A spoof on radio frequency identification chips created real concern for some readers and dubious national attention for the small southern Wyoming coal mining town of Hanna.
The calls began pouring into Hanna Town Clerk Vivian Gonzales’ office early Monday morning. Was a local ordinance really requiring its government-assisted citizens to be implanted with identification chips?
The callers’ anxiety stemmed from an article on a website called National Report, which claimed Hanna was part of an Obamacare pilot program, and that the town mayor, “Ted Howell,” was the first recipient of an RFID chip.
“I’ve had people call from all over the U.S., from citizens to pastors to doctors, asking if this is really true,” Gonzales said.
By Monday afternoon, Gonzales had screened about 50 callers from states such as Vermont, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama and Washington, many requesting a word with the mayor. A caller from Minnesota told her the story had been picked up by a Bible prophecy radio show.
Gonzales said everything in the article, down to the mayor’s name, was a fabrication.
“I think they just picked Hanna, Wyoming, out of a hat,” she said. “A lot of people in Wyoming don’t even know we’re here.”
The publication, which reads like the lovechild of Weekly World News and The Onion, offers a disclaimer: “… All news articles contained within National Report are fiction, and presumably fake news. Any resemblance to the truth is purely coincidental.”
The site’s other recent headlines reported that Kate Middleton gave birth to a fourth “puppy” and that pets of gay couples are worse at sports. Many of the articles assume an ironically fanatical conservative tone.
However, the website’s Huffington Post-esque layout and legitimate-sounding name could lend itself to reader credulity. The Hanna article’s subject matter plays off a viral rumor that Obamacare would soon require all citizens to have a microchip implanted. The myth-busting website Snopes lists some examples of such claims and
references the Hanna debacle in a recent update.
National Report Publisher Allen Montgomery said the stories that receive the most attention are the ones that invoke an emotional response from the reader.
“We have been targeting Tea Party types recently as they are the most gullible and are willing to spread misinformation across the internet with little/no research,” he wrote in a Facebook correspondence with the Star-Tribune.
The Hanna article alone had 90,000 likes and nearly 4,000 shares on Facebook by Monday evening. Montgomery confirmed that the social media counts were accurate.
Commenters on the post ranged from those who apparently believed the article’s content, to those who ridiculed the aforementioned group, to those who penned disjointed diatribes on loosely related topics. “Moron” accusations were prevalent.
Sandra Davidson, a communications law professor at the University of Missouri School Of Journalism, said it’s doubtful any legal action will come of the story, even if some take it seriously.
“If it can’t be taken as literally true, it can’t be defamatory,” she said. “In this country, we have a broad First Amendment right to satire,” Davidson said.
Davidson said even if the article is lifted out of satirical context, a plaintiff would have to prove some sort of injury in order to file a lawsuit. She did not know of an instance in which a town claimed it was libeled.
“Perhaps the people who were duped by this are the ones who should feel more injured,” she said.
Montgomery said in no way should anyone construe the National Report as real news.
“It is our opinion that if a person is too lazy to check for multiple references [or at least one other source] … and they spread misinformation around as fact, then they are to blame for their own stupidity, not us,” he said.
Reach crime reporter Megan Cassidy at 307-266-0534 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @meganrcassidy.