How the Independent created a fake news Facebook card out of a real story

Here’s a thing going around Facebook today: Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel banned Trump from Chicago!

So did Rahm go Rahm-bo? Did he ban Trump from the city? Clicking through and seeing the headline on the actual article suggests a less dramatic story:

And the quote in context?

[Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel] added: “Chicago, our schools, our neighborhoods, our city, as it relates to what President Trump said, will be a Trump-free zone. You have nothing to worry about. And I want you to know this, and I want your families to know this. And rest assured, I want you to come to school … and pursue your dreams.” [italics mine]

So in other words, the Facebook headline is a complete lie. Emmanuel was simply saying he was not going to spend resources to enforce federal law in Chicago. Trump himself has not been banned from anything at all.

So where did that initial headline come from? The clickbait one on Facebook which tells a flat-out lie? Was it made by Facebook? Or added by a deceitful user?

Nope. It was written by the Independent.

Let me repeat that. The Independent wrote the fake headline.

So why do we not see it on the Independent site? Well, a little known fact about newspapers and other websites is they embed code in invisible HTML “meta” tags that provide different headlines to different platforms, when the content is shared. And if we look in those meta tags we see that someone at the Independent coded the false headline in the meta tags, even though they would never dare publish such a headline on their web site.

Here’s the title you’ll see in your browser bar or tab (and the title that used to be shared with sharing services) as it appears in the HTML:

<title>Chicago mayor declares city ‘Trump-free zone’ after US President declares he will scrap DACA immigration programme | The Independent</title>

Here’s the title that people see, again, as it sits in the HTML on the actual page:

<h1 itemprop=”headline” class=” “>Chicago mayor declares city ‘Trump-free zone’ after US President declares he will scrap DACA immigration programme</h1>

And here is where the HTML tells Twitter and Facebook what to use:

<meta property=”og:title” content=”Chicago just banned Donald Trump from the city” />
<meta name=”twitter:title” content=”Chicago just banned Donald Trump from the city” />

Now, the point of the meta tags is building shorter headlines for sharing, and more concise descriptions. There’s no problem with that.

But in this case, the only place in that code where the Independent even mentions a “ban” are the social media specific tags, which allows the site to publish clickbait into social platforms while still retaining a shred of respectability on its website. And if people complain about the Facebook headline, they can always point to the headline on their site as being more or less valid (although it’s still a horrible headline, tbh).

Does this sort of deception work? Why, yes it does. This story has been shared on Facebook over half a million times in 24 hours. That likely makes it one of the top shares, if not the top share of the day. And they accomplish this by abuse of the platform-specific headline codes. The whole thing is shameful, and an insult to the work that the Independent’s reporters do. And it’s time for it to stop.

Solutions

Normally I don’t offer bullet-pointed solutions to things. But the solutions are almost ridiculously simple here. It’s just a matter of will, ethics, and incentives to get them done:

  • Papers: stop doing this. Apply procedures and oversight to meta tags. Whether it’s sloppiness or ethical lapse, get it fixed.
  • Facebook: stop tolerating it. Scanning the semantic difference between og:title and <h1> title is an easy fact check. Write code to do that and flag offenders. This is Spam 101.
  • People: Click through before you share. Always. And demand better from established papers.

The “reverse mullet” headline (party in the front, business in the back) must die, once and for all. With a little work we can help speed its demise.