In the olden days (so, 20 years ago), even the most casual celebrity watcher could stand in a grocery store line and roll their eyes at salacious tabloid headlines. Everything written within the tabs was supposed to be taken with a heaping serving of salt, too—so why don’t we apply the same standards to stuff we read on the Internet?
What’s the Difference Between Good Gossip and Fake News?
Repeat after us: not all gossip is fake news. True gossip is a subjective conversation that mixes conjecture with opinions, facts and (occasionally) photos, while fake entertainment news is meant to purposefully mislead and misrepresent falsehoods as facts, be it through made-up quotes, doctored photos or outright lies. A pap shot of two married A-listers making out in a car? That’s gossip. But publishing an interview that never happened—complete with fabricated quotes—is fake news.
Why Is It So Easy to Get Duped?
OG gossip blogger Elaine Lui of Lainey Gossip notes that the common denominator in the spread of all types of fake news—gossip and otherwise—is a lack of discernment on behalf of the consumer. “There can, certainly, be bad gossip, just as there is bad anything. But for the most part, people who understand gossip and who do it well and responsibly can shut down bad gossip—rumours, basically—relatively quickly. The common ground then between gossip and fake news is the consumer: what we’ve seen is that so many people can’t distinguish. Or lack the tools to distinguish.”
So How Do You Become a Discerning Consumer?
One way we can identify fake news is by tracking its genesis. In the summer of 2018, for example, there was a persistent rumour that David Beckham got a teacher at his daughter Harper’s school pregnant. Say what?! An explosive scoop like that would be a huge story for any journalist, but instead of showing up in a newspaper or entertainment show, the rumour started with an anonymous post on Reddit, which was then shared on Facebook and Twitter. From there, several less reliable sites (like Australian Woman’s Day and Your Tango) picked up the story despite having zero sources or evidence (and a firm denial from the Beckhams’ PR team). A teacher from Harper’s school was doxxed and identified as the woman in question, eventually leading to her father stating publicly that his daughter had never even met David Beckham. That single lie spawned months of nefarious headlines—and *a lot* of speculation that Victoria and David were headed for divorce.
Who’s responsible for giving these falsehoods so much attention? How does a post from Reddit lead to months of divorce speculation for one of the world’s most famous couples? Well, that’s complicated too.
Unscrupulous content aggregators and websites scour the internet for any bit of information on celebrities, then create deceptive headlines and stories in order to garner clicks—the better they are at it, the further the story goes, the more ad impressions they generate and the more profit they make. Many websites and social media feeds pull these headlines from one another, creating a cyclone of lies.
To trick readers, seedy outlets will often mimic a more reputable outlet’s domain, layout and font. From there, readers unwittingly add to the confusion by sharing a bit of gossip on their social feeds. With so many headlines and outlets to navigate, people can be quick to share a scoop on social media without looking beyond the headline, inadvertently giving a fake story even more traction.
Because of social media, celebrities can debunk stories fairly quickly but by posting the story, they are also often giving it more credence (this is knowns as the Streisand effect, a term for how shutting down a story can inadvertently garner it more attention).
Why don’t more celebrities sue tabloids?
While lawsuits can somewhat deter tabloids, it doesn’t stop them completely, because many celebrities are reluctant to get into expensive and protracted legal fights. That said, libel laws in the UK and Australia are much more stringent than in the U.S., making it easier for stars to sue tabloids in those countries. Last year, Rebel Wilson won a $4.5 million settlement against Bauer Media in Australia for publishing stories that claimed she was lying about her age. In 2011, Katie Holmes won a settlement against an America tabloid that painted her as a drug addict and Keira Knightley once sued the Daily Mail for using her photo in a story about anorexia (she donated her settlement to charity).
Evaluate the source and the actual information
To suss out good gossip from bad, first and foremost, check the source. “You can almost rule anything out that originates from an Australian magazine. There are German outlets that are also notoriously unreliable,” Lui says.
A recent example of a shaky source is The Rock’s alleged interview on the subject of “snowflakes.” (Even we fell for this one.) This January 2019 story, which originated in a British tabloid called the Daily Star, should have immediately been dismissed, because why would a global superstar like Dwayne Johnson be giving an “exclusive!” interview to such a lowly outlet? He wouldn’t, and he didn’t.
A second example of of this of outright trickery is the 2018 Drew Barrymore story in Egypt Air’s in-flight magazine—this one seemed off simply because the quotes were so stilted (“I cannot deny that women made a great achievement over [the] past century, there is significant progress recorded by people who study women status throughout history”) and out of character for Drew—which makes sense, seeing as she never gave the interview. Sometimes it comes down to common sense: if it sounds fake, it probably is.
After considering the source, Lui challenges celeb gossip consumers to take a critical look at the actual information in the piece. If an outlet is unsure of a story, the language will be vague, offering up no concrete details or photos (just like the recent headlines surrounding the supposed hook-up between Brad Pitt and Charlize Theron, which used a lot of “supposeds,” “mights” and “possiblys” to make up for a serious lack of information).
The advent of browser extensions like NewsGuard—which advises users of the reliability of news and information sites based on nine journalistic criteria—should also help curb fake news of all sorts. In the meantime, the next time a story pops up on social media with an outrageous headline ( “Jennifer Aniston Pregnant with Brad Pitt’s Baby At Last!”), but it doesn’t show up on any legitimate entertainment media sites (think outlets like People, Entertainment Tonight, Access Online, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Gossip Cop, Just Jared and, of course, Lainey Gossip) you can bet it’s about as real as the luxury accommodations at Fyre Festival.