On December 11, 2015, 23 year old Carl James Dial Jr., of Palm Desert was arrested for the firebombing of mosque of the Islamic Society of the Coachella Valley earlier that day. The lobby of the building was damaged, and nobody was injured. Dial seems to have acted alone, and the mosque was 75 miles away from San Bernardino. Yet the story was reported as "Furious American Citizens In San Bernardino Burn Down Radical Islamic Mosque".
This is bunk because of the facts stated above. It was just one young man (as far as is known), it was not in San Bernardino, the mosque was not burnt down. The photo used in the story is that of a Mosque in Sweden, burned in 2014.
The Coachella mosque does not seem to be "radical" either - after the attack the Iman, Reymundo Nour, held a community meeting:
Interestingly, the father of the alleged attacker described him as struggling socially:
This illustrates a very real problem. People are increasingly getting their information from a very narrow set of sources that tend to reinforce each other. Things that are false spread within those social media groups because the members of the groups want to believe. They want to believe stories about radical mosques, because they strongly believe in such stories. They then participate online in discussion of the stories with a very specific world-view.
The comments above come from the same site that the "Furious American Citizens ..." headline came from. It's a site called "US Herald", which got the story from "American News". Both sites exemplify a recent trend of promoting fear based stories for advertising revenue. It's a type of fear and anger clickbait marketing that was described by Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post, when she explained why she's changing her approach to fighting fake news:
Look at the "American News" version of the story to see this in action.
The "story" itself is a tiny inflammatory and highly inaccurate retelling of what happened, spiced up with a Donald Trump quote, and ending with a leading question designed to get people commenting:
And it's totally surrounded by advertising.
This is exactly the type of thing Dewey described, a pile of clickbait designed to exploit the fear and anger of a specific subset of American culture. According to Carl Dial's father, this seems to have been the very thing that led to the attack in the first place. A vicious cycle of hate that seems to be self sustaining, the flames being strongly fanned by internet advertising.
Can the situation be improved? Dewey has given up the whack-a-mole approach to debunking, where she would try to collate lists of "what was fake on the internet this week". There's an endless stream of such bunk, and Dewey notes that the true believers will simply ignore debunking from sources like the Washington Post.
But as I've said several times, my debunking is not aimed at true believers, but on helping people who are more on the fence, or who are attempting to get out of the rabbit hole. Debunking of individual claims is very helpful to these people, and it's also helpful to people who are friends or relatives of true believers.
But I think that more can be done. I think that the echo chambers and walled gardens of social media need to hear the voice of reason, and that can't be done just by posting on Metabunk. We need to actually go in there and politely talk to people. There needs to be a grassroots approach to debunking.