By Jessica McBride Special to Published Nov 04, 2015 at 4:16 PM

The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, its advertisers or editorial staff.

Did you hear the "news"? Sheriff Clarke was supposedly exposed by Anonymous hackers as being a member of the KKK.

No, not really. And neither were various Republican U.S. senators and American mayors also named in the "story."

It was fake news posted on an Onion-like site attempting to satirize the Anonymous hackers who have threatened to really release the names of KKK members later this week. The fake story’s list appears, though, to have generated from an anonymous post on a site called Pastebin. The real Anonymous has denied being behind that "list" which was posted by God knows who. However, the Pastebin list that was linked in one normally somewhat credible media site doesn’t include Clarke’s name. That appears to have been added into the fray by the fake satire site. Or maybe it was on another "list" generated by some no-name on Pastebin in the creepiest corners of the unaccountable Web. Who knows?

Either way, it’s ridiculous.

It didn’t stop various politicians from being asked about this by reporters and feeling they had to deny it. Credible TV and print reporters actually ran around and asked people if they were in the KKK because some nut with a keyboard said they were. The fake news site? Its other top story was "GoFundMe established to pay Bristol Palin to STFU forever and ever" complete with a disturbing photo of her looking frightened with duct tape over her mouth. Seriously. These don’t seem to be equal opportunity satirists. Maybe they think Republicans are funnier.

A slew of politicians took to Twitter to slam down the "allegations." Mayor Jim Gray of Lexington, Kentucky actually took to Twitter to write, "This allegation from the group Anonymous is false, insulting and ridiculous. I have never had any relationship of any kind with the KKK."

And then there was Sen. Dan Coates (R-IN):

So this is what it has come to. U.S. senators are forced to waste their time responding to news that’s fake or lists posted on creepy Internet sites by people who won’t reveal their identities or provide any verification or supporting evidence to back up the claim. This sort of tweet, of course, risks generating real headlines such as "Coats Denies Being KKK Member." But what’s the guy supposed to do? The allegation is all over the Internet. I didn’t bother to ask Clarke whether he denies being a member of the KKK anymore than I am going to ask Tom Barrett if he belongs to the Aryan Nation or inquire whether Tammy Baldwin is a member of the Gangster Disciples.

People would realize right away the latter two examples are fake, right? Why are they so willing to believe such absurdly bad things about Republicans? (Clarke’s Twitter site was preoccupied with other topics the past few days, such as police-related issues and President Obama).

Why does it matter? In several ways. For one, the fact that such a prima facie absurd story – I mean, seriously, the African-American sheriff would belong to the KKK? And the senators and mayors? – was actually taken seriously by some, ricocheting around the Internet and forcing denials, says something profoundly disturbing about how quickly people will believe anything they see on the web and how quickly lies can become possible truths.

Here’s the problem with the Internet (and, as with everything, it’s a double-edged sword). There’s no quality control behind Googling. If you Google Sheriff Clarke, the fake news might pop up as quickly as the real, credible stuff. Then other people copy it, and because you now see it everywhere, you wonder: Is it true? In the words of Williams James, regarded as founder of modern psychology, "There’s nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it."

The front page of your computer screen doesn’t have a quality control filter. Editors wouldn’t put fake bilge on the front-page of a newspaper (well, some of them ... more on that in a minute). But some people believe whatever they read because someone published it somewhere on the Internet. I think the media should get out of the business of asking politicians to respond to undocumented claims on the web. The real media, that is.

I’m not one of those people who frowns on the power of the Internet in general, though. As with everything, I find the Internet a tool for good and bad, depending on how you use it. The great democratization of publishing has empowered legions of entrepreneurs and writers to have a voice in the public square. This can be very, very good. It can also be very, very bad.

The real news has gotten so crazy – a presidential candidate being asked about calling women dogs on TV, any number of true crime news stories – that it’s almost impossible sometimes to tell the fake news from the real. Which says a lot. In a world where everyone needs a click, people do what works.

The second issue the fake "news story" illuminates is the hatred Clarke (and some Republicans) have to endure for voicing opinions in the public square. The sheriff is no shrinking violet, and he can dish it out with the best of them (and some of the mayors in the fake story were Democrats). I don’t agree with everything Clarke says or does; however, I also don’t disagree with everything he says and does. No public official is all right or all wrong all the time.

However, I will defend him to the end over his right to voice his opinion on issues that matter without being subjected to racialized commentary. Although the KKK piece was fake, it borrowed from a nasty argument some on the left make about Clarke too frequently – that supposedly he’s a traitor to his own race. It’s pretty patronizing to assume that African-Americans should be limited to one particular political ideology as if only they are not allowed the freedom of intellect and personal principle.

We saw an example of this racialized criticism of Clarke when he was called an Uncle Tom recently by a Black Lives Matter activist in a tweet. Google Clarke, and you soon land on sites that contain racial epithets. It’s absurd to imply that Clarke, a black man, is somehow harming blacks by simply having other ideas than the American left about their empowerment (and, yes, I know he runs as a Democrat. Whatever. He’s obviously not one. An independent more than a Republican? Maybe).

How about dropping the labels and simply challenging the sheriff’s ideas? I recognize that he’s sometimes the one tossing out labels against others. He’s a smart man; debate ideas, rather than name calling people or groups.

The fact that some were so quick to believe a fake story about Republicans being KKK members also traffics upon an insidious smear from the left that conservatives are all inherently racist (misogynists too).

The fake KKK story also made me consider anew how the media handle hacker materials. As we saw with past actual hacks, the media were quick to run the contents of hacked emails even though the hacking itself was a criminal act. Various media outlets also ran names of people associated with the Ashley Madison hack – again a theft of private information, and they ran them even though it was impossible to prove those people were really the ones who signed up (suicides resulted). The photos stolen off various celebrities’ clouds were viewed by thousands of people, if not millions.

I believe the media needs to set a universal standard here, including when the actual KKK hacks are released (if ever): That they will not print private information obtained through a criminal act, especially by anonymous parties. It sets people up for the unfair "did you beat your wife question." When people say "I’m not in the KKK; it was just fake news," or "I was not on Ashley Madison; someone used my email," people wonder, "But were they?" That’s not right. In fact, it’s grossly unfair to expect people to deny stuff that is only known through criminal act. The media shouldn’t be accessories in the criminal theft of people’s privacy. How would you like to be asked to deny something that is hurtful, ridiculous and untrue? And then to see it printed, knowing people will wonder, "Is it?"

Here’s the other, bigger problem: When the real media reports the kind of unverified stuff the fake media reports, people stop being able to discern the difference. And it’s a really dangerous thing for the real media to relinquish the throne of credibility and verification. Slippery slope indeed. As George Orwell said, "The people will believe what the media tells them to believe."

People should have a right to privacy from publication of the fruits of criminal acts against them. All people should be able to voice their opinions – even controversial ones – about the news of the day without being subjected to racialized jokes or attacks. And the real media needs to hold onto their standards for verification and documentation. It’s what sets them apart. For now.

Jessica McBride Special to

Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.

She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.

Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.

Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.