A couple of days ago, a user on Reddit posted photos of a Wonder Woman lunchbox with a letter allegedly sent from a school to the parents of the child who brought said lunchbox to school. The story was immediately picked up and recirculated across the internet, including outlets such as Good Morning America, People, Cosmopolitan, The Mirror, The Independent, MeTV, The National Review, and Entertainment Weekly, among countless others. Every site that posted it simply pointed back to the same story on another site, all of which came back down to a single post on Reddit that linked to images on Imgur, posted by the same person.
Now, the story might be true. It’s quite possible that the parent didn’t want to cause the school any trouble; the person who posted it said they thought it was funny and were not going to make an issue of it. But it could also be false; everything about it is consistent with a hoax or prank. Based on the information provided, there’s no way to tell; there’s no mention of the school’s name, or even what country it’s located in. There is no verifiable information of any kind, which is exactly the way hoaxes usually work.
Here’s the point: lacking any corroborating information, no responsible news outlet or blog should have ever run this story. Maybe bloggers can get away with that kind of shoddy journalism, but we’re talking about national media outlets here. Don’t they have fact-checkers?
When the story first showed up in my Facebook feed, I admit I got caught up in thinking about the legalities and principles of the issue; when I posted a comment about court rulings regarding children’s rights to free expression on school grounds, somebody told me that what I had said was irrelevant because the incident happened in England, not the US. I immediately began searching for more information, and about that time, my friend, Mike “The Hod” Hodder, asked “are we sure this is even legit?” At that point my common sense began to tingle, and my BS detector started pinging like a Geiger counter on the set of The Conqueror. When I expressed my doubts to the GeekDad collective, it took editor Matt Blum less than 10 minutes to locate a name and contact information for the person who posted the story (whose identity I am leaving out deliberately, since it’s actually somewhat irrelevant). I contacted him via social media and had an email from him in my inbox within minutes. Here’s the conversation so far:
Reddit User: What would you like to know?
MacQ: My story is actually on a phenomenon of internet culture, specifically the way people uncritically accept and repeat unverified and unverifiable stories without ever trying to find out if they are true. Major outlets like BoingBoing and Cosmopolitan reposted this story, for example, despite there not being a single documentable fact in it.
Now, let me be clear here: I am not accusing you of perpetrating a hoax or lying. You may have been fooled yourself, or the story may well be true. Based on what I see in your Twitter feed and on Reddit, you appear to be a decent and honest person of integrity, and I have no reason to doubt that. But all the evidence I’ve seen so far regarding this story exactly fits the pattern of a hoax or prank. For the record, I like pranks and hoaxes; I’ve perpetrated plenty of them myself. If you look at my long-neglected website, Monkey Spit, you’ll find two dozen fake web pages for everything from “Laser Conscience Removal” to “Bonsai Cows,” so I’m not one to judge.
Like I said, the story might be true, but that’s really beside the point. The point is, there was no way for any of these news sites to know that from the information given, and yet they reported it as fact anyway.
So, my question for you is, did any news outlets or websites attempt to contact you to fact-check the story?
Reddit User: I actually read a story earlier claiming it was fake and got a good laugh from it. The father of the girl thought it was funny too. They just want their privacy.
As for the other news outlets, none of them asked about the validity of the facts. They just wanted permission to run the story or contact info for the family. I hadn’t thought about it until I read your email, but not ONE actually asked about the validity of the letter. Funny, huh? I guess people do believe anything they see on the Internet!
Some time back, I wrote a review of a book by my friend Loren Collins, called Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation, in which the author gives a pretty good tutorial on how to recognize what Joe Biden would call “malarkey.” This story fails on every point. High school journalism students used to be taught “the Five Ws and an H”: Who, What, Where, When, Why, How. If those six questions were not answered in the first two paragraphs of a story, they would have to re-write it. It’s basic stuff; what happened? To whom? Where did this happen? Was it recently? Is there an explanation for it? Only one of these questions is even addressed at all in this story.
What are the facts? Again and again and again – what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the un-guessable “verdict of history” – what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts! ? Robert A. Heinlein
The first thing to look at in a case like this is “confirmation bias,” the tendency to accept information that supports one’s opinion and disregard information that contradicts it. A story like this one is ideal for that, because it instantly polarizes readers into the ones who support the child vs. those who support the school, and by extension, the ongoing conflict between the individual and society. A quick perusal of the comments section of pretty much any site that reported this story will show how quickly the discussion gets polarized and how extreme the two sides are. Confirmation bias is a great way to leapfrog past logic, reason, and fact and move straight to emotion, which is exactly what’s happening here. Everyone is so invested in defending either the kid or the school, or railing against the larger political forces that this incident illustrates in microcosm, that none of them stop to ask if it’s true.
Once past confirmation bias, the next thing to look for is anomalies in the story, either ones the author has highlighted in order to make their case, or ones they have glossed over. In the letter at hand, there are several. The parents are referred to by first names only, where the norm for a school would be to address “Mr. and Mrs. [Name].” One would also expect a letter like this to have a more formal and legalese tone, and possibly even to include the relevant portion of the dress code language. Another anomaly is the lunchbox itself; it’s a reduced-size reproduction of a metal lunchbox of the type that used to be common before the manufacturers switched to plastic in the late 1980s. These have been brought back for the collector market in recent years, and while it’s true that a child might conceivably carry her lunch in it, it’s not terribly practical; this “tin tote” is about 75% the size of most lunch boxes. At 7″ x 7″ x 3″ (as opposed to 9″ x 7″ x 4″ for a normal lunchbox) it’s a pretty tight fit for more than maybe a sandwich and some cookies, even a large apple or orange would prevent the lid from closing.
Another anomaly: normally when a story like this appears, the child’s name and face are front and center, along with the name and location of the school and the administrator responsible. Those stories are intended to provoke action; phone calls, emails, donations, support, in order to address the situation. In this case, the intent is to provoke a reaction; laughter or outrage, depending on one’s temperament, but there’s no place to direct the latter, because all the players are cloaked in anonymity.
Notice that in his response, the author never outright states that it’s true or false, just that they got a laugh out of it. He did, however, confirm what I suspected, that nobody at any of these news sites or blogs made even a token attempt at verifying anything. I would like to know for sure that it was just a prank, but the truth is really it doesn’t matter; whether the story is true or false is almost irrelevant. The key point is: people whose job is to provide accurate information jumped on an apocryphal story and circulated it like crazy without ever even making the slightest attempt to verify it or giving even two seconds’ thought to how reliable it appeared.
Your high school journalism teachers would give you all an F.