As Hurricane Irma bore down on his home state, Ryon Edwards of DeLand, Florida, created a Facebook event page intended to encourage people — or so it seemed, sort of — to fire their guns as an act of defiance into the oncoming storm. “LETS SHOW IRMA THAT WE SHOOT FIRST,” the invitation declared.
More than 50,000 people found the page, and announced their intention to join in the fun.
For anyone who consumes information on the Internet in 2017, what happened next comes as no surprise: News outlets jumped all over it.
“People Like Ryon Are Going to Shoot at Hurricane Irma,” the BBC declared, in a headline custom-designed to maximally increase the odds that you, standing in the checkout line at the grocery store and scrolling through your news feed, mash your finger down on the screen to learn more. Right up at the top of the page is a big photo of Ryon, who — guess what? — looks exactly like the kind of guy who you would imagine would engage in such reckless behavior.
Or, as actually proved the case: he looks like the kind of person who would create a Facebook page promoting a bogus event just because, why not?
We live in the fake news era. President Donald Trump uses the phrase, repeatedly, to denounce and demean the press for carrying out its basic accountability function. A Russian propaganda group seeded actual fake news on Facebook in order to boost the chances that Trump would win the White House. And still, despite what should be our heightened awareness and high sensitivity to sharing anything so obviously dubious, we in the media do our part to propagate fake stories, as well.
One reason it happens, I suspect, is that we are insufficiently skeptical of stories that confirm opinions we hold about certain groups of people. Returning briefly to the BBC story: there’s a line, about halfway through the story, that indicated that the reporter was aware that the event wasn’t for real, or at least should have raised a big red flag about it: “The comments on Ryon’s post suggest not everyone is really going to load up on Sunday morning in the Florida Keys.”
Evidence of a hoax was discovered, but the venerable news service still posted the story.
I am an editor at a nonprofit news site that covers gun issues. People shooting guns into the air and hurting themselves or someone else is a legitimate thing. This past Fourth of July, a 13-year-old boy was killed when a bullet shot up into the air came crashing back into his skull.
That story, in which an actual real person’s life was extinguished for no reason at all, wasn’t picked up by major news outlets. It didn’t go viral. The New York Times didn’t write a hey-look-at-this-phenomena piece about it.
This is where I disclose that I tweeted about the hurricane shooting party without even bothering to go to the source, the Facebook page itself. The Trace also shared the story on Facebook and Twitter.
Bogus news spawns even more bogus news. On Monday, another story (I’m not going to link to the article itself) asserted that a man had shot his gun into the hurricane, and that the bullet had come back at him, striking him fatally in the head. It appeared on a fake site populated with articles that are mostly gibberish.
Meanwhile, Ryon Edwards’ Facebook event page lives on. “While the news will make countless stories about us ‘encouraging’ people to shoot the hurricane, there will be far less coverage on how Floridians always have each others’ backs in times of need,” he wrote recently.