Friday debunk of fake photos, misleading headlines and bad studies that you probably shouldn’t share over the weekend.

Ready? Here’s what was fake on the Internet this week:

1. Justin Bieber did not save a Russian man from a bear. The story was good — too good, apparently. Dozens of media outlets ran last week with the incredible tale of a Russian man saved from mauling when his Justin Bieber ringtone went off. Alas, when Poynter’s Craig Silverman dug into the story, he could find no sign of the Biebs: Russian outlets reported only that the man’s phone announced the time (Boring). The Bieber angle seems to have been added later, in translation, perhaps to make the story more viral. It worked! Writes Silverman, “The irresistibly Bieberfied version of the story continues to spread … too entrenched to ever be really corrected.”

2. This racist woman is not the Ferguson, Mo., police chief’s wife. A screenshot of a racist Facebook screed that was tweeted by many Anonymous accounts on Wednesday did not, in fact, belong to the wife of Ferguson’s police chief. The woman, whose first name is listed as Catherine, actually lives in St. Petersburg, Fla. While she may be unrelated to Ferguson and its police chief, a quick scroll through her Facebook confirms that she is, in fact, pretty racist.

3. You cannot buy Ebola treatments online. Moreover, Ebola treatments don’t even exist. But on Thursday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was forced to issue a statement about the hoax products that have flooded the Internet in recent weeks, none of which “prevent the Ebola virus or treat the infection.” The FDA is demanding that sellers take the products, or the pitches down; it appears many modern snake-oil salesmen are peddling vitamin C and selenium as Ebola cures.

4. A graphic photo of a man with a bruise around his neck does not depict Robin Williams. The image, which got two trolls booted off Twitter earlier this week — and caused Williams’s daughter Zelda to leave the platform — seems to have originated on the Web site of a South American university several years ago. No photos of the deceased actor’s body have been released.


A redacted screenshot of the tweet sharing the fake Williams photo, from Topsy. (Topsy)

5. The Yellowstone “supervolcano” is not about to erupt. The Yellowstone volcano seems to near eruption every six months or so — at least according to shady “alternative news” sites, which resurrect the rumor frequently. This latest panic seems to originate with the Civic Tribune, who “reported” on Aug. 3 that Yellowstone had been evacuated and that the volcano could “throw all of the United States into a 200 year long volcanic winter” any day now. Civic Tribune is an odd case, as far as fake-news sites go: Unlike most sites of that genre, it claims to be entirely earnest – “Dedicated to the truth,” its tagline reads – and its articles are deceivingly professional, through a scroll through the home page makes it clear the “news” is all, in fact, made up.

In either case, so many were convinced by the site’s report that a peeved-sounding release from the U.S. Geological Survey had to correct the record on Aug. 8: The park has not been evacuated; geological activity at the site is normal, and the volcano hasn’t erupted for 70,000 years. “Though we love doing research at YVO [Yellowstone Volcano Observatory],” the researchers wrote, “we prefer it when the research is on topics geological rather than the origin of false rumors.”

6. A Mexican singer did not remove her ribs and pickle them in a jar. This particular bit of shenanigans is actually less far-fetched than it seems: For years rumors have circulated that Mexican megastar Thalia had her ribs surgically removed to make her waist slimmer, and an Instagram she posted Monday of some ribs in a jar seemed to confirm it. Alas, Thalia was actually mocking the rib myths, and she followed up with a debunk the day after.

7. Lil Wayne does not have HIV. It’s unclear how this one-sentence “news article” — written in title case, of all things — convinced anyone that the popular rapper was HIV-positive. (It may’ve helped that it included a picture of Nicki Minaj at the hospital … which was actually from last year.) In either case, enough people tweeted about the faux-diagnosis that both Weezy and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation had to respond. Lil Wayne’s tweet has since been deleted.

8. A New York police officer did not kill a baby over breastfeeding. This seems like obvious, unfunny “satire” at its face, but we live in a topsy-turvy world, I guess. A contingent of outraged Twitter users fell for the story, which initially appeared on the fake news site National Report. Like everything else on the site, it’s 100 percent fictional.

9. Intel isn’t suspending operations in Israel. But someone went through a lot of trouble to make it look as if it were: A prankster going by the pseudonym Nick Veritas created a hyper-realistic fake Web site for Intel that said, among other things, that the tech company would suspend its investments there because of the Gaza conflict. Veritas also issued a press release on the subject; he later admitted the hoax to the Wall Street Journal, calling it a demonstration of “the disconnect between what companies say and do regarding corporate responsibility and human rights.”

10. ISIS is probably not issuing passports. A photo of the alleged passports — with English translations and all (!) — has been circulating the Twitters for about a month. But as PRI’s Jonathan Kealing noted on Wednesday, the picture predates ISIS’s caliphate declaration by several months. Also, why would a jihadist group print its passports in English…?

Did we miss any other notable fake stuff this week? E-mail caitlin.dewey@washpost.com — or stay tuned until next week, because surely some more shenanigans will go down in the meantime.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · August 14