Gretzky death hoax used images of soldier’s funeral, peddled dodgy supplement

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We spotted the ad at right while editing a story in late August, and thought it needed a closer look. (We will admit to having the clicky instinct that its creator seems to have intended, along the lines of: “Wayne Gretzky died? How did I miss that?“)

“Gretz is a hero for that,” the ad promises. For “that”? And what kind of heroism led to a funeral?

If you clicked on the ad then, you would have been sent to vibranturbanliving.com, a site which was making a very perfunctory attempt to pretend to be a photography blog. (The site has since evaporated.)

Keeping things classy, vibranturbanliving.com is registered through namecheap.com. Whois.namecheap.com was down when we tried to use it, which we guess shows that you get what you pay for.

The site’s IP address is in a residential area of L.A.

There are two parts to the photo — a generic shot of Gretzky, and a group of soldiers carrying a flag-covered coffin.

Some work with Google reverse image search shows that the photo was taken at Cpl. Nathan Cirillo’s funeral in Hamilton, Ont., in October of 2014. It shows the moment when his coffin was carried out of Hamilton’s Anglican cathedral at the end of the funeral. The original was taken by Warren Toda, a Toronto-based freelance photographer working for the European Pressphoto Agency, or EPA. Toda’s photo was picked up by at least two Irish newspapers.

The original image was flipped horizontally, as you can see. A careful look at the details shows that it’s the same picture.

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So what was the point? We archived the landing page, but really should have screenshotted it, since the landing page turned out to be a frame for a promotion for our old friend Alpha Force Testo, a supplement with apparently magical powers which is sold through hockey-related fake news.

We’ve written about it twice before:

In brief:

  • As Sweden’s election approaches, voters are being bombarded with disinformation. As much as a third of the stories Swedes share online is fake news, Reuters reports. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the election may produce a government willing to try bringing Sweden into NATO.)
  • In the Atlantic, Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari makes some bleak predictions about AI and the future of democracy. In the 20th century, he points out, liberal societies were more efficient at decision-making than totalitarian ones, because a single state couldn’t process information as well as a mass of more or less independent people. “This is one reason the Soviet Union made far worse decisions than the United States, and why the Soviet economy lagged far behind the American economy.” But improved AI may change that: ” … it might make centralized systems far more efficient than diffuse systems, because machine learning works better when the machine has more information to analyze … The main handicap of authoritarian regimes in the 20th century — the desire to concentrate all information and power in one place — may become their decisive advantage in the 21st century.” Long read, worth your time. 
  • In an equally depressing companion piece in Politico, Zeynep Tufekci points out that an excess of unfiltered information makes it hard to cope as citizens: “The glut of information we now face, made possible by digital tools and social media platforms, can bury what is true, greatly elevate and amplify misinformation and distract from what is important … democracy can’t operate completely unmoored from a common ground, and certainly not in a sea of distractions.” Must-read.
  • Making Tufecki’s point more strongly than she did, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes outlines in a Twitter thread what awaits a U.S. teenager who turns to YouTube to research an assignment about the Federal Reserve: conspiracy theories involving the Illuminati, who, videos argue, were behind both global communism and the movement to abolish slavery. Must-read.
  • People looking for information on YouTube about far-right protests in Chemnitz, Germany are “consistently directed people toward extremist videos on the riots — then on to far-right videos on other subjects … sent down a rabbit hole of misinformation and hate,” the New York Times reports. The key to the problem: YouTube’s algorithm, which “systemically directs users toward extremist content.”
  • In Buzzfeed: researchers pretending to be Russian trolls spent $35 and were easily able to get their ads placed on Google. They went out of their way to get caught: they used a Russian address, paid the bill in rubles, and “changed its IP address to appear as if the account were based in St. Petersburg, the site of the Internet Research Agency.”
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