Crying foul over Facebook claims

New York Jet and former West Virginia University quarterback Geno Smith has broken both legs in a motor vehicle accident.

In other news, Huntington City Council has banned WVU signs, and the flying WV now is illegal as part of a citywide cleanup campaign.

And if you believe both of those “stories,” which have been widely circulated online recently, then I have a bridge for sale in Brooklyn you might want to buy.

Ah, the Internet. It’s a wonderful place when used responsibly – by those who upload content and those who read it. However, as these two sports-related hoaxes have illustrated, the World Wide Web can be as dangerous as playing football without a helmet.

When tackled with reckless abandon, the Internet is a place where people can – and do – get hurt. Let’s look at these two false tales. Both spread like wildfire via social media. The story about Geno elicited shock and concern among the WVU faithful. Mountaineers far and wide collectively gasped at what very likely could have been a career-ending injury had the accident story been real.

This falsehood, perhaps someone’s idea of a sick joke, wasn’t funny. Rather, it had a similar impact of someone yelling “fire” in a crowded room when no such emergency existed.

The “story” incited panic and left those who were duped feeling taken advantage of and angry. They have a right to be mad, because fake reports such as these – especially when they are marketed as news releases – cause significant damage to readers and discredit legitimate news sources.

OK, so the byline on the piece about the WVU color ban in Huntington listed “Alligator Jackson” as the reporter. That should have been a clue to anyone reading the material that it was a steaming pile of horse pucky.

Yet, not everyone reading this filth had the ability to see the parody in this distasteful spoof. The mayor’s office in Huntington received numerous irate calls, and taxpayer money was wasted to fund the manpower it took to dispel this blatant lie.

Let’s face it. It’s easy to understand how someone might be tricked into believing one of these outrageous tales. Sports news is full of unbelievable accounts, and some new big scandal always is breaking.

If someone would have told me years ago when I covered Penn State football that beloved coach Joe Paterno would have died with a dark cloud hanging over his legacy, I would have laughed out loud. Yet, no one’s laughing now in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky tragedy that has marred an institution and left children devastated after a sexual abuse case that opened all our eyes to the fact things weren’t always happy in Happy Valley.

This case was in the news again this week, as legal proceedings continue for three former Penn State top brass accused of orchestrating a cover-up to protect Sandusky and/or what had been the school’s untarnished image.

Here’s something that seems like it should be fiction, but it’s true. So, it’s easy to see how the lines between reality and rubbish can become blurred.

Who would have thought former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez would make national headlines in a murder investigation? Or what about the numerous other stories about pro athletes who have been arrested just this year for crimes they are alleged to commit?

One quick online search and thousands of news stories such as these – written and vetted by professional news media – will pop up. With the atrocities that exist within the sports world and in our communities in general, I have to question why someone would make up crazy stories that have no merit.

Recent truth has been stranger than fiction. I wish the Sandusky case had been just a hoax. I wish cyclist Lance Armstrong never was banned for doping allegations and that New York Yankee Alex Rodriquez wasn’t headed down a similar path in baseball.

I wish the world were a place where bad things never happened and you could believe everything you read. I wish all journalists were subject to professional standards that ensured integrity and honesty.

Sadly, that’s not the way things are anymore. Perhaps they never were, but our instant access to information makes these stories seem so much more prevalent. Who knows how Babe Ruth and other sports legends of years gone by would have faced in the public spotlight as it shines today. I imagine many heroes’ stories would have had different chapters exposed in this information age.

While such immediate ability to investigate and report news can be a beneficial tool, it is one that bears great responsibility. Neither journalists nor readers ever should bench good judgment. Things may not always be as they seem – like at Penn State – and some “stories” are just that: works of fiction.

In this modern era of information exchange, both those creating and/or disseminating the news and those reading and/or sharing it with others have a responsibility to do their due diligence. It’s a sorting process that seems to get harder and harder every day, especially when everyone doesn’t play by the rules.

When it comes to these two recent news scams, I have to cry foul. It won’t stop someone from trying some similar nonsense tomorrow, but perhaps we’ll all be a little wiser or more skeptical the next time a crazy Facebook post circulates in our back yard.