Last week, social media was on fire with speculation about Megan Thee Stallion dropping charges against Tory Lanez—until it came out that the hoopla was based on incorrect information.
Hip-hop media outlet Fucious TV, which has pages on every major social site, was one of the first to post a since-deleted screenshot of an L.A. County Court cases page which showed “no information found” about the next date in Lanez’s case for allegedly shooting Megan last July. The screenshot was shared with a graphic that claimed, “Megan Thee Stallion Allegedly Drops Charges Against Tory Lanez In Shooting Case.”
What these outlets failed to notice, though, is that elsewhere on the L.A. Courts page was an events tab which showed that the next date was being rescheduled. There was also a fundamental misinterpretation of the legal situation: The case is L.A. County vs. Tory Lanez, and L.A. County pressed the charges, meaning Megan couldn’t have them dropped.
Tory Lanez’s name was trending within an hour of Fucious TV’s post, which was shared by countless other rap news pages and even some bigger media outlets. Within a couple hours, the noise was so inescapable that Megan also felt compelled to comment on the rumors, incredulously asking, “Y’all can’t tell when shit fake news?”
When reached for comment, Fucious TV told Complex, “We retracted the story after confirmation from Megan Thee Stallion and Tory Lanez’s team. There was a clerical error on the Los Angeles County case website that made it appear that the case information had been removed.”
Reports like these often happen around already hot-button news stories, where any update is ripe to cause a viral commotion. Soon after news broke that Kanye West and Kim Kardashian were on the brink of divorce, rumors began circulating about Kanye having an affair with YouTuber Jeffree Star in early January. Social media outlets began sharing speculative posts about the situation, and their “source” was Ava Louise, a 22-year-old TikToker famous for licking a toilet seat on an airplane as part of a “coronavirus challenge.” Despite the questionable origin of the story, though, people ran with the salacious prospect. Star denied the rumors after initially having fun with them, and Louise admitted in a subsequent TikTok video, “I made this entire scandal up. There is literally not one bit of truth to anything I have said. I just tricked the entire internet into talking about me again because I was on a lot of Adderall and bored.” But many people were too invested in the memes and jokes to notice the denials.
Similar confusion affected rappers Quando Rondo and Lil Durk last November. Days after King Von’s tragic death, social media rap news accounts shared a rumor that Lil Durk “reportedly” bought tables to an upcoming Quando Rondo show, presumably in order to intimidate him. There were some Durk supporters who didn’t second-guess the story and merely shared it as fact. Rondo eventually denied the rumor, but it did nothing to quell the noise. The people who started the rumor may have been simply looking for engagement, but the story ran the risk of further fanning flames in a tumultuous conflict.
Shawn Cotton of Say Cheese TV, a burgeoning media platform which has a reputation for being one of the more responsible new outlets when it comes to limiting the spread of misinformation, tells Complex that he’s careful about the news he decides to post to socials. “I get a lot of my sources from DMs and real respectable people throughout the industry,” he says. “So when I see things that are breaking news, I always double-check.”
Say Cheese is a Texas-based outlet boasting 1.3 million Instagram followers and 707,000 YouTube subscribers. His channels report the latest happenings with up-and-coming rappers as well as big names. He says that he accidentally posted unsourced, incorrect information on occasion in the early days of running his page, but learned from the failings of outlets who repeatedly posted rumors with no sources.
“You see a lot of different brands who fall off, and people stopped going to them for that exclusive news, because in the past they weren't really credible,” he says. “So I learned from that. I learned from people whose brands fell off over time [and] from the winners like the TMZs and the Vlads.”
Say Cheese does their best to avoid posting unsourced rumors, and that focus on credibility has worked out for them. Cotton says he didn’t even “entertain” last week’s rumors about Megan and Tory.
“Every up-and-coming outlet, when you’re trying to do your thing, you're antsy, and you want to be one of the blogs to be known as breaking a big story,” he says. “But I’ve learned the ins and outs... You learn what not to do and what to do.”
Cotton says he doesn’t consider himself a journalist because of a lack of formal training, but he does respect journalistic ethos. He stressed the importance of fact-checking and being precise, and says there would be internal consequences for people on his team hastily posting information that turns out to be false.
“If you post something wrong about the wrong rapper, he’s gonna want to see you,” Cotton acknowledges, explaining, “If anybody on my team posts fake news, we're going to have some words and we're definitely going to apologize to the people that we reported on.”
The rise in popularity of social media has lowered the barrier for entry in just about every field. Independent journalism is an essential means of unbiased reporting, but the internet has paved a path for hip-hop news accounts to be run by anyone with the free time to scour court sites and social media. For accounts who don’t bother to check sources as closely as Cotton does, there’s a lot of rein to operate recklessly. Traditional journalists are accountable with bylines, but many social media-based outlets are anonymous. “Nobody knows who owns Fucious TV,” Cotton says. “But if they knew who did last week, they would've got at them. Labels and lawyers would've got at them.”
Cotton says he feels like there’s potential for pages like his, DJ Akademiks’, and DomIsLiveNews to eventually be respected as credible media outlets because they operate with a more “raw” purview that traditional outlets don’t. “There's so many artists in this world,” he explains. “Some artists may get shot and killed or anything can happen to them, but the artists may not be big enough and Complex may not know who that artist is. But we cover more up-and-coming artists.”
There’s value in pages like Say Cheese, but the outlets that spread misinformation end up muddying the waters. Not every person in Say Cheese’s lane has the trustworthy sources that Cotton does, and many of them don’t conduct their operations with the same discernment, which spurs the spread of misinformation.
It’s not just the rap world dealing with this dynamic. Twitter recently announced Birdwatch, “a community-driven approach to addressing misleading information.” The promo video for the initiative noted, “You can’t trust everything you see online,” a sad reflection on a world full of conspiracy theorists, fake Russian pages intentionally spreading propaganda, and other “fake news” littering timelines across the globe.
A 2019 study found that “news overload is significantly related to a decrease of news efficacy, which in turn increases news avoidance on social media.” In other words, there is so much news overflow from the 24-hour news cycle that overwhelmed people evade traditional news sources. That exhaustion opens the door for social media accounts with simple, easily digestible graphics to be taken as truth.
That dynamic intensifies when it comes to feeding confirmation bias. The Russian Internet Research Agency was investigated by Congress for allegedly trying to steer the 2016 United States presidential election with hoards of bot pages posting propaganda all over Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr. Al Jazeera reported that “the use of social media as a military tactic is part of the so-called Gerasimov doctrine” with a “goal of permanent unrest and chaos within an enemy state.” That goal becomes easier when people are already susceptible to deception.
Facebook has said that they still don’t know how many bots are on Instagram, and they were back for the 2020 election. Many of the bots posted pro-Trump messaging, but they operated with a “two-pronged attack” with anti-Trump messaging as well. Some of the pages, purportedly pro-Black accounts, posted anti-government memes and misattributed photos in an effort to target Black youth. Wired reported that in one instance, a Tumblr page posted a photo alleging that an NYPD officer assaulted a woman, but the officer was actually from South Africa. The image, and story, was easy to believe for those who didn’t need much convincing about the depravity of the police.
Misinformation stokes the embers of polarizing discussions in the political sphere as well as pop culture. Those who eagerly shared Fucious TV’s graphic did so to “confirm” their belief that Megan was “lying” about the shooting. Soon after the news broke, Megan took to Twitter, telling fans, “Imagine how I feel waking every day seeing people LIE and turn my trauma into a joke? That whole team figures out ways to create doubt with my story every week and the media eats it up.”
It’s not just the media who eats it up. There are hordes of people eager to misbelieve a woman who says that violence was committed against her. Not only was the story insensitive to Megan’s plight, it was false, and it fed the confirmation bias of men clamoring for any reason to call Megan out.
“We’ve seen what Megan said and that's just really messing with people's livelihoods,” Cotton says. “[Megan] probably couldn't eat that day. She probably was stressed out, you know what I mean? So I don't ever want to affect somebody in that type of manner if it's false.”
In today’s fast-paced media environment, the misreporting of an unreputable account can start a chain of events that reaches massive audiences with startling speed. At least two well-known rap media outlets shared the incorrect story about Megan and Tory after Fucious TV posted it, seeming to legitimize the report momentarily. Social media rap pages and smaller blogs keep controversial content in abundant supply, but it’s a perilous game for journalists to start taking journalistic cues from non-journalists.
Rap’s misinformation problem is accelerating, and it will be crucial for more people to become educated on what proper sourcing looks like. You don’t have to believe a story just because someone made a graphic about it. It’s also vital, not just for readers but also the mavericks who look to start their own online news accounts, to take advice from Cotton. As he puts it, “It’s not about reporting first, it’s about reporting right.”