Once more, the New England Patriots made history on January 21 when they secured their eighth AFC Championship in 16 years after defeating the Jacksonville Jaguars in a fourth-quarter comeback. Despite an injury to his throwing hand, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady delivered 138 passing yards, two touchdowns, and a 136.3 passer rating in the fourth quarter—but perhaps more notable was the Patriot’s single penalty for the game. According to the official Twitter account of the NFL, this “is the fewest penalties called on one team in a playoff game since the 2011 AFC Championship… when the Patriots were called for 1 penalty in a win over the Ravens”.
The Patriots’ one penalty for 10 yards statistic stands in stark contrast against the Jaguars’ six penalties for 98 yards, fueling speculation that the game was fixed. When asked about the discrepancy in the locker room, Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack said, “I’ll just say that’s self-explanatory.” Likewise, Jaguars defensive tackle Malik Jackson told reporters with a smirk, “The stats speak for themselves.”
It is not uncommon for losing teams and their fans to blame the referees for their loss; however, this standard line of reasoning birthed an internet conspiracy when several videos began trending on social media. OurState_CSU tweeted a four-second video of referee 34 nudging Tom Brady on the back and then patting his chest in what appears to be a gesture of congratulations, with the words “First guy to congratulate Brady? Number 34. What a teammate!” This video was viewed more than 3 million times before the next morning, and it was accompanied by chatter on social media, such as the tweets, “That Ref didnt [sic] congratulate, he said, You’re Welcome, Tom!!” and, “Just letting Tom know to take care of em. [laughing emoji] He want that bread before he leave the stadium. [three laughing emojis]”
Another three-second video shows a referee smiling as he says something to Patriots players in the end zone after the Patriots scored a touchdown. ScottyFrame30 tweeted, “. Ref smiling for that TD! Uhh not a good look!”; Travis Johnson tweeted, “When u on the Patriots payroll”; and Rev. Eric Dunn tweeted a suggested transcript of what the referee might be saying, “I got ya’ll fam, I got ya’ll”. Furthermore, another viral video titled “Breaking News: NFL Admits to Rigging Games for Super Bowl” depicts NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledging that the NFL rigs games in a manner similar to professional wrestling.
Despite the social media buzz, it turns out nothing nefarious was at play during the AFC Championship game. Regarding the referee speaking with Patriots players in the end zone, CBS Boston reports, “In actuality, the official was telling Patriots tackle Cameron Fleming to relax after the officials didn’t call a penalty for Myles Jack’s late tackle and helmet slap on James White in the end zone.” Likewise, “[Referee] Blakeman congratulated Brady because referees typically have pretty cordial relationships with quarterbacks, and they communicate regularly throughout the game.”
Newsweek notes, “[T]here isn’t a scintilla of evidence to suggest the Patriots’ comeback was in any way dodgy”, and ESPN reports that while Jaguars head coach Bouye believes the officiating may have been lopsided, “Bouye again stressed that the officiating didn’t cost the Jaguars the game … ‘But at the end of the day, we can’t put the blame on them. We didn’t execute good enough. They executed good enough.’”
As for the video of Roger Goodell, it’s clearly a fake. The video was produced by Satire Daily. According to the Satire Daily’s Facebook page, “This is a satire news parody and comedic page. Nothing on this page is to be taken seriously. None of the stories created in our videos are true, they are created purely for satirical comedy purposes.”
While it is not surprising to discover that the NFL Commissioner did not admit to rigging