As explained by the Atlantic Council and the New York Times, the story illustrates just how fake news leapfrogs from outlet to outlet, often gaining credence with each step. The starting-off point for this particular example is April 15, when Rossiya-1’s Vesti — a Russian state-controlled outlet — reported that a Russian warplane had disabled the USS Cook three years ago. The story even had a quote from former U.S. Air Force commander Frank Gorenc: “Russian electronic weapons completely paralyze the functioning of American electronic equipment installed on missiles, aircraft and ships.”
What happened next was predictable. “Within days the report had gone global, was picked up by mainstream outlets on both sides of the Atlantic, and reported with varying degrees of skepticism by UK tabloids such as the Sun and the Daily Express, and US outlets including Fox News,” notes the report of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Like many instances of fake news, this episode starts with an actual event. A Russian Su-24 attack aircraft did indeed fly quite near the USS Cook in the western Black Sea in April 2014 — 12 times, to be exact. As the Atlantic Council convincingly notes, however, the idea that somehow the Russian aircraft knocked out the electronic systems on the Cook is pure fantasy. The company that makes the planes’ jamming system even decried the report as a “hoax.”
Yet the story earned a turn in the British tabloid the Sun, though the paper in its headline attributed the claims to a “bizarre propaganda report.” It also noted that the military had denied the quote attributed to Gorenc.
FoxNews.com picked up the story, with full attribution to the Sun, as the screenshot at the top denotes. Gone from the headline was the caution about the “bizarre propaganda report.” That said, the FoxNews.com treatment included other signposts tipping off the reader to its flimsiness, including the denial regarding the Gorenc quote as well as this phrasing: “A news report from the country — where the media is essentially controlled by the state — said the technology could render planes, ships and missiles useless.” Elsewhere, it emphasizes that the report is “propaganda.”
Are those signposts sufficient? Not quite. Stronger, more vivid warnings are needed, as in BuzzFeed’s very clear icon:
FoxNews.com Managing Editor Refet Kaplan told the New York Times that the story was meant “not as a serious report on Russia’s military capability, but as another example of Russian media hyperbole.” If so, then why remove it from the website?