Sedro-Woolley family gets disturbing introduction to fake news when the death of a loved one was commandeered and twisted to make political points on the internet
SEDRO-WOOLLEY — Tim McCray signed into Facebook a few weeks ago and scrolled through his news feed as he does nearly every morning.
Something caught his eye. It was an article a family member had shared, titled, “Thug fatally shoots himself while taking anti-Trump selfie.”
The article, purported to describe an event that changed the lives of McCray and members of his family, was mostly a lie.
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On Feb. 28 in Concrete, McCray’s 43-year-old stepson, Joel Melom, accidentally shot and killed himself while taking photos with a gun he believed was not loaded.
That is fact.
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But the article and its inflammatory headline, found on a website that looked legitimate and was shared on Facebook, included embellishments and lies, even as it cited the Skagit Valley Herald as the source of its information.
The article, under that false headline, can now be found on more than 100,000 internet sites.
Many are accompanied by a photograph of a black man holding a cellphone and a handgun — a purported “anti-Trump thug.”
Melom, a man his family said was more likely a Donald Trump supporter, is white.
“It was upsetting,” McCray told the Skagit Valley Herald. “How can they be so callous and do something like that? We know it is fake, but people who don’t know where Concrete is (located) certainly wouldn’t know.”
The Skagit Valley Herald story on Melom’s death did not include his name, referring to him only as a 43-year-old Concrete man.
Melom was an Army veteran. He loved his family, dogs and had an affinity for firearms, his ex-wife Dana Linderman told the newspaper.
The fake news story labeled him a “thug” and included other falsehoods. It fabricated Melom’s motives in taking the photos.
“The man apparently had been greatly against Donald Trump, and many of his selfies included violence and profanities directed toward presidential candidate Donald Trump,” the fake story states.
“If anything, he (Melom) was a Trump supporter,” Linderman said. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe this was real.”
Though the story was later debunked by Snopes, a website that verifies or disproves viral internet content, that hasn’t eased the emotional toll the story has taken on Melom’s family.
That is part of the frustration for the Herald’s president and publisher, Heather Hernandez.
“This is a tragic situation for the family in the first place,” she said. “It would be devastating for a family suffering such a loss to see that.”
From a business perspective, it’s disturbing to see the hard work of a news organization that has survived more than 130 years to have its content misused for harm, Hernandez said.
“Anyone locally who read that story would see that we were sourced — as a local, trusted, vetted news source — and might believe it,” she said. “We work really hard to be that vetted news source.”
Hernandez said she hopes anyone who sees questionable content with any Skagit Publishing name on it will reach out to her or to Colette Weeks, director of content. McCray pointed out the fake story to the Skagit Valley Herald.
“At the end of the day, I’m most concerned about the people we serve,” Hernandez said.
Fake news ran rampant on social media during the last election cycle, leaving some to suggest that it affected the outcome of the election, according to The Associated Press.
According to a Pew Research Center study, about 60 percent of Americans use social-media sites such as Facebook as a means of getting some news.
“You hear about fake news and kind of ignore it until something like this happens to you,” Linderman said.
But it could have been worse, she said.
“(Melom) and I have a (teenage) daughter,” Linderman said. “What if she was on Facebook and saw this?”
McCray said his family contacted the lawyer handling Melom’s estate to see if it would be worth taking legal action against the site with the fake news, but it’s unlikely.
“It would take a lot of time,” he said. “It would cost a lot of money.”
Hernandez said it’s a wake-up call that no company and no person is immune to fake news attacks.
“It isn’t just bloggers and national sites. It’s also happened to your local newspaper and your neighbors,” she said.
McCray said he will be more critical now of news he reads online.
“It’s to the point where you really can’t trust anything you read or see — at least on the internet,” he said. “I’ve learned more about it now because of this incident.