Since the 2016 election, the reach and impact of fake news has been a major concern in our public discourse. While much of that scrutiny has focused on tech giants such as Facebook and Google, the activity of radio -- a major platform for media consumption -- both on-air and on social media has largely escaped scrutiny. Turns out, it shouldn’t have.
Media Matters gathered fake stories flagged by fact-checking websites Snopes, PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, and Lead Stories between December 2016 and February 2018, or that were mentioned in a BuzzFeed study of the most viral fake stories of 2017 (which focused on fake news articles specifically). When Media Matters searched for these stories, we found that various radio stations -- talk, sports, and music-focused -- were helping spread this made-up content.
Talk radio, which is popular with conservatives, was certainly part of the problem; the industry has long had a misinformation problem. But the problem of sharing fake news wasn’t limited to talk radio, as music and sports stations were also ensnared by made-up content.
Here are some of the other findings within the pool of radio stations that Media Matters reviewed:
Radio stations in North America shared fake stories more than 100 times between on-air and on social media, across at least 98 stations.
American radio stations shared fake stories 101 times, while Canadian radio stations shared them 10 times.
Radio stations shared fake stories 63 times on the air and 49 times on social media pages.
Of the 49 fake story shares on social media, more than 90 percent were shared by social media pages of music stations; of the 63 times fake stories were aired, more than 75 percent were shared by news/talk stations.
Nearly half of the times that radio stations aired a fake story based on a specific fake news article, hosts read at least two paragraphs of it out loud. That added up to slightly more than a third of all on-air fake story shares.
The fake stories that the stations posted on social media were shared more than 7,100 times combined.
In about 9 percent of cases where fake stories were shared, a co-host jumped in to note the story was fake or the station later issued some kind of acknowledgement that the story was fake, either on-air or on social media.
The fake stories that stations aired varied in type and content. Nearly 10 percent of those stories came from YourNewsWire, a major fake news website that European Union and American experts have called a proxy for Russia. These included the following:
Iowa news station KDTH-AM and Florida news station WTKS-FM shared YourNewsWire’s fake story that Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington was murdered because he was about to report on a ring of pedophiles.
A host of The Morning Line with Larry & Janet on Virginia’s WLNI-FM cited YourNewsWire’s fake story that the Sutherland Springs, TX, mass shooter was a member of antifa and said, “Antifa said they were going to shake it up this weekend.” Additionally, a host on Florida talk radio WSBR-AM quoted from the story and said that antifa had “gotten out of control.” Illinois news/talk station WCKG-AM also shared it on Facebook.
A co-host on Georgia station WZGC-FM claimed the site’s fake story that an NFL lawyer was murdered because he said that Super Bowl LII was being rigged had “conspiracy theorists running amok,” to which his colleague replied, “And rightfully so.” News/talk stations KFKA-AM of Colorado and KFI-AM of California also pushed the story. KFI later apologized for sharing it.
On his show on Las Vegas station KXNT-AM, conservative radio host Alan Stock read YourNewsWire’s fake story that actor Denzel Washington said President Donald Trump’s election “saved us from an Orwellian police state.” Stock lauded Washington and said, “You tell me that doesn’t take guts for somebody like that” to say it.
- On her nationally syndicated show, The Dana Show, conservative host Dana Loesch pushed YourNewsWire’s fake story that a missing Centers for Disease Control (CDC) official had said the flu shot was killing people. Loesch, reading the fake story, said, “I'm not a conspiracy theorist at all, but that is so sketchy.”
Many stations also cited fake stories from World News Daily Report, a “satire” website that started adding a disclaimer buried at the end of each page in April 2017 seemingly in order to bypass tech giants’ crackdown on fake news and continue to earn ad revenue. Some of the most widely shared fake stories from the website were:
Radio stations KZIM-AM of Missouri and KHND-AM of North Dakota cited World News Daily Report’s fake story that a man was cremated in a morgue while he was taking a nap as a reason to give the fictional man a “genius award.” Florida station WFLA-AM, music station WBLS-FM of New York, and the nationally syndicated D.L. Hughley Show also aired the story. Arizona music station KSLX-FM also shared another variation of the fake story concocted by a different fake news website.
Music stations WWFF-FM of Alabama, KBLX-FM of California, WERK-FM of Indiana, and WMC-FM of Tennessee shared on social media the site’s fake story that a woman drove over her hairdresser with her car after he ruined her hair. News/talk station WGN Radio of Illinois also aired the story.
News/talk stations WTVN-AM of Ohio, KSL-FM of Utah, WBAP-AM of Texas, KFTK-FM of Missouri, and KLZ-AM and KCOL-AM of Colorado pushed World News Daily Report’s fake story that a man said a Sasquatch sexually assaulted him. On KCOL-AM, conservative radio host Jimmy Lakey called it a “true story.” Music station WLVK-FM of Kentucky also shared the story on social media.
