Fake news may currently be the biggest cliché on the Internet. From the speeches of politicians to the manufactured quotes of company executives, fake news has become the ultimate defense. In an age where information has a shelf-life of only minutes, any real news which is unfavorable to someone can be denied or dismissed as fake, often without any consequences or checking.

However, this leads to a strange hybrid between fake news and urban legends which originate from half-truths. These can spread in many ways, through email and Whatsapp chains, the origin of which is completely lost.  False information spread online, either maliciously by those who want to cause harm to a specific target or unknowingly by the general public. This fake news is more insidious. It has no original source to track down, nobody knows who invented it. It has no end date, no news update that will change the narrative. Instead, these rumors may burn on social media for a day or a week or a month. They may flare out only to be restored in a burst of activity weeks later.

Fake kidnappings and real deaths

A dreadful example of this has surfaced in Mexico since the summer. All year, Grupo Irena has tracked fake news in the country concerning suspected gangs of child kidnappers across the country. Now while this sounds serious and plausible in a country so plagued with criminality, kidnappings in general tend to either be quick snatch and grab affairs (secuestro exprés) or well-planned, targeted plots, especially when targeting minors. There are real reasons to be scared of this. From 2006 to 2018, over 6,600 children and teenagers were declared missing.

Despite this, there is close to no credible evidence of gangs of men roaming the countryside, snatching children at will.

However, the shock of child kidnapping is anchored into Mexico’s subconscious. Stories like the murder of 14-year-old Fernando Marti in 2008 are not forgotten. This has made the Mexican public prime to believe fake news about child kidnapping. Tragically, this has had horrific consequences.

In August, four innocent people were burned alive on suspicion of being child traffickers in Puebla and Hidalgo. In September, a detective was doused in gasoline and burned to death by a mob of 100 people, again in Hidalgo. In the case of Alberto Flores Morales and Ricardo Flores Rodriguez, killed in Puebla on August 29, their deaths were broadcast on Facebook Live, where their own families witnessed it. The viciousness of these lynchings show both the fear that these rumors spread and the desire of vengeance that fake news can cause. In a supreme irony, the mob showed on Facebook Live what they felt they were doing to keep their children safe, but which only served to keep the fake news alive.

But why should this concern you?

Many headlines have covered how fake news distort perceptions of reality, allowing people to believe lies that coincide with their worldview.

At Grupo Irena, we battle another consequence. Fake news about crimes such as child kidnappings mean that our clients may overreact to nonexistent threats and ignore real ones.

Painful evidence of this came during the coverage of the Mexican earthquake on September 19, 2017. Journalists ran rampant with the story that a little 12-year-old girl, Frida Sofia, was alive in the rubble of her school. The news reached such levels that rescue workers at the school worked all day to save her before the truth broke. Frida Sofia had never existed. The time and resources of rescue workers had been used chasing a lie instead of saving people who were really in danger.

Fake news create real fears and have real consequences.