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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The Viral Spiral of 2018

A not-so-fond look back at the worst viral deceptions of the year.


All this month, we’re celebrating 15 years of holding politicians accountable. We’ve been writing about false and misleading viral claims for nearly as long.

Early on, we mostly fact-checked viral messages in the form of chain emails that skeptical readers forwarded to our inbox. Now, we almost exclusively write about flawed memes and stories that are published and then shared, again and again, on social media.

This year, we found ourselves correcting inaccurate posts on important topics like gun violence, sexual assault, religion, immigration and more.

In December 2016, we were among a handful of fact-checking organizations that began working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on that social media network. This year, we hired a second full-time staffer to work on the project.

Those two staff writers, with some assistance from undergraduate fellows and others, were very busy this year, producing more than 200 articles.

Below, we recap some of the viral deceptions they debunked.

David Hogg Hogwash

David Hogg survived a Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 other Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students and faculty dead. In the shooting’s aftermath, Hogg became a prominent gun control advocate. But conspiracy theorists tried their best to convince the public that the student-turned-activist was never at the shooting.

Numerous viral falsehoods said:

The perpetrators of those conspiracies simply ignored all of the evidence that Hogg was a student at Stoneman Douglas who recorded videos from inside the school while it was under lockdown. One of his teachers also confirmed that he was there at the time.

‘Caravan’ Concoctions

President Donald Trump wasn’t the only one to incorrectly claim that border agents “were very badly hurt” by a “caravan” of Central American migrants that began traveling to the U.S. through Mexico in October. We wrote about multiple photos — all several years old — that some tried to pass off online as examples of the group’s supposed violence.

For example, one of the photos, showing a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer with a bloodied face, was taken in 2010 after an incident with drug smugglers. Another, showing several men with bandanas over their mouths dragging a police officer, was taken during a skirmish between protesters and Mexican police four years ago. And in yet another item, we wrote about three different photos that all documented altercations that occurred between civilians and police in Mexico between 2011 and 2014 — not in 2018.

In addition, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida helped to spread a rumor that those Central American migrants were being paid to come to the U.S. by liberal billionaire philanthropist George Soros. But a spokeswoman for Soros’ foundation denied the allegation, and Gaetz’s office never responded when we requested supporting evidence.  

Blatant Blasey Ford Falsehoods

Those skeptical of Christine Blasey Ford sought to undermine the credibility of the California professor who came forward in September to describe an alleged sexual assault by Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh when they were teenagers.

Multiple websites pushed the unfounded claim that Ford accused Kavanaugh because his mother, a former judge, had foreclosed on the home of Ford’s parents. In fact, Martha Kavanaugh didn’t foreclose on the property, which Ford’s parents still own. She was actually the judge who granted the bank’s motion to dismiss the case after the Blaseys refinanced.

Conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh helped to spread another baseless assertion that Ford had also made allegations of sexual misconduct against Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first Supreme Court pick.

A bunch of memes misidentified other women as Ford in an attempt to label her the “Left’s latest weapon” against Trump and also link her to Soros and former President Bill Clinton.

And then false social media posts claimed that the FBI issued a report confirming that “none of the Kavanaugh accusations were true. None of them.” It didn’t. FBI background checks present facts without reaching any conclusions.

Bogus Hits on Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton was not in or running for public office in 2018, but that didn’t stop internet hoaxers from making her the subject of lots of false stories, including some that expanded on the false narrative that she’s a child predator.

The New York City Police Department wasn’t investigating a purported video that, a dubious website claimed, showed the former secretary of state and her longtime aide Huma Abedin assaulting a young girl. The NYPD confirmed it had no such investigation.

Likewise, there was no support for claims that a homeless encampment in Tucson, Arizona, was either used as a child trafficking “rape camp” or connected to the Clintons.

We can also confirm that actress Allison Mack, who was indicted on charges of sex trafficking, did not confess to selling “children to the Rothschilds and Clintons.” Nor did Clinton or her foundation employ Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman, who, like Mack, was indicted this year for activities related to the alleged sex cult NXIVM.

Other Viral Deceptions

There was more bunk, too. These unrelated claims were just as false.

The Washington Post never wrote that Sen. John McCain, who died on Aug. 25, “‘accidentally’ killed 134 American sailors” aboard the USS Forrestal in 1967. After we debunked the claim, the website behind that whopper issued a correction.

Following the election of two Muslim women to Congress in November, a text graphic popular on Facebook wrongly claimed that a decades-old law barred them from serving in government. The fact is the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act codified federal immigration policies and doesn’t bar “Muslims from holding public office,” as the image claimed.

Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew whose family lived through the Nazi occupation, was wrongly branded a Nazi collaborator based on a photo of someone else. A bogus meme attacking Soros actually shows a young Oskar Gröning, a former Nazi guard who died in March.

A “female-led construction company” did not build the bridge that collapsed at Florida International University in Miami. At the time, Munilla Construction Management was run by six brothers, and 11 of its 92 management employees were female.

Many people wrongly concluded that Trump didn’t have his hand over his heart as the flag-covered casket of former President George H.W. Bush made its way into the National Cathedral on Dec. 5. Although not required, Trump did put his hand over his heart, as White House photos show. He just didn’t keep his hand there as long as others did.

And, finally, a meme falsely claimed that FactCheck.org had “exposed” the myth-busting website Snopes.com “as an extremely liberal propaganda site with an agenda to discredit anything that appears to be conservative.” At no point did that happen. In 2009, we wrote that we found the site’s work to be “solid and well-documented,” and that its articles appeared “utterly poker-faced” when covering Democratic and Republican politicians.