Meet the Hoaxers: How parody news sites like The Poke & The Onion keep duping the mainstream media
Did you hear the news about David Bowie's last gig being in a curry house? What about the pensioner trapped in a loo for four days knitting? Or the man who had sex with 450 tractors? All stories reported by major news organisations recently. And all, of course, completely false. John McCarthy speaks to the hoaxers and investigates why the mainstream media keeps being taken for a ride.
Meet the Hoaxers
Much about David Bowie's life was out of the ordinary, but one story doing the rounds in the last couple of weeks seemed genuinely unbelievable.
On the late musician's 69th birthday, the Suffolk Gazette ran with the headline "David Bowie stars in spice oddity" and dutifully reported how "the rock legend gave curry house diners a treat with an impromptu performance".
"As locals tucked into papadums, curries, bhajis and other Indian delights, the star suddenly stood up to sing The Jean Genie while astonished staff stood open-mouthed," went the report from entertainment editor Arthur Aspall.
That a local newspaper no one had heard of would have demand for an entertainment editor these days should have been enough cause for scepticism, never mind the fact that a cursory Google search elicits no mention of the supposed "Taj Maharaja in Bungay".
But with the original article garnering almost seven and a half thousand Facebook shares, and Bowie's passing a few days later sending the media into a frenzy to find new angles, the tall tale proved impossible for reporters to resist.
Cue Sky News anchor Eamonn Holmes, live on TV, claiming the curry house performance "raised the possibility that Bowie did die in the UK". Holmes was not alone in covering the fictitious performance.
The Suffolk Gazette is a parody site dreamt up by Simon Young, who tells us it has duped mainstream journalists "laughably often".
He says of the Bowie yarn going viral: "I can see how some young researcher in the Sky News gallery maybe saw it on Twitter and fed the info through to Eamonn's earpiece. The pressure of being first in a 24-hour news environment will have added to the urgency to tell stories like this no matter how ridiculous they may seem on reflection."
He recalls intense coverage of another Sussex Gazette spoof, this time about a pensioner getting locked in the toilet for four days. Poor Gladys had only her knitting to placate her in her time of need.
This hoax was covered sincerely by the Daily Mirror, Express, Daily Star, ITV News, UPI and the US news wire service, according to Young, with each publication failing to verify the story's legitimacy before publishing it.
After the fact, most corrected or removed their stories. Young noted that the Daily Express has made no amendment to its entry. The Sun on the other hand escaped embarrassment, cottoning on to the falsehood after a journalist went to the trouble of trying to track Gladys the pensioner down.
Young had previously tripped up the media with 'Suffolk man had sex with 450 tractors’ and the ‘world exclusive’ of ‘Boy steals penguin from zoo’ penned by the superbly monikered crime editor Rob Banks.
"When you look at these stories, the common factors are that they are funny and people really want them to be true," says Young. "Again, as the Suffolk Gazette sounds respectable, that's all the confirmation the mainstream media seems to need.
"These gaffes simply prove that the quality of the journalism profession has gone downhill quickly... online news sites, even the national papers, pay peanuts to young online reporters, some perhaps not even fully trained, to push out as much material as possible in order to maximise page views."
Another online humour site that journalists have fallen victim to is The Poke, co-founded by James Herring who also runs the comms agency Taylor Herring, over a decade ago when the only real rival was The Onion.
Rebounding off its 541,000 Facebook fans and its 215,000 Twitter followers, The Poke's content often causes ripples in the media scene.
Herring fondly remembers a Poke story about a sign language interpreter who was “sometimes just making stuff up”. French media outlets reported that her signing alleged that radioactive zombies were spotted near the Fukushima nuclear disaster site.
“Jasper Gibson (who co-founded the Poke with Herring in 2002) turned his TV on and during a French morning news show, a group of people were digesting the top headlines," Herring says of the moment The Poke's sign language tale went mainstream, despite it being published a year earlier in 2011.
From a Glasgow fireworks display with an exploding penis (shown below), to Brighton’s phallic Christmas lights, the Poke has tricked hundreds of thousands of social media users and a slew of media outlets with its videos.
But as many newsrooms are contracting and falling victim to the hoaxers, The Poke is looking to hone its breaking news capabilities by hiring a news editor to whip into shape its handful of freelance writers.
Like Young of the Suffolk Gazette, Herring uses the site to gauge the type of content that is hot with the public, then puts this data to use during his day job at Taylor Herring.
On its media trickery, an often unintended by-product of the Poke's comic writing, Herring says: "Very often, if an online news organisation has made a blunder they are quite quick to put these things straight, they put their hands up, 'oh we’ve been spoofed'. Unlike in print [where] if we’re lucky, it’ll be slotted in on the page 49 corrections."
Some readers also "outright ignore that some stories are a spoof as it suits their own purpose," Herring says. "Anyone with just one click or profile could see who were are but it serves their agenda to run our content as we would".
He's also not surprised some journalists are "making blunders" in picking up absurd stories. "I feel sorry for them, they have to fact check these stories in the big online news sweatshops and write 26 stories a day under the watch of a news editor.
"It is the nature of online news to pile up the articles – these things are going to happen."
While the BBC and Sky News have not replied to our requests for comment at the time of writing, Chris Hamilton, a former social media editor for BBC News (now an editorial director at McCann London), explains why it is tough for journalists in the modern era of real-time reporting.
He says: "Digital and social media have massively accelerated the news cycle and expanded the sheer amount and sources of information. There's a lot more pressure on newsrooms, especially in breaking news situations where the facts can be uncertain but there’s huge demand to get the story out quickly."
His team learned lessons from their mistakes and were always keen to revise their guidelines after any lapse. He claims the BBC News content was accurate "99 per cent of the time," which was impressive considering the "high volume amount of material" they had to process.
The BBC and most major UK media outlets do not employ fact checkers, he says. Instead, "journalists fact check as part of their job, their reputation stands or falls by it". The thinking, he says, is that "it’s better to put the onus on the story-getter to get their facts right, rather than risk them relying on someone else to do it for them."
The web's vast resources and the rise of social media have made it easier than ever for journalists to do their research, hunt down contacts and gather stories. But with so much misinformation swirling, and hit-chasing superiors breathing down their necks, it has also made them more vulnerable to scam stories.
As Hamilton concludes: "In pre-digital days hoaxes were much harder to pull off. Now pretty much anyone with a keyboard can fake it. It's the responsibility of all publishers and broadcasters to do whatever they can not to fall for it."
So next time you're reading a story that seems too good to be true, remember, it probably is...