Fake news is foolish but the consequences are real

This week a photo of a racist letter made the rounds on social media.

It read:

"Dear Terrorist-Bitch,

We are writing to you as the newly organized Neighborhood Town Watch. We understand that you currently wear a scarf on your head and we would like to put you on notice that this will no longer be tolerated in our neighborhood.

Now that America is great again, we would like to offer you two opportunities to avoid any consequences on your poor previous decisions. First, you can take your radical attire of and live like all Americans. Or, your second option, you can go back to the God Forsaken land you came from.

America is Great Again,

Neighborhood Town Watch"

Folks on social media who posted it also shared their horror, indignation and disgust at its contents.

Fortunately that the letter, which sported a "Trump Make America Great Again!" letterhead, is almost certainly a fake.

Let's walk through why I believe that.

First, the signature on the letter itself. It is signed "Neighbourhood Town Watch." But, no specific town is mentioned. It could be Anytown, USA, which is important.

Why? Because various outraged posters have said the letter was sent to a "friend" or "sister" who lived in Harrisburg, or Texas, or a variety of other states. That alone is curious. But, most telling is that every post features exactly the same photo of the letter. Why would the poster in Harrisburg attach a picture of a letter that someone allegedly got in Texas instead of their own letter?

Second, think about the actual events that would naturally follow from someone getting a letter like that. Would their first reaction be to post it on social media but then not go to the mayor, the police or some other authority that could investigate the Neighbourhood Town Watch? And, why wouldn't there be any media coverage of the incident, especially if it was happening across the country?

In fact, that's precisely what happened to Mariah Teli, a 24-year-old school teacher in Georgia. Ms. Teli got a note that encouraged her to: "tie you headscarf around your neck and hang yourself with it."

Posts and news stories about the event show the note and Ms Teli. Her principal started an investigation. Her story was shared 1,500 times and it was covered by the Huffington Post as well as other news outlets.

That is the normal reaction to a note like the one Ms. Teli received. And, if the Neighbourhood Watch note was received by anyone, anywhere, that is exactly the reaction you would expect.

But there was no reaction because the letter was never sent, it was just mocked up and photographed by someone with some agenda or other.

And here is the really sad part. The letter was shared and shared again by people who believed it was real and were horrified by it.

Think about that. A letter -- that a modicum of common sense and some basic research would send up red flags and start alarm bells ringing -- was shared, not dismissed as bogus. As bogus as the story of an elderly woman microwaving her pet to dry it, or news of a killer clown threatening to kill kids if Halloween wasn't cancelled.

So, why did the post about the Neighbourhood Watch letter circulate? Because, I think, it matched the posters' worldview about the dangers of a post-Trump world. That belief blinded folks to the obvious falsity of the letter.

Many of us have blamed right-wingers and Republicans for sharing fake news about Hillary Clinton. So now, glass house meet stone.

The real danger here is that Muslim men and women will, no doubt, face real racism and danger in the months to come.

Crying wolf about an obviously bogus letter doesn't help anyone. It just makes it harder for posts of real race attacks to be taken seriously.

When people of any political stripe let dogma defeat data and outrage quell common sense, there are consequences. One consequence is Donald Trump becoming the president-elect, in part because of fake news, just like this, making the rounds on social media.

Another is those of us who decry what happened in the U.S. election can let anger, fear and outrage propagate nonsense. That makes us look foolish and irresponsible. We can do better.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

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