“If it seems to good to be true, it probably is”, people often say rather smugly.
Boy oh boy, did we learn that the hard way this week.
It all started on Tuesday when a story came out about the Jinhua Zoo in China. According to the source, the zoo had named a new baby gorilla “Harambe McHarambeface” after an online vote. The Harambe hype shows no sign of dying, because within a short time the story was all over social media.
— Josh Avery (@Josh_A_12) September 13, 2016
What excited people so much is that this is perfect the marriage of two of the biggest memes of 2016, or a “supermeme” as one Reddit user put it.
Before we go on to see how the story was debunked, let’s do a quick recap.
Harambe was a gorilla who was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo on May 28th after a child fell into his enclosure. Within a day, the Internet was rife with memes and tributes to Harambe and after the story was covered by major news outlets, things only got wilder.
In July, the “dicks out for harambe” campaign started trending, and in August, someone hacked the Cincinnati Zoo’s Twitter, posting several Harambe-related hashtags. Earlier this month, there was even news of the University of Massachussetts banning Harambe memes (although that does seem to be false).
First I loved harambe and then hated him and now I love him again #dicksoutforharambe
— Joel✨ (@joeltheburrito) September 16, 2016
The name “Boaty McBoatface” comes from an online contest that was held in March to decide the name of a newly commissioned polar research vessel. Naturally, Boaty won, but unfortunately wasn’t chosen. Like Harambe, the Mcface meme lived on, appearing on trains, schools and even a horse.
So it’s with great sadness that I inform you the Harambe McHarambeface story is a lie. The real detective work was done by BBC Trending, which sought to find out more about the story.
After scouring the Chinese social media platform Weibo and reaching out to the Jinhua Zoo, BBC Trending couldn’t find any evidence for the zoo even having gorillas, let alone a contest.
Then it was discovered that origins of the story are a little suspicious. Claiming to be a credible news source since 1932, no one seems to have heard of the Boston Leader, the site that broke the story. Adding to the mystery, the Boston Leader site only went live on September 9th, just four days before the story broke. Shady.
OK, perhaps it was just an honest mistake. It’s a case of no harm no foul. Why should we care?
Stories like this are problematic because they point to a flawed news ecosystem.
Earlier this year, a Pew Research study showed that the majority of Americans get their news from social media. And, judging by my Facebook feed, I’m confident things aren’t much different elsewhere.
On top of this, there are the recent controversies surrounding Facebook’s trending algorithm. Combine the two, and you get lots of people sharing stories of questionable veracity.
That is literally bad news.