Gay Panic, Poe’s Law, and the Strange Cult of Julian Assange

— How my corrections story about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange ended up on a bunch of fringe conspiracy websites

I recently blogged about The Sun, a popular British tabloid newspaper owned by Aussie media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

In March, the paper falsely reported that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was accused of raping two men during a 2010 visit to Sweden.

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On my request, the paper corrected the error and added this note to the enclosing article: “A previous version of this story said that Assange had sex with two men who later accused him of rape. In actual fact they were women. The story was corrected on 10th March.”

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Shortly after the correction was published, the article was heavily revised and the original reporter’s name replaced with the name “Eileen Weybridge.”

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However, when I called the Sun’s personnel department I was told they had no records of anyone with that name.

After failing to get answers from the editor who made the correction, in May I blogged the story with the sub-heading, “Did The Sun newspaper create a fake reporter?” which I then sent to Assange with a request for comment.

Although Assange didn’t respond directly, he tweeted this…

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…after which the story was picked up by the libertarian-leaning Free Thought Project and shared by a number of fringe conspiracy sites including that of British conspiracy theorist David Icke, who claims that the Queen is a shape-shifting lizard.

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One YouTuber, speculating about the Sun’s initial reporting error, said he believed the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had planted the male rape claim to smear Assange.

Ironically, in March I’d joked that British authorities had planted the false claim to coax Assange out of self-imposed exile because if he were convicted of raping two women it would end any rumours about his sexuality.

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The Takeaway

1. Fake bylines are a bad idea.
2. A simple corrections request can get very 
complicated.
3. Assange’s fanbase includes vocal conspiracy theorists.
4. Gay panic is still a thing.
5. Never underestimate Poe’s Law.*

To read more about how this strange story developed, click here, here, and here.

*Poe’s Law: An internet adage which states that, without a clear indicator of the author’s intent, it’s impossible to distinguish satire from the real thing.

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Hoax-ception

Busted: Purported Guardian hoax by prankster Godfrey Elfwick was itself a hoax [Updated: Guardian editor has denied my request for more info about the paper’s vetting procedures for anonymous contributors – more after the jump]

Last month, the Guardian published an anonymous article about how its author was nearly turned into a racist after being exposed to right-wing views online.

Shortly after the article was published, online social justice parodist Godfrey Elfwick, who last year duped the BBC World Service into allowing him to denounce Star Wars as “racist and homophobic” during a live radio broadcast, claimed authorship of the article.

In support of his claim, Elfwick shared an image of a Microsoft Word document on his computer with a similar title, but dated weeks before the Guardian article.

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He also shared a print out of the article with his name on the byline.

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Perhaps owing to his success at hoodwinking the BBC, many on Twitter – including award-winning American writer and leading New Atheist Sam Harris, whose views on Islam are cited in the article as having helped lead the author to nearly becoming a racist – seemed to accept Elfwick’s claim of authorship at face value.

The episode proved to be a lesson in confirmation bias.

For Glenn Greenwald, an American journalist whose work on Edward Snowden won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014, the article confirmed his long-standing belief that the New Atheism movement is little more than “a cover for Islamophobia,” and on Twitter accused Harris of engaging in “hatermongering against Muslims.”

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Meanwhile, Harris used Elfwick’s unverified claim to question Greenwald’s credibility.

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A couple of weeks ago, I asked the Guardian to comment on whether Elfwick authored the article, as claimed.

On Tuesday, I received the following response from Readers’ Editor Paul Chadwick, stating he is “confident about the authorship of the article” and that the version shared by Elfwick on Twitter is “markedly different in several ways” to the draft originally submitted to the Guardian for publication.

From: Readers’ editor (Guardian) <guardian.readers@theguardian.com>
To: **** <****@aol.com>
Subject: Re: Question about Anonymous Guardian article re: possible hoax
Date: Tue, 13 Dec 2016 15:45

Dear Dean Jones,

Thank you for your email.

The Guardian has stated in response to specific media enquiries that it is confident about the authorship of the article.

I have separately looked into the matter and can assure you that the claim of authorship made on Twitter is not supported by the evidence offered on Twitter by the person claiming authorship.

In its original format the material submitted to the Guardian for the article is markedly different in several ways from what was claimed on Twitter to be a print out of the article as submitted by its author.

I can understand why the Guardian has taken the approach that it has taken to this matter. You would agree, I’m sure, that there is no point encouraging trolls by paying them attention.

Thanks again for making contact.

Paul Chadwick
Readers’ editor

Guardian Readers’ editor’s office
Guardian News & Media

While he didn’t quite manage to pull the wool over our eyes, Elfwick’s claim raises an interesting question: without being able to verify the identity of the author, how do we know the article isn’t a hoax?¹ Maybe that was the point all along.

Updated, 12/01/17: Last month, I asked Guardian Readers’ Editor Paul Chadwick about his paper’s vetting procedures for anonymous contributors, stating my concern that “without being able to provide demonstrable evidence that an article is genuine, you open the doors to false claims of authorship.”

Here is his January 3, 2017 response:

From: Readers’ editor (Guardian) <guardian.readers@theguardian.com>
To: **** <****@aol.com>
Subject: Re: Question about Anonymous Guardian article re: possible hoax
Date: Tue, 3 Jan 2017 19:20

Dear Dean Jones,

Yes, there are processes for vetting contributors, but I am sure you will understand that if they are to maintain their effectiveness it is counterproductive to detail them.

Yours sincerely,

Paul Chadwick

Readers’ editor

Guardian Readers’ editor’s office
Guardian News & Media

¹Prior to Elfwick throwing his hat into the ring, Twitter users were already questioning the article’s authenticity.

12 Words/Expressions to Avoid Part II

To honour the Huffington Post’s shameful realisation of Poe’s Law,* my very own listicle.

1. Fuddruckers
I don’t know what this is, but it sounds dirty.

2. Sorry
You’re not sorry, stop saying sorry.

3Champagne wishes and caviar dreams
Things that were popular in the eighties.

4. Cavalier 
Sounds like caviar, annoying by association.

5. Sign language
I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’RE SAYING. 

6The menu at Starbucks 
These guys need to consult an Italian-English dictionary, srsly. 

7. Bible
Wtf does this even mean?

8. Have fun
Don’t tell me what to do. 

9. Moist
Ew. 

10. Finland
Tbh, I couldn’t tell you where to find Finland on a map.

11. Emily
I just really hate that bish. 

12. Engelbert Humperdinck
I can’t even.

Hearts and handshakes.

*Poe’s Law: An internet adage which states that, without a clear indicator of the author’s intent, it is impossible to distinguish satire from the real thing.