Last week an “assistant professor” named Melissa Zimdars published a google document which she claimed was a helpful list of “fake news” sites that internet users should avoid being tricked by. The list quickly went viral. And a number of newspapers and magazines wrote articles praising her work. The trouble: at least a dozen of the sites she listed were respected independent news outlets whose reporting is very much real and verifiable. And she spent days shuffling names on and off the list to try to cover for the fact that she’d slapped it together at random to begin with, now she’s taken the list down entirely.
The first sign of trouble came when Zimdars began removing the names of various publications from her list, without offering any rhyme or reason, and without acknowledging that she had erred in including them in the first place. But even as she was playing this shell game to try to cover up the gibberish nature of her list in the hope no one would catch on that whole thing was a fraud, major news publication quickly began featuring her supposed story.
Remarkably, none of these major news outlets bothered to scrutinize her list at all before singing her praises. If they had done any research, they’d have realized that her list was a fraud. Instead, in an ironic twist, the likes of New York Magazine and Los Angeles Times essentially published fake news stories about a fake list of supposedly fake news sites.
By this time Zimdars had apparently realized she couldn’t keep disguising the fact she had done little or no research on any of these sites, and she began gradually admitting as much in the fine print of her list. At one point she acknowledged in a footnote that she had been relying on an earlier phony list of supposed “fake news” sites that been published as something of a revenge stunt stunt by a failed political writer on a religion blog called Patheos. That earlier list also contained as many respected news outlets as fake news sites, and has since been widely discredited. Zimdars apparently copy-pasted portions of the Pathoes list into her own list without even so much as looking at those sites. Not only did she misuse her position as an academic to commit widespread libel and defamation against legitimate publishers, she apparently committed plagiarism against a fellow libel artist.
Finally, by the time the week ended, “assistant professor” Zimdars realized the gig was up. She unpublished her entire list – and as had been her modus operandi all along – she provided no explanation or apology for having included so many legitimate news sites on her largely random “hit list” to begin with. She also removed all reference to the list from her own personal Facebook page, where she had previously been trying to use the stunt to gain internet fame. And yet some individuals are still mistakenly using previously-downloaded copies of various iterations of her list as if it were gospel – even as Zimdars continues to refuse to publicly acknowledge that her gibberish list needs to be discarded and ignored by everyone who ever saw it.
Members of the academic community rarely get away with these kinds of dishonest and unethical publicity stunts, particularly when they use their title in order lend credence to such stunts. But even as her professional fate at her university may still be up in the air, the legitimate independent news outlets which she mistakenly included on her list have spent the week fighting for their own reputations. Even though Facebook has already cracked down and banned nearly all of the actual “fake news” sites out there, making a list such as hers superfluous even if it had been accurate, some of the most vital independent news sites are being pummeled with unwitting false accusations by well meaning internet users who fell for Zimdars’ fake list of supposed “fake news.”
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report