Recently, I received from three sources an article that St. George, Utah had passed an ordinance making possession of pornography a crime. The article quoted public figures and gave details on the new law. When I researched the story, I could not confirm its origin despite its attribution to CNN. It now turns out to be a hoax by the “National Report” but the editors succeeded in convincing many on the Internet that it was true. I am once again left confused why this is funny or considered a form of creative satire. This is more akin to graffiti except that it spreads rumors that are harmful or offensive. Most of us have fallen victim to such hoaxes in the fast-moving Internet world but this is an organization that appears dedicated to embarrassing people and degrading the national debate on important issues like homosexual rights or free speech.
What is striking about the story is that it is not actually funny. It is just an effort to see if a group of juveniles can convince people that there is a new attack on free speech. The writers took care to craft the story to suggest an actual campaign by the real mayor in the town. The article quotes “Mayor Arthur McDaniel” rather than “Mayor Dan McArthur.” The article quotes officials like the sheriff in proclaiming a campaign against pornography, which continues to be focus in some areas. These stories dance dangerously on the line of false light in torts.
Obviously, there is some leeway given to such stories on April Fools Day, though most news blogs have stopped the practice due to the rapid replication of stories. The National Report is a site that seems dedicated to simply tricking people with non-funny fake stories. What the editors accomplish is little more than a journalistic version of tripping someone on the stairs from behind and then laughing. There are serious threats to free speech and many civil libertarians try to identify those threats early to rally opposition in protection of the first amendment. The people at National Report spend their time trying to trick people into pursuing false leads in some adolescent amusement. This is what happened recently with a story about Arizona supporting conversion therapy — a real controversy across the country. Once again, National Report simply took the real story and added Arizona as one such state. There was nothing funny or creative or insightful. It just said Arizona was one of those states and created a firestorm. Activists on both sides had to take the time to say that it was a hoax instead of dealing with such real conversion problems targeting gay teenagers. It also succeeded (as with the free speech story) in distracting people from real threats posed by conversion therapy for many teenagers — as well as make people less likely to trust other real stories of such programs. It also helps countries that are moving to curtail free speech on the Internet by citing false stories and rumors. That is a curious accomplishment for these people at National Report.
The disclaimer on the site can be easily missed and equally easily misunderstood:
DISCLAIMER: The National Report is an online portal for “citizen journalists.” The views expressed by writers on this site are theirs alone and are not reflective of the fine journalistic and editorial integrity of National Report. Advice given is NOT to be construed as professional. If you are in need of professional help, please consult a professional. National Report is not intended for children under the age of 18.
Of course, there are plenty of sites that invite citizen journalist contributions that are real news sites. If you go to the site, you can tell that something is amiss. However, these editors know that the stories are quickly replicated and repeated on the Internet, hiding the false origin behind a publication name that sounds like leading legitimate news sites like the National Post in Canada.
The website lists editors like Allen Montgomery. In one report, National Report Publisher Allen Montgomery is quoted in saying that “We have been targeting Tea Party types recently as they are the most gullible and are willing to spread misinformation across the internet with little/no research.” Now there is a worthy purpose in life: finding ways to spread misinformation on issues that deeply affect people’s lives from free speech to homosexual rights to the environment. Other people are trying to deal with a global attack on free speech, but the people at National Report are trying to re-direct that debate into false alleys and walls.
It is clear that these people want to compete with sites like the Onion. However, the Onion tends to be funny much in the same vein as the Daily Show. The National Report appears primarily interested in showing how people can be tricked into spreading false information in the media. They trust National Report stories and end up getting burned. For the life of me, I cannot imagine why adults want to spend their time trying to victimize people who feel strongly about public issues and act on those feelings. While most people have disconnected from public debate, the National Report staff targets those who want to actively debate the issues and raise awareness of threats. It is like putting beacons on a shore to try to get ships to crash or spreading a rumor at a high school that a classmate was killed in a car accident. It is purely malicious and craven conduct. However, the people at National Report were able to find others who enjoy this type of malevolent fun.
Well, the National Report can again count another “victory” in spreading misinformation and the Internet is again a tiny bit worse off for their efforts.