New York station WCBS-AM, news/talk station WBRP-FM of Louisiana, and Nevada music station KXPT-FM aired World News Daily Report’s fake story that the FBI seized thousands of penises during a raid of a morgue employee’s home (KXPT-FM acknowledged the story was fake in a later segment). Music stations WGGY-FM of Pennsylvania, KQRC-FM of Kansas, WFMX-FM of Maine, WBZA-FM of New York, and KRXQ-FM of California also shared the story over social media.
Radio stations also shared other fake news articles and tweets, including the following:
Conservative radio host Dennis Lindahl read a fake story that Delta Force members raided an “Obama stronghold” in Thailand on North Dakota station KTGO-AM and claimed that there was a mass human-trafficking cover-up.
Multiple news/talk stations used the fake story that entertainment celebrities were calling for a strike until Trump resigns to attack the celebrities and their work. The stations included WKBN-AM of Ohio, WSBR-AM of Florida, WZFG-AM of North Dakota, KTSA-AM of Texas, and WTMA-AM of South Carolina (where conservative radio host Charlie James said the celebrities were “completely disconnected with reality”).
Multiple stations shared the fake story that there was a diarrhea incident at a strip club after people ate from a tainted buffet, including sports stations KNBR-AM of California (which called for the fictional strippers’ suspension) and satellite radio station Mad Dog Sports Radio on Sirius XM, along with news/talk Florida station WZZR-FM. Music stations WHFX-FM of Georgia and WXNX-FM of Florida also shared the fake story on social media, as did multiple Canadian music stations.
News/talk station WYOO-FM of Florida shared a fake story that an Army sniper killed intruders in a neighbor’s home, with the host calling it a “happy news story.” News/talk station WSMN-AM of New Hampshire also shared the story, and North Dakota music station KLTA-FM shared it on social media.
A host on North Dakota news station KHND-AM cited a fake tweet from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) supposedly claiming that Trump was trying “to get us into a war with North Japan” and said she was as “dumb as a box of rocks.”
News/talk stations WCBM-AM of Maryland, KEEL-AM of Louisiana, and WYAY-FM of Georgia cited a fake tweet from Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) supposedly claiming that people do not need guns because she has an “armed security detail” that is “the best.” The WCBM-AM hosts cited the fake tweet while discussing “idiot Democrats,” while both conservative radio host Moon Griffon on KEEL-AM and a host on WYAY-FM acknowledged that the tweet may not have been real before sharing it anyway.
Besides fake articles and tweets, radio stations also pushed hoaxes from internet trolls:
A fake story that originated from message boards and social media that Russian officials connected to the Uranium One deal and the Trump/Russia dossier were killed in a plane crash came up on several news/talk stations: WNTK-FM of New Hampshire, shared by conservative radio host Keith Hanson (who noted he was unsure of its veracity), WYRD-FM of South Carolina by conservative radio host Bob McLain, WNYM-AM of New York by a caller to conservative radio host Joe Piscopo’s show (who agreed it was legitimate), KTGO-AM of North Dakota by Dennis Lindahl (who said he heard about it on “the back channels”), and WLUP-FM of Illinois by host Matthew “Mancow” Muller.
A fake story that also originated from message boards and social media, that Parkland, FL, shooting survivor David Hogg was a “crisis actor,” was supported by news/talk stations WAEB-AM of Pennsylvania (which told people to “check it out” and also put it on social media), WRNO-FM of Louisiana, Virginia’s WLNI-FM on The Morning Line with Larry & Janet, and Texas’ KXFR-AM on Chasing the Truth. News/talk stations WHPT-FM of Florida, KSEV-AM of Texas, and music station KUPD-FM of Arizona also bolstered the hoax.
Notably, in at least 18 of the cases found where stations pushed fake stories, the stations acknowledged that they may not be accurate or true, or that the websites they got them from may not be credible, yet they chose to share them anyway.
In one particularly notable case, a host on Illinois sports station WSCR-AM claimed that he had heard Pluto had been reclassified as a planet. When his colleague pressed him on the matter, the host opened a Snopes debunk of the fake story and read the debunk as proof that the story was true. When his colleague noted that he was reading the debunk and that if he scrolled down he could see it was rated “false,” the host said he thought the rating was made by readers. “One person is calling it false, I see that,” he said. “There's others here, though, that say it's true." The host went on to dismiss the fact that the story he shared was false, saying that “depends [on] who you want to believe.”
A similar problem extended to stations’ social media accounts, which often shared fake stories without clearly clarifying that the stories were not real or were from “satirical” sites. Occasionally, stations issued some kind of correction or at least acknowledged that the story was fake.
Given that radio stations will likely have a larger presence in Facebook news feeds going forward because of changes the social media giant is making, stations’ reliance on fake news for content will become even more of an issue.
Below is the list of radio stations or shows that have shared fake stories during the timespan of this Media Matters review, divided by state and country.
-WGYL-FM (had to write “lol I hashtagged it #fakenews” in follow up post in response to confusion) (Reese’s peanut butter cups were being discontinued)
-WBZA-FM (acknowledged the mistake but only in response to a comment; did not delete post) (FBI seized penises during a raid)