Drinking Bleach, Twitter, and Fake News Unfolding in Real Time

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Cropped image taken from https://www.reddit.com/r/facepalm/

As I write this, a story is spreading through Twitter and Reddit that there are three people in an ED because they drank bleach in responses to Trump’s galling press conference in which he suggested that injecting disinfectant may be a way to treat COVID-19.

I have good news and bad news. The good news: this story is almost certainly fake. The bad news: people are falling for it anyway.

This morning I was scrolling through Facebook. Someone had shared a screenshot of a tweet that read:

“Hi good morning, please don’t drink, bleach or disinfectant of any type.

Currently have 3 in ED that drank the Trump koolaid over night, severe esophageal burns, lung damage”

I hit the “wow” reaction and moved on. But I’ve been trying to do a better job of fact checking the things I react to. So I scrolled back up and decided to look into the matter myself by doing two things.

First, I ran some Google searches to try and locate any news coverage corroborating the story. Nothing.

Second, I decided to go to the Twitter page for the poster, “bums01.” Maybe the handle should have been a tip off. I didn’t find any information about medical training or hospital employment. I did however find a fair amount of, well, bum pics. And dick pics. And just nudes generally.

I don’t mention the nude pics because I think there’s anything wrong with that. If you want to post nude pics of yourself on a platform that permits it, fine by me. (Twitter’s default setting blocks people from viewing such pics, but you can change your settings so that you can see “sensitive content,” which I did so that I could view bums01’s profile to research his tweet. You’re welcome. )

Rather, I mention this because bums01’s profile is the context from which his message was shared. It would be one thing if there were pics of him working at a hospital or his posts consisted mostly of sharing news articles from reputable sites. But no such markers of credibility were present.

Having been unable to corroborate his story and not seeing any indicators of expertise on his page, I was skeptical. But what sold me on the fact that this was fake news was how we was responding to people commenting on his post.

Currently, the post has 554 retweets, over 1.3K likes, and has generated 221 comments. Bums01 is engaging with many of those responding.

For example, someone posted a parody pic of a guy preparing to insert cleaning products up his rectum. (I know, that’s a weird sentence. But I’m not sure Medium would like it if I posted the pic, and I don’t know how else to explain it.) Bums01 wrote in response that:

“Apparently someone in NYC actually did this, is in ICU with severe internal rectal burn and injuries, was tweeted by a Doctor”

He goes on to say that “Yeah read it about 30 min ago.”

I’m sorry, but bullshit. If you really just read a doctor’s tweet sharing that someone is in the ICU with severe burns from trying to Lysol their rectum, you’re going to share a link. Or at least you’re going to provide the doctor’s Twitter handle or some other way for people to read about this wild claim for themselves. You just are. Unless of course you’re lying. (Bums01 has yet to respond to my request for a link to the tweet.)

I tried to find independent verification of the alleged NYC doctor tweet. I couldn’t. (“Doctor tweets patient disinfectant rectum” and related search entries were not phrases I ever expected to have as part of my Google search history.) The most likely explanation for why I couldn’t find any information is because it’s not true.

Bums01 has had to get inventive to avoid getting caught in his lies, and he’s really leaning into it.

When asked why there isn’t news coverage he says there already is because of news coverage about a spike in calls to poison control centers. But that increase is unrelated to Trump’s press conference and isn’t coverage about ED treatment. That response exhibits the vagueness of someone who just wants to keep up their charade.

But people lie all the time. And most lies aren’t worth writing a Medium post about. So why write about this one?

I write this as someone on the left who wants to remind my own tribe that it’s not just the right that falls for fake news.

Previously, I have gone out of my way to respond to fake news stories on the right (for example here and here). And I’m deeply troubled by the American right’s serious fake news problem. But the left is not immune to fake news.

Many of the themes I saw in responses to bums01’s fake news are uncomfortably similar to themes I routinely see when fake news spreads on the right.

For example, many of the comments reflect confirmation bias. Lots of people on the left want information that confirms that Trump supports are stupid, so they are going to be inclined to accept information that confirms that Trump supports are stupid enough to do something like drink bleach. This bias is reflected in comments like:

“OMG. I knew people would be that stupid”

“Seriously! I know I predicted it would happen this quickly.”

“You just knew this was going to happen”

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of dimwitted Trump supporters out there. But it does show how wanting confirmation for certain narratives about Trump and his followers can lead others astray. And falling for and spreading this kind of fake news doesn’t do anyone any good.

So part of why I wrote this post is to remind those on the left (and right and anywhere in between) that we’re not immune to falling for fake news. We need to work against our natural cognitive limitations as part of a responsible search for truth.

I also write this post as a reminder about the role that social media plays in spread fake news. If you go to report a tweet on Twitter, you need to choose from a category of reasons why you’re reporting it. There isn’t a category for “this is a lie” or “fake news” or anything like that (although there is a category for something being “misleading about a political election.”) As a result, I reported the tweet under the general “It’s something else.” But I was unable to provide any additional information as to why I was reporting the tweet.

In addition, this post made the jump from Twitter to Reddit. It was posted on Reddit’s r/facepalm and has gained 36.7K upvotes in 7 hours and is at the top of the page. The post’s thread has been locked by the moderaters so people can’t point out that the claims made in the tweet aren’t true.

Social media platforms aren’t all bad, but they need to do a better job of helping their users differentiate what is credible from what is not.

Valuing truth should be a bipartisan value. Engaging in fact checking should be a bipartisan practice. Currently, falling for fake news is a bipartisan problem.

Written by

Attorney and philosophy professor writing about philosophy, law, religion, politics, queerness, and books, among other things. He/him

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