Absurd story of holiday-gone-wrong an example of how fake news affects Bendigo audiences

It might be making a splash online, but the viral story about a Bendigo man blinded while holidaying in Thailand is just another example of the fake news phenomenon duping audiences around the world.   

Since it was published on the Sunday Inquirer website this week, an article with the headline ‘Man turns blind after stripper urinates on him’ has been shared widely by social media users in Bendigo and abroad.  

According to the farcical story, a man is said to have caught chlamydia during his encounter with a Thai exotic dancer, an infection that eventually claimed the sight in one of his eyes. A picture of a man wearing an eye patch appears alongside the story and the unaccredited author even purports to have spoken with a doctor at Bendigo hospital, a Dr Andrew J Baxton. 

But a Bendigo Health spokeswoman, who also saw the story in her Facebook feed, said there was no staff member by that name at the organisation, and quotes attributed to the doctor were plagiarised from the Fred Hollows Foundation website. 

Bendigo Advertiser investigation has found the story is actually an adaptation of a satirical news piece that first appeared on website World News Daily Report.

The text plagiarised from the Fred Hollows Foundation.

The text plagiarised from the Fred Hollows Foundation.

In the original version, the man is from Arkansas, not Bendigo, and acquired the eye infection during a getaway in Mexico. 

World News Daily Report, which claims to be a “American Jewish Zionist newspaper based in Tel Aviv”, makes no secret of its factual inaccuracy. The footer of its website reads: “World News Daily Report assumes all responsibility for the satirical nature of its articles and for the fictional nature of their content.

“All characters appearing in the articles in this website – even those based on real people – are entirely fictional and any resemblance between them and any person, living, dead or undead, is purely a miracle.” 

But that did not stop the Sunday Inquirer for reproducing parts of the story without declaring it false, or respected Indonesian news site Liputan 6 from reporting the saucy yarn as fact. 

The original source makes clear its status as a parody site.

The original source makes clear its status as a parody site.

The providence of the accompanying image is also dubious; the person pictured in the story is indeed a real eye injury patient, a man named Ashley Clover.  

The photo of Mr Clover was first used by British news site South West News Service in November last year when the man alleged he was poked in the eye with a curtain rod on sale inside a homewares shop in Wales.

SWNS confirmed the authenticity of the images, although Mr Clover himself was unable to be reached.  

The picture was first used for a (real) story about an UK resident injured by a curtain rod.

The picture was first used for a (real) story about an UK resident injured by a curtain rod.

A picture of the so-called Dr Baxton that appears on the World News Daily Report page was also misappropriated, taken from a YouTube interview with Texan cardiac surgeon Dr Charles D Fraser.  

La Trobe University communications lecturer Mark Civitella said it was this apparent consultation with experts, as well the article’s adherence to news writing formula, that made the Sunday Inquirer piece convincing for readers. 

Paradoxically, it was a growing lack of confidence in traditional sources of information, like scientists and major news mastheads, that made audiences more susceptible to fake news, Mr Civitella said. It was a development he labelled “highly damaging to our society”.  

“It’s happening with climate science, vaccination, right through to other areas of our life where we once relied on people to go and do the work and come back with advice we can rely upon,” the academic said.  

The abundance of information available online, and people’s inability to discern whether it was true or not, was also a reason Mr Civitella gave for the foothold fabricated stories were able to gain in the community; while these types of stories always existed – he cited reports about UFOs and the Loch Ness monster as classic examples – they were historically treated as entertainment, not fact.  

Indonesian news site Liputan 6 reports as fact the concocted yarn.

Indonesian news site Liputan 6 reports as fact the concocted yarn.

But according to Bendigo comedian Mike Elliot, it was the duty of readers to know what was fake and what was truth. The local man began parody news site The Bendigo Standard last year in an effort to “spotlight some of the weird stuff that's going on” around the city. 

“It's up to them (the audience) whether they believe it or not, it depends on how gullible they are,” Mr Elliot said.

Typical features of a news website – horoscopes and a rolling weather forecast, for example – were added to give the Standard an air of authenticity. But his site did include a disclaimer, much like the one World News Daily Report used, and Mr Elliot also said he had a duty of care not to cause harm when publishing a story. 

While some posts made mention of Bendigo personalities Peter Cox and deputy mayor Rod Fyffe – one headline reads, ‘Marilyn Monroe statue to be replaced With Rod Fyffe’ – most protagonists were given made-up names. The name of the writer responsible was also listed at the top of each story, a step Mr Elliot said held them accountable for their content.  

Mr Civitella believed audiences could end up seeking out the credentials of mastheads and journalists whose work they read, much like the public liked to see the qualifications of doctors or lawyers from whom they sought advice.  

“The messenger is just as important as the message.”

Otherwise, his advice for audiences was simple: “ The moral lesson is always keep an eye out for fake media.”

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