That story about CNN accidentally airing hardcore porn on Thanksgiving is probably too good to be true

Sam Stecklow just a moment. 0 comments
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On Friday, multiple largely reputable news outlets reported that CNN, via cable provider RCN, aired a half hour of hardcore porn during an airing of Anthony Bourdain's show Parts Unknown. British outlet The Independent reported that "the scheduled programming was replaced with explicit material starring transsexual pornstar Riley Quinn." Ditto IBTimes, a sister publication of Newsweek.

All of these stories were sourced to tweets from one Twitter user, @solikearose, who locked their account shortly after the story picked up steam, though the tweets, as well as a picture tweeted by the user, were preserved by Mediaite:

Fusion was almost one of those sites; I saw the story popping up on Twitter and thought, "That sounds fun." But while looking for more accounts of CNN airing hardcore porn in a major media market for a full half hour, I was able to find none except for @solikearose's. All of these stories are based on one Twitter user who has 76 followers and locked their account. Esquire reporter Luke O'Neil tweeted that he had spoken with @solikearose and "sort of believe[d] her." He appears to be one of the only reporters on this story to have made contact with @solikearose. (Update: BuzzFeed News also spoke with @solikearose, who reaffirmed her story, but said it went away after she reset her TiVo.)

The Drudge Report and New York Post picked up The Independent's story. Tech site The Next Web aggregated IBTimes's. Variety, a media business trade magazine, followed up with a short story with no byline sourced to "local reports." Most stories made a note that they put in requests for comment to CNN and RCN—Variety's was notable for actually including a quote. "[RCN is] in the process of researching this incident but see no evidence our CNN network feed was compromised last evening in Boston," Jeff Carlson, a senior VP in Boston for RCN, said. (Vice picked up Variety's.)

Eventually, by late Friday morning, the story went worldwide, as noted by O'Neil. Forbes Mexico aggregated IBTimes. Le Journal de Montréal, the largest newspaper in Quebec, aggregated The Next Web's aggregation of IBTimes. The story popped up on Romanian and Dutch tabloid sites.

This is the ecosystem in which fake news, so recently the obsession of every person on the planet, thrives. Macedonian teenagers, the Russian government, and assholes named Paris Wade may very well be attempting to influence public opinion (or just make money) with "fake news," but none of them created media environments where the standard for a story is tweets from one Twitter account with 76 followers and nothing else.

To complicate matters, CNN issued the following statement, which appears to confirm the incident, to Fusion and others: "The RCN cable operator in Boston aired inappropriate content for 30 minutes on CNN last night. CNN has asked for an explanation." In response to Fusion's request for clarification, a different CNN spokesperson said in a seemingly contradictory statement, "Despite media reports to the contrary, RCN assures us that there was no interruption of CNN’s programming in the Boston area last night."

For its part, RCN said in a statement to Fusion that it has "no evidence this occurrence took place on the CNN feed. We have not had any other reports of this incident other than this single customer's tweet," and that its "review of network operations and our call center phone logs during the last evening show no indications that this impacted any other customer than the one single customer."

Another story about fake news, an alarmist, nearly incomprehensible Washington Post report about Russian influence in pro-Trump fake news made the rounds Friday morning as well. As noted by Select All editor Max Read, the only reason the Russian government is able to have any influence at all is because the media has allowed it to.

@max_read "fake news" is a product of 1) political conditions in the US and 2) the design and structure of information dissemination online

— Max Read (@max_read) November 25, 2016

@max_read "russian propaganda effort helped spread fake news" means (at most) some siberian teens with a botnet retweeted zerohedge

— Max Read (@max_read) November 25, 2016

@max_read russia likes to agitate and undermine, and that's "scary," but it's scarier that we make it so easy for it to do so

— Max Read (@max_read) November 25, 2016

Read is correct in that many online media outlets are driven by a push for increasing traffic—much of which comes from Facebook, which is where "fake news" flourishes—and economic incentives for online media to publish first and verify later.

Many media outlets, including Fusion, have undergone severe staffing cuts in 2016. The Independent abandoned its print edition and sister paper in February, along with staff "redundancies." IBTimes underwent mass layoffs in July that former employees said showed "no human decency," and moved a US editorial news position to India. In an environment like this, it's not so hard to believe that an extremely thinly-sourced story could spread like wildfire.

Updated with information from a BuzzFeed report

Sam Stecklow is the Weekend Editor for Fusion.

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