Viral hoaxes are causing real harm

After a misinformed fake news report spread throughout an online community of 1,500 men, women and children, protecting a national heritage area in northern Montana was more urgent than ever. Worthiness of the Laramie…

Viral hoaxes are causing real harm

After a misinformed fake news report spread throughout an online community of 1,500 men, women and children, protecting a national heritage area in northern Montana was more urgent than ever.

Worthiness of the Laramie National Heritage Area designation is closely tied to the U.S. Forest Service’s North American Elk Index, a benchmarking tool developed to measure and control the number of elk across the county. A drop in the index put the Montana DLBH into jeopardy, prompting the public to demand action.

During the summer of 2017, a lot of misinformation was spread through the local online community of Missoula, Montana. Someone spread the story that the Atlas Cohousing Company had acquired property, and if that were true, there would be “a lot more homeless and diseases will be in the city,” according to one of the people affected by the story.

They even posted a screenshot of the alleged website for the DLBH, showing a “fact sheet” about how much space the parcel owned by Atlas was, but what they never noticed was the website owner’s vast experience in fundraising, making that real estate appear fake.

“I don’t think they got the point of their prank, but we were buying and selling stuff in the area, and a lot of people were interested,” said the owner, who went by the name “Giant Goliath S-H.” “And they take it so seriously because they realized the whole story had come from one of our email threads, and had really spread like wildfire.”

That begins the story.

The website hoaxes, it turns out, are indeed a common practice. In fact, the dubious claims shared online follow a typical pattern, leading to a massive furor, and the larger community brings it to light.

Generally, if the news is virulent and even more extreme than the rumor, it’s likely to get noticed. And if there are lots of people making the claim, it quickly creates a victimless crime. Even when it comes to something like fake news, hurtful rumors tend to be damaging to the person who made them, and those people are often compelled to take action. The responses usually include disrupting the rumor, explaining its origin, setting the record straight, even creating a sense of community that can reassure people that this will not keep happening again.

In the case of Atlas Cohousing, the company wanted a re-done listing and wanted to reach people who had read the rumor online. The main aim of the hoax was to get the opinion-maker to believe it, so they gave people an email address and even asked them to e-mail them with the definitive proof that their intentions for the parcel were entirely valid.

“Why don’t you send me a picture of it,” Giant Goliath S-H said in response to their request. “Let me see it. And write back to me.”

But there was no picture. Even if the owner was working with her friends, wouldn’t they be able to find a building permit?

They did — for the building where the company’s first residential compound sits.

Upon closer investigation, Giant Goliath S-H said, they could find nothing.

A Prairie Dog Magazine article, written in 2008, confirms that “Elk Refuge 2” is technically not in the 200-plus-acre parcel.

Plans for this building, a two-story home, were approved in 2010, with the development deadline of March 2011 passed with just one day’s notice, according to a Forest Service permitting document that backs up the false claim.

The building, located at the corner of Indian Avenue and Clark Road, is owned by Basin Properties LLC, a company specializing in renewable energy projects. The building was constructed for the Waterloo Renewable Energy Hub, which is part of a project designed to harness the power of wind turbines.

It also had nothing to do with a national heritage area.

The company reached out to the Forest Service’s public information office for more information, but they did not receive any additional information. To this day, they are trying to figure out what happened.

Saying, “We are nothing but honest people,” to this day, Giant Goliath S-H still remembers being disgusted by the continued hatred of the project, feeling isolated and attacked for taking actions out of the ordinary. “I felt like my life,” she said, “was at stake.”

They took action, eventually reporting the story to the Forest Service.

Leave a Comment