In Depth

Fake news: Seven bizarre stories that went viral

From Pizzagate to Brexit, these are some of the biggest whoppers circulating online

Parliament has launched an [a]inquiry into the spread of online "fake news", examining the impact of false information on recent events and developing ideas to curb the spread of misinformation.

However, the UK isn't the only nation taking action. Indonesia's highest Islamic cleric is to issue a fatwa against made-up scoops "amid fears that fake reports on social media are fuelling ethnic and political conflict", says the Sydney Morning Herald.

Here are some of the stories that were widely shared around the world, despite being totally false.

Mosque shooting

Hours after it was reported that six people had been shot dead in an attack on a mosque in Quebec City this week, stories began appearing online linking the massacre to Syrian refugees who had supposedly arrived in the country two weeks earlier.

However, in reality, police say the only suspect in the shooting is Alexandre Bissonnette, a white Canadian with apparent right-wing political sympathies and an alleged history of posting xenophobic comments online.

Pope backs Trump

In the run-up to the US elections, right-wing blogs proudly proclaimed that Pope Francis had outed himself as a Donald Trump supporter.

"I have been hesitant to offer any kind of support for either candidate in the US presidential election, but I now feel that to not voice my concern would be a dereliction of my duty as the Holy See," the pontiff supposedly said, before going on to endorse the Republican candidate.

Unsurprisingly, it turned out that His Holiness had not joined the Trump Train - the story actually originated on satirical news website WTOE-5.

Pizzagate

Of all the bizarre rumours attached to Hillary Clinton during the US election, the weirdest was an online conspiracy theory alleging that high-level Democrats were operating a paedophile ring from Comet Ping Pong, a Washington DC pizzeria popular with politicos.

It may sound like a tinfoil-hat fringe theory, but "Pizzagate" proved that fake news can lead to all-too-real danger: 28-year-old Edgar Welch was arrested and charged after allegedly firing an assault rifle inside the pizzeria last December.

According to CBC News, Welch told police he had "read online that the Comet restaurant was harbouring child sex slaves and that he wanted to see for himself if they were there".

Turkey joining the EU

Leading Brexit campaign group Vote Leave came under fire in the run-up to the June referendum for a poster that falsely claimed Turkey was about to join the European Union and that the UK could not prevent its admission.

In reality, Turkey's application to join the bloc has been gathering dust since 1987. According to David Cameron, at the country's current rate of progress, it will be ready to join "in about the year 3000".

Furthermore, as EU experts were quick to point out, no new member state can be admitted to the union without the unanimous approval of existing members.

BLM murder

In February 2016, right-wing blogs began sharing news of a horrifying crime, alleging that 19 white women had been murdered in Los Angeles by a black supremacist serial killer who carved "Black Lives Matter" on to their bodies.

The story, which played on centuries-old racist fears, was quickly debunked as an extreme attempt to discredit the protest movement. However, that did not prevent the gruesome hoax story from being shared or liked more than 500,000 times on Facebook, meaning it appeared on millions of feeds, reports Buzzfeed.

Obama pledge ban

The news that one of Barack Obama's final executive orders as president - Executive Order 13738 - would make it illegal to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in schools was shared with disbelief and anger on Facebook thousands of times.

It turns out disbelief was the correct response as the story was utterly false. Obama did issue an Executive Order 13738, last August, but it was an amendment to the wording of a previous order dealing with federal contractors' compliance with labour laws.

Cinnamon roll explosion

Not all of the most popular fake news stories were political mudslinging, however; some are simply bizarre.

One of the most shared viral hoaxes of 2016 was the story of a shoplifter whose plan to hide a tin of Danish pastries in a very unusual place backfired spectacularly when the can supposedly exploded in his rear end.

The combination of gross-out body horror and a foolish criminal getting his comeuppance made this tale perfect clickbait and it was shared thousands of times on Facebook – despite being totally (and obviously) untrue.

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