The click-bait headline on one of the many Internet news sites I monitor drew me in immediately. “FBI Admits all Registered Motorcycle Owners are on Classified Gang List,” it proclaimed. Of course I had to find out more, so I read the article about an MSNBC correspondent named Jeremy Lancaster meeting with a government official to ask about rumors about the classified FBI gang list. According to the article, Darrin Cornia of the National Security Branch responded, “The FBI has been collecting and compiling Department of Motor Vehicles and Drivers License Division records for the purpose of adding those that own motorcycles to a classified gang list since 1994.”
Cornia further explained, “It’s nothing more than collecting and utilizing data. We may not like to admit it, but the truth of the matter is that those that own and operate motorcycles are 67% more likely to be involved in illegal or criminal activity than those that do not own or operate a motorcycle.” In other words, if you registered a motorcycle or have had a motorcycle endorsement anytime between 1994 and the present, then you are on the FBI gang list.
I felt a sense of outrage bubbling up, and immediately went into fact-checking mode so that this story could be the basis for my next THUNDER PRESS column. The first thing I found was that Wikipedia, which we all know as an impeccable source—as in, “If it’s on the Internet, it must be true”—listed 35 outlaw motorcycle clubs in the U.S. Then I reread the article from the Washington Post and started getting suspicious, especially when it stated, “Cornia… agreed to complete transparency prior to the interview…” Wait a doggone minute. Since when does any government agency, especially one that’s a division of the FBI, agree to complete transparency?
Then I did a search on MSNBC’s website to find the correspondent named Jeremy Lancaster. He wasn’t there. I e-mailed MSNBC’s media relations department to ask if they had a correspondent named Jeremy Lancaster and if the news piece was true. In the meantime, the story had gone viral, appearing on motorcycle blogs and forums, motorcycle attorneys’ websites and in their e-mails, biker radio news sites, countless Facebook pages and even a few reputable motorcycle magazines’ web presences. They, too, were outraged, many posting scathing comments and criticisms about the authorities’ treatment of motorcyclists.
I received an almost-immediate e-mail response confirming that no Jeremy Lancaster works for MSNBC and that the story was indeed false. By then I’d noticed that the source of the story was the National Report, which is a known satire site. And I saw that something about the URL for the Washington Post wasn’t quite correct: it had a .co domain. So I clicked over to that site where I saw news items like, “ISIS Endorses Ted Cruz for President, Cites Government Shutdown,” and “Study Finds Direct Correlation between Menthol Cigarettes and Gang Violence” and “Donald Trump Fined after Wig Maker Reveals Use of Endangered Species Hair.” Then there were articles that fell into the, “Hey, it could happen” category like, “Nevada EPA Considers Enforcing Major Restrictions at Burning Man 2015” and “Pennsylvania Bridge ‘Repaired’ with Rope, Duct Tape.”
Seems that about the only thing real in the story was the accompanying photograph and credit; it was an AP file photo taken for Harley-Davidson and recently used for a March news article about H-D laying off 169 workers from its Kansas City plant. The photo shows H.O.G. members on an organized ride—not exactly the epitome of a motorcycle gang.
Within a few hours after the original story appeared, snopes.com debunked it on their website. Then again, there are those who believe that Snopes is funded by George Soros or the Koch Brothers and cannot be trusted because of its leftist (or rightist) agenda… never mind that, to the best of my knowledge, Snopes is owned and operated solely by researchers Barbara and David P. Mikkelson, and funded entirely through advertising.
“Hey, it could happen,” became the mantra while otherwise-reputable news outlets scrambled to clean up the misinformation they’d posted. Some used the fake article as a soapbox upon which they expounded on their own issues with the government, starting off with variations of, “This story we posted earlier? It’s false. Or is it?” and then stating the belief that we are, in fact, being monitored because of our involvement with motorcycles, motorcycle clubs and the like, and launching into a laundry list of everything that’s wrong with the government, motorcycle-related or otherwise.
It’s astounding to me that so many otherwise thoughtful, deliberate and intelligent people fall prey to the zeitgeist of today’s journalism, “If it’s on the Internet, it must be true,” and abandon all discernment while suspending any possible disbelief just because they saw something on someone’s blog or Facebook page.
I’m pretty sure I’ve lost friends (at least, some Facebook friends) by pointing out that they’ve just perpetuated some false, and in some cases potentially harmful, piece of misinformation. As a wordsmith and someone who has to do research for my vocation, this stuff drives me absolutely bonkers.
So the next time you see something like, “Three Animal Rights Activists Went Missing After Protesting the Use of Leather at a Motorcycle Gang Rally” or “Harley-Davidson’s ‘Fat Boy’ Motorcycle was Designed to Represent the Dropping of Atomic Bombs on Japan,” please save yourself some embarrassment and do a little fact-checking before you propagate it as news!