Anatomy Of A Fake, Viral Story: The Priest Who Met A Female God In His Near-Death Experience
Digg is partnering with Emergent, a real-time rumor tracker, to tell the facts behind the stories that spread online.
On February 4th, World News Daily Report published a story about a Massachusetts priest who made a miraculous medical recovery, and discovery:
A Catholic priest from Massachussetts [sic] was officially dead for more than 48 minutes before medics were able to miraculously re-start his heart. During that time, Father John Micheal O’neal claims he went to heaven and met God, which he describes as a warm and comforting motherly figure.
The story reported that Boston Archbishop Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley explained away O’Neal’s revelation as nothing more than “hallucinations linked to a near-death experience,” and added that “God clearly isn’t a female.”
World News Daily Report looks and reads like a real news website, but everything it publishes is completely fake.
This remarkable report of a Catholic priest claiming that the Holy Father is in fact a mother went unnoticed by other media until a newspaper in Uganda, the Daily Monitor, picked it up word-for-word. That set off a cascade of articles on other websites around the world, which together have racked up tens of thousands of shares and social interactions, primarily on Facebook.
The Daily Monitor's motto is “Truth Everyday,” but in this case its plagiarism helped propagate a hoax. World News Daily Report looks and reads like a real news website, but everything it publishes is completely fake. It’s one of several fake news websites that pump out hoax content with the goal of generating shares and links that they can monetize with ads.
Many of these sites have legitimate sounding names, such as The Daily Currant or National Report. They not only monetize peoples’ gullibility, but also their hopes and fears, their political and religious beliefs.
At least some of those factors were likely at play when Bridget Mary Meehan — who is identified as a bishop by the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests — gleefully blogged about the story when it first circulated:
Why is Cardinal O'Malley and the Boston Archdiocese so upset? You would think he'd be inspired. Perhaps, he is afraid that if God is a woman, then, that could put a big crack in the church's stained glass ceiling and open the door to women priests!
Fake News, Real Shares
Fake articles generate far more social attention than debunking attempts.
Fake news websites are enough of a concern that Facebook recently released a new way for users to flag fake and hoax content in their news feed, with the hopes of stopping fake news from going viral on their platform.
I recently completed a research project for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University that included analysis of these sites. We collected social shares and interactions data on fake news articles and compared it with articles that attempted to debunk those hoaxes. In every case except one, the fake articles generated far more social attention (retweets, shares, Likes and comments) than debunking attempts.
Take, for example, a ludicrous article from Huzlers that claimed Earth would experience six days of darkness at the end of last year. We collected seven articles from credible websites that debunked this claim. Together they racked up over 135,000 social shares and interactions. But that single fake news articles is today approaching 1 million shares and interactions.
World News Daily Report scored a few big hits of its own in recent months. One of the biggest was yet another religious claim: the site reported that a “Newly-Found document holds Eyewitness Account of Jesus Performing Miracle.” It generated over 450,000 shares and interactions. It had another success earlier this year with a report that a 600-pound Australian woman had given birth to a 40-pound baby. The story garnered over 350,000 social interactions.
How The False Priest Became True
World News Daily Report’s "About Us" page describes it as an “American Jewish Zionist newspaper based in Tel Aviv” that is “dedicated on covering biblical archeology news and other mysteries around the Globe.” It says it has a team of “award winning christian, muslim and jewish journalists, retired Mossad agents and veterans of the Israeli Armed Forces [sic].” WNDR also claims to publish a daily print edition with a circulation of more than 200,000.
All of the above is easily checked and proven false. So too was the story of the priest and his reawakening. First, the image of the priest on WNDR is a stock photo. Second, the Archdiocese of Boston lists no Father John Micheal O’neal in its online directory of priests.
But after Uganda's Daily Monitor gave the story exposure and credibility by publishing it as true, other sites in Africa, the U.S., U.K. and India piled on. The fake story became a real force.
Facebook is working to make itself inhospitable for fake news, but this example shows how credulous journalists and news sites provide another avenue for fake news to capture social shares, traffic and credibility.
The Daily Monitor published its article on February 19th. Soon, a radio station in Ghana reported the priest story as true, as did Pulse.ng and others in Africa. The story made its way to India Today, generating thousands more shares. 20minutes.fr translated it into French and earned over six thousand shares and social interactions. Inquisitr, a viral news site that over the past six months has generating close to 20 million uniques per month, also reported the story as real. (Its headline: “Catholic Priest Dead For 48 Minutes, Is Miraculously Revived – His Revelations About God Are Even More Shocking.”)
The priest and his claim made its American news debut when a CBS radio station in Dallas published a blog post, citing the Daily Monitor. Then, on Sunday, the story’s trip around the world was complete when Metro U.K. reported the tale. (My Tow Center research found that Metro U.K. was one of a collection of news sites that consistently jumped on unverified, and often dubious, claims that had the potential to generate clicks. Inquisitr is also a member of that club.)
Metro’s article carried a headline that declared the story to be true (“Priest who died for 48 minutes says he met God and she’s a woman”). It struck a slightly more cautionary tone in the text:
According to an unverified report, Father John Micheal O’Neal, 71, briefly went to heaven and met a ‘warm and comforting’ motherly figure as doctors battled to save his life at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Though it flagged the story as unverified, Metro didn’t cite or link to any sources in its story. That was true in almost all of the articles about the priest.
One site did, however, ask the important questions. Sean Noble from The Blaze, a website held by Glenn Beck’s media company, published a debunking Sunday morning. Headlined, “That Story About a Catholic Priest Dying, Seeing God as a Woman, and Coming Back to Life? It’s Almost Definitely Fake,” it was the first to call out the hoax. Noble noted the use of the stock image, the lack of coverage from Boston media, and, of course, the fact that World News Daily Report traffics in fake stories.
It has been joined by other debunkings, including one from my site, Emergent.
Metro U.K. has also reversed itself. The site revised its original text to include a quote from the Archdiocese of Boston that explains the claim is a hoax.
As of this writing, the debunkings have attracted roughly 2,000 shares and interactions, while the articles that treat it as true now top 160,000.
And at least one person who now knows it was a hoax has chosen to believe the story still contains an element of truth. Bridget Mary Meehan, the woman working to have the Catholic Church accept female priests, updated her original blog post to declare:
I believe if it hasn't yet happened, it truly will! Someone once said: "all stories are true some actually happened"
Stay tuned, I will keep you updated!
(@CraigSilverman) is the founder of Emergent.info, a real-time rumor tracker, and a leading expert on media errors, accuracy and verification. He is a fellow with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and the author of the new Tow report, "Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content: How News Websites Spread (and Debunk) Online Rumors, Unverified Claims and Misinformation." Craig is also the founder and editor of the Poynter Institute blog Regret the Error, which reports on media accuracy and the discipline of verification. He edited the Verification Handbook from the European Journalism Center, and is the author of two award-winning non-fiction books.