The media is wonderful for transmitting information, but in our hyper-connected world, information often travels faster than “facts” and “the truth.” Delve into the slippery world of mass media in the 21st century and consider the role of social media in blurring the lines between truth and lies.
One case in particular nicely illustrates the confounding way truth and lies spread in mass media. On June 15, 2017, The New York Post published this headline: “Breatharian Couple Survives on the Universe’s Energy Instead of Food.” Now, The New York Post is a big paper—the sixth largest, by circulation, in the United States. And it’s an old paper, established in 1801 by Alexander Hamilton. But headlines like this show that even the mainstream media can sometimes stretch the truth, or just ignore it completely.
An Absurdity Goes Viral
In skimming the NY Post article here, it’s not just the headline, but the whole article is, well, just silly. And this was not an April fool’s joke. The article says “Husband and wife Akahi Ricardo and Camila Castello believe that food and water aren’t necessary and humans can be sustained solely by the energy of the universe.” They’ve eaten, we’re told, just three times a week since 2008, and even then only a piece of fruit or vegetable broth. Furthermore, the couple didn’t eat anything, not a single thing, for three years, and Ms. Castello didn’t eat during her first pregnancy, either, because as she declared, “I knew my son would be nourished enough by my love.”
For the record, it is not possible for people to survive without nourishment, and we are required to get our nourishment from food. These facts should not be controversial. But the NY Post article presented the story of this so-called Breatharian couple as fact. There wasn’t a word of skepticism, or an iota of fact-checking, or even a hint that this story wasn’t literally true.
But it was interesting, and the next day dozens of similar stories about the Breatharian couple appeared in newspapers and internet sites. From Great Britain’s The Independent came this headline, “Couple Claim They Live a Food-Free Lifestyle and Haven’t Felt Hungry Since 2008.” The headline, here, is truthful—the couple was indeed making that claim. And the story underneath includes some journalistic skepticism, beginning, “Studies have shown the health benefits of brief periods of fasting, but one couple is making the bizarre claim that they have learned to survive largely without food and are instead sustained by ‘cosmic nourishment.’”
Credit for thoroughly debunking this Breatharian story is due not to a traditional newspaper, but to the internet site snopes.com. They published a detailed “fact check” on June 16, one day after the NY Post article. They pointed out that the Particle was widely republished across the web without additional fact-checking, and without any apparent attempt to verify their dangerous claim that people could live without food or water.
This is a transcript from the video series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
And it is a dangerous claim. As Snopes pointed out, people trying to follow this “Breatharian” philosophy have died. They provided links to stories about deaths in Scotland, Australia, and Switzerland among committed Breatharians. But the most effective part of the Snopes article was its expose of the founder of the Breatharian movement, an Australian woman named Ellen Greve who calls herself Jasmuheen. Though she espouses not eating, she has freely admitted that she drinks juice regularly, and often enjoys biscuits, tea, honey, and soy milk. A reporter invited into her home found a refrigerator full of food. There’s also a story told by a British journalist who accompanied Jasmuheen to the check-in desk at Heathrow airport, and overheard the clerk confirming that Jasmuheen, the Breatharian, had ordered a vegetarian meal. Jasmuheen, it appears, is a fraud.
The story of this so-called Breatharian couple received very widespread media coverage, both in print, on broadcast sites, and on internet sites. To use the media lingo, it “went viral.” And it calls into question whether we can trust modern journalists to do the one job that’s most essential: to tell us the truth.
Learn more about tracing the rise of mass media
The Mainstream Media Backtracks to Reality
The NY Post found a story that was patently and obviously false, but published it, and it flew around the globe. But the story isn’t all discouraging—when the other media outlet, snopes.com, called the claim false, the tone of the reporting of the story immediately changed. The NY Post published two follow-up articles. Four days after the original article—that is to say, three days after the Snopes debunking—the headline read “Breatharian No-Food Diet Claims Are a Bunch of Hot Air, Experts Say.”
Just a few days after breathlessly reporting the couple’s claims as true, the same newspaper quoted experts who said the Breatharians’ story “just makes no sense,” or, to put it more bluntly, that the couple was delusional. Quote, “There’s just no way it would ever be possible.” Then, two days later, the NY Post printed its final article on the subject, under the headline: “Breatharian Couple—We Eat, Just Not Like You.” In this article, the couple changed their story. Now, they said they do eat, just “not as much as the next guy.” They also mention that they provide online video courses starting at $200, or a $1,700 in-person seminar, for people who want to learn more about their lifestyle.
What should have happened was some basic fact-checking at the front end, before the first article was published, and republished, and flew around the internet. Winston Churchill was quoted as saying, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on.” Society may be tempted to trust the media. But you can’t always believe what you read, whether it’s in a traditional newspaper or on a website. Put this in your skeptic’s toolkit: Don’t rush to judgment. Take your time—that is, put on your pants—before you believe media stories, especially ones that seem too good to be true. You might want to start with a simple question: Is a story even sensible, or does it pass a simple “sniff test” of the truth?
It’s easy, and almost fun, in a way, to poke fun at news sites that so obviously distribute false information. But don’t forget: Many people believe these stories. Why are people so susceptible to being fooled? A 2014 survey found that 6 out of 10 Americans admitted that over the last week, they only skimmed newspaper headlines. Most people never bothered to read the stories. Reading behavior has also been studied from the online direction, looking at links of news articles posted on social media, like Facebook and Twitter.
Learn more about truth, lies, and citizenship
The Social Media Echo Chamber
Researchers have found that 60 percent of posted links, including many that received comments and re-postings, had never, not once, been clicked on and opened. People are sharing headlines and posting comments about them, but most of the time, they haven’t read the actual stories. People are scanners and sharers. Many people don’t even try to digest or understand the news. That doesn’t bode well for our critical thinking skills or our ability to tell the truth from lies.
There is also something about modern social media that lends itself to what’s been called the echo chamber effect. People collect circles of what are called friends, or followers. These followers are not necessarily real friends from real social lives; they aren’t people we’ve grown to know from real-life interactions. Instead, they tend to be people that “like”—our posts.
Of course, people who “like” what we post tend to be people who agree with our posts. In the social media world, we end up surrounding ourselves with people who agree with us and who agree with each other. Stories are “liked”—that is, shared and passed around and spread—based on whether we agree with them. That “like” may not have anything to do with whether the stories are truthful. For the few people in our social circle who might not see things in the same way, who might doubt the truthfulness of a story—well, if they post that they disagree—they’ll often get unliked, or dropped from the social media echo chamber.