If you’re a major movie star driving a rental car in Illinois this year, you may want to avoid Rockford. Or perhaps make a beeline there.
In March, the website WBN 12 News had the hearts of at least a few Twitter and Facebook users in and around Rockford racing with a heartwarming story about "Fast & Furious" star Vin Diesel’s heavy praise of the town’s people and cuisine.
"During a radio interview this morning, Hollywood actor Vin Diesel took a moment to praise Rockford, Illinois residents who had helped him with a mechanical issue with his rental car as he passed through the city recently," read the post.
The story then describes Diesel praising the people of Rockford as "the real deal" and voicing his plans to retire in Rockford when his acting days are over. He also applauds the "great freakin’ burger" he had at Rockford’s GreenFire restaurant. Indeed there is a restaurant in Rockford called GreenFire and a quick skim of its menu indicates that its burgers likely would earn the "great freakin’" label. (Ex.: "BEEF & DUCK BACON brioche bun. grass fed beef. yellow cheddar. duck bacon. $13." Sounds freakin’ great to us.)
The story then describes Diesel praising the people of Rockford as "the real deal" and voicing his plans to retire in Rockford when his acting days are over. He also applauds the "great freakin’ burger" he had at Rockford’s GreenFire restaurant.
Indeed there is a restaurant in Rockford called GreenFire and a quick skim of its menu indicates that its burgers likely would earn the "great freakin’" label. (Ex.: "BEEF & DUCK BACON brioche bun. grass fed beef. yellow cheddar. duck bacon. $13." Sounds freakin’ great to us.)
RULE No. 1: READ THE DISCLAIMER
There’s plenty in this post to create a veneer of truth. Who’s going to argue that the people of Rockford aren’t a friendly and helpful bunch? After all, this is the town that gave the world Cheap Trick, perhaps the world’s most affable and hard-working rock band.
The "WBN News 12, Breaking news, local news" banner at the top of the page certainly looks like something you’d find on a news website.
But when a story appears under a heading that contains a link labeled "disclaimer," it’s a smart news consumption practice to click that link.
In this case, doing so gives the reader vital information: "wbn12.com is a satirical and fantasy website. None of the articles on wbn12.com should be considered true and are simply works of satire or fantasy meant for entertainment purposes. The satirical and fantasy articles on wbn12.com poke fun at our celebrity obsessed cultures and the politically correct world we’re forced to live in."
A recent Pew Research study found that 35 percent of news consumers use social media as their primary pathway to news -- roughly equal to the 36 percent who said they go directly to news sites. So when a joke gets shared on social media as real news, there’s significant potential for confusion.
"‘Fake news’ propagated by endless (social media) ‘printing presses’ can be a source of entertainment and amusement that is appreciated for its satirical presentation but too often is taken much too seriously," says Jim Grubbs, associate professor of communication at the University of Illinois-Springfield.
When that happens, it creates a dilemma for legitimate media. Has the phony story become so rampant that it merits coverage? On this one, the answer was "no" for the Rockford Register Star.
"The staff here was aware of the Vin Diesel report and checked it out," said Mark Baldwin, executive editor of the Rockford Register Star. "When we discovered there was nothing to it, we dropped it." The paper didn’t want to call undue attention to the story or confuse readers by reporting on it, Baldwin said.
Kudos to Rockford radio personality Mark Charvat for using his blog on station WXXQ-FM 98.5’s website to call out the Vin Diesel story as fake.
VIN DIESEL: TWO-TIMER
When we plugged a chunk of the "Vin Diesel" quote into Google, we learned that WBN News 12 is just one piece of a satirical website empire. Vin Diesel fans who believed the Rockford story likely would have been crestfallen to learn that the actor had said the very same things about Norwalk, Ohio, on the website Local 31 News, which carries a strikingly similar disclaimer to that of WBN News 12.
While Rockford fed Diesel a mere burger, Norwalk feted him with a "great freakin’ steak" at Berry’s.
Rockford residents, however, need not feel jilted by Diesel’s affection for Norwalk. They’ve also got Johnny Depp raving about their hospitality.
As reported by the website Daily News 10, the "Pirates of the Caribbean" actor had mechanical problems with a rental car when he was passing through Rockford. He, too, found Rockfordians to be "the real deal" and, like Diesel, plans to settle in Rockford when his acting days are over.
Depp’s Rockford helpers treated him to a "great freakin’ burger," but it was at Buddy’s, not GreenFire.
Another Rockford radio personality, Mandy James, deserves credit for flagging that one as phony in a Jan. 3 blog post.
OUR OWN GATEKEEPERS
PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan noted on International Fact-checking Day that in an age of ever-more-slick websites putting out articles that, at first glance, seem legitimate, news consumers need to be especially vigilant.
Before sharing an article on social media, check its original source. In the examples above, an obvious disclaimer fairly screamed that the articles were not to be taken seriously. Yet they still were shared is if they were true.
"If a headline strikes you as so outrageous that you want to immediately tell all your friends about it, take a quick pause. It might well be fake. You can do your homework by inspecting the source of the news story," Holan cautions. "Is it a news organization you’ve heard of? Look at the web address. Is it a clever knock-off? For example, abcnews.com.co is a phony version of the actual news site abcnews.go.com and is a purveyor of fake news."
There’s certainly no harm in imagining Vin Diesel or Johnny Depp getting a lesson in Heartland hospitality in Rockford, Norwalk, Ohio, or any other off-the-beaten-path Midwestern town. The sites that offered those articles accomplished their clearly stated goal of poking fun at our celebrity-obsessed culture.
But sites that traffic in more serious "fake news" don’t put disclaimers on their articles. They’re out not to entertain, but to agitate.
Know the warning signs and be a smart news consumer.
Anyone who saw the Vin Diesel or Johnny Depp posts should have been tipped off about their nature by the "disclaimer" tab above the headline. Even the most cursory second look at this claim would have revealed it worthy of our Pants on Fire rating.