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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Cod Fishing Part II

“I love journalism” – WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange responds to botched Sun newspaper profile

On Wednesday, I asked if The Sun created a fake reporter to byline a story which falsely claimed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had sexually assaulted two men.

Yesterday, Assange tweeted my blog post about the story:

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He immediately followed-up with this tweet:

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The Sun on Julian Assange – Fake News or Honest Mistake?

The Sun newspaper retracts claim Julian Assange allegedly sexually assaulted two men – but not before WikiLeaks Task Force cries “fake news”

Earlier this month, The Sun newspaper published “Who is Julian Assange, why does Pamela Anderson visit him in the Ecuadorian embassy and what is Wikileaks?” about exiled Aussie journalist and founder of WikiLeaks Julian Assange, who in 2010 was accused of sexually assaulting two women during a visit to Sweden.

The March 8, 2017 article, by reporter Holly Christodoulou, incorrectly stated that Assange “was in Sweden in August 2010 to speak at a conference when he met two men and had sex with them.”

Via the Wayback Machine:

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The WikiLeaks Task Force, an official WikiLeaks Twitter account set up in October 2016 to “correct misinformation” about its namesake organisation, called the article “#FakeNews” – suggesting that WikiLeaks believes The Sun intentionally fabricated the assertion that Assange allegedly sexually assaulted two men.

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On my request, The Sun immediately corrected the error, and today added this correction notice to the bottom of the 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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In my follow-up e-mail to The Sun, I asked about WikiLeaks’ fake news claim.

A Sun spokesperson said: This was an honest editorial mistake that we corrected as soon as it had been flagged, and added a note at the bottom of the article reflecting that change. This error was absolutely not deliberate – as evidenced by older articles on the Sun website about Mr Assange stating clearly the rape claimants were women.”

I’ve reached out to Assange for comment.

WikiLeaks Goes “Full Trump”

WikiLeaks claims it invented popular whistle-blower program SecureDrop and that Julian Assange co-founded the Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) – claims denied by FPF co-founder Micah Lee in heated exchange with the WikiLeaks Task Force

Last week, WikiLeaks tweeted that the Associated Press and other press organisations had adopted “WikiLeaks technology” in adopting SecureDrop, a whistle-blower submission program developed by U.S. “hacktivist” and transparency advocate, the late Aaron Swartz.

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In response, Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) co-founder Micah Lee tweeted that Wikileaks’ claim re: SecureDrop was “a lie” and that it had “never contributed” to the program’s development.

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This was followed by a heated exchange between Lee and the WikiLeaks Task Force, an official WikiLeaks account set up in October 2016 to “correct misinformation” about its namesake organisation.

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In its response, the Task Force claimed Swartz and FPF developed SecureDrop using technology “invented at WL,” and that WikiLeaks’ founder, exiled Australian journalist Julian Assange, co-founded FPF…

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…claims denied by Lee in another tweet:

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The Task Force then doubled down, claiming Lee was not a founder of FPF…

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…in another tweet even claiming Lee was “an anti-freedom of speech campaigner”:

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However, the FPF website clearly lists Lee as one of its co-founders:

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As covered on this blog, the WikiLeaks Task Force recently began threatening legal action against Twitter users, including journalists, who criticise WikiLeaks and Assange.

In this case, at least, Lee had the final word:

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WikiLeaks Threatens Writer

WikiLeaks Task Force demands Jezebel writer delete “rapist shitbag” Assange tweet or “face the consequences”

The WikiLeaks Task Force was set up last October to “correct misinformation” about anti-secrecy media organisation WikiLeaks.

Earlier this month, the Task Force claimed that Jezebel writer C.A. Pinkham was “committing libel with actual malice” because he suggested WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was “a rapist shitbag.”

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Assange was granted political asylum by Ecuador’s London embassy in mid-2012 after facing sexual assault allegations in Sweden. He says the sex was consensual and believes if he leaves the embassy he risks being extradited to the U.S. to face prosecution for WikiLeaks’ 2010 release of classified government documents.