Until Alaska Wildlife Troopers called, Daniel McDowell thought he was just having a little Facebook fun with a dummied up photo of a blue-eyed halibut and a report it had been caught in the Kenai River drainage far from its native habitat near the end of January.
It seemed like an innocent enough joke. Who was going to believe a story like this?
To start with, there is no such thing as a “freshwater river halibut.” Halibut are a marine species that can’t survive long in freshwater. And in winter, the bigger ones are not only far from Kenai Lake in the middle of the Kenai Peninsula, they are far away from coastal Alaska in general.
“Spawning takes place during the winter months with the peak of activity occurring from December through February,” according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “Most spawning takes place off the edge of the continental shelf in deep waters of 200 to 300 fathoms (1,200 to 1,800 feet).”
And then there were those blues eyes and the photo itself, which had smears of blue on the mouth and gill plate of the halibut in question almost screaming “Somebody did a bad Photoshop job here!”
The words “True Story” in McDowell’s post still hooked people apparently oblivious to the fact that the fish story was a “fish story.”
Welcome to the internets.
Concerned Facebook readers who saw the post soon began calling troopers worried about people killing rare, blue-eyed, freshwater river halibut, and pretty soon a trooper was calling McDowell.
He was nice enough, McDowell said Sunday. The trooper only asked for help in killing the fish story.
“He said people were calling Soldotna troopers’ dispatch and flooding the operator with calls about keeping the rare, blue-eyed, freshwater halibut,” McDowell messaged. “The trooper said they were inundated with calls. Too funny. The state troopers weren’t mad. They were getting a good laugh out of it. He just asked me to post something about it being a hoax.”
The blue-eyed halibut story was by then blowing up in the tubes. More than 5,000 people liked and shared the original post, McDowell said. Subsequent posts flagging the blue-eyed river halibut as a hoax were shared by thousands more.
‘Folks – I just received a phone call from the Alaska State Troopers concerning this very rare blue-eyed fresh water Halibut,” McDowell posted after the trooper call. “Evidently some are concerned and flooding trooper dispatch with calls. Please do not call the troopers as this incident has been taken care of and case closed 👮♂️🚓👮🏻♀️.. ”
That post also included a photo of two anglers pulling a halibut from an icy Kenai River just downstream from the Cooper Landing bridge. McDowell just couldn’t help himself, although this time he was quick to caution that “No Halibut in this ‘STAGED’ photo were harmed and after the picture was taken the fish was hung back up on the wall.. Great day of fishing today below the bridge in Kenai.. Many people don’t realize you can catch Halibut in the Kenai this time of year… this hog weighed in at 112 pounds…”
Still, the Kenai bridge photo sparked another round of buzz that finally led Orlando Gonzales, who manages a website for Alaska fishermen, to post another warning that “as funny as it may seem to all of us in Alaska, we have to treat this seriously. So, for all that have lovingly shared this post, this is NOT, I repeat, NOT real. ”
“Would you call (this) fake news?” McDowell asked Sunday.
His is a question nobody can really answer these days. There is no doubt the blue-eyed halibut story was fake, but where one draws the line between someone putting a goofy post on Facebook and “news” has become hard to determine.
Is the post itself “news” when it hits social media, or it does it require some “news” organization picking up the post and running with it as Alaska and then national media did with the fraudulent story of a baby moose born in a Lowe’s parking lot in Anchorage?
Wikipedia’s evolving definition of fake news says it is “found in traditional news, social media or fake news websites, has no basis in fact, but is presented as being factually accurate. Michael Radutzky, a producer of CBS 60 Minutes, said his show considers fake news to be “stories that are provably false, have enormous traction [popular appeal] in the culture, and are consumed by millions of people”. He did not include fake news that is “invoked by politicians against the media for stories that they don’t like or for comments that they don’t like”. Guy Campanile, also a 60 Minutes producer said, “What we are talking about are stories that are fabricated out of thin air. By most measures, deliberately, and by any definition, that’s a lie.”
McDowell’s “true story,” comment would appear to define something presented as “factually accurate,” and while McDowell didn’t meet the “enormous traction” bar, the story was consumed by thousands. It was likely viewed by more people than many actual news stories written about Alaska oil taxes, an important topic that seems of interest to few in the 49th state.
And the blue-eyed halibut story, like so many fish stories, was a lie.
But the Wiki entry goes on to say “the intention and purpose behind fake news is important. In some cases, what appears to be fake news may in fact be news satire, which uses exaggeration and introduces non-factual elements, and is intended to amuse or make a point, rather than to deceive.”
So McDowell probably gets a pass. His post was intended to amuse, and it used exaggeration and non-factual elements to entertain. His was the post of someone playing around at their computer in the middle of the Alaska winter.
The post wasn’t the problem so much as the willingness of people to believe so much of what they read on the internet no matter how many times they’ve been warned they can’t believe everything they read on the internet.
True, made-up facts
Some psychologists are blaming some of this on human evolutionary baggage that favored people more social than reasoned. Our brains, they argue, have been sort of primed to go with the flow to maintain the social order, and our brains think of social media as, well, social.
Reading this story about a bogus, blue-eyed halibut could increase the chances you believe the blue-eyed halibut actually exists.
Most of the research in this areas has centered on politics, but it applies equally to other information, particularly that concerning science. Fake science news sells as well as fake political news because people believe what the want to believe.
“There are facts, and there are beliefs, and there are things you want so badly to believe that they become as facts to you,” as psychology and health writer Julie Beck put it well in an article in The Atlantic.
Her observation helps explain why so few in the country’s mainstream media sensed the rise of Donald Trump during the last presidential election. They wanted so badly to believe Hilary Clinton would win that her victory became a fact right up until the vote was counted.
“One reason why fake news is dangerous is that we don’t like giving up reassuring certainties, and once we have a take on things, it colors further information,” the British Psychological Society observes.
In that context of a “take on things,” it’s not hard to discern how someone might ignore all the warning signs making it clear a story about a blue-eyed, river halibut is bogus and instead believe the “true story” true.
Start from the view that most things done by humans in nature are bad, a vision held by a significant minority of people in this country today, and stir in the idea that nature is chock-a-block full of the wild and undiscovered, another thing many believe.
Can you say Bigfoot, Loch Ness monster, or that favorite of Alaska reality TV – saberwolf?
Now add these reassuring certainties together and follow former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s good, old, “common sense” to arrive at the obvious conclusions:
A.) A blue-eyed, river halibut is possible because anything is possible in nature, and….
B.) If a blue-eyed, river halibut were discovered, he first reaction of despicable humans would be to kill it.
Viola! Save the blue-eyed river halibut!
In fact, to some well-meaning people, whether the blue-eyed, river halibut is real or not might even be irrelevant because, by God, if there’s even the remotest chance it’s real, it needs to be saved.
Call the troopers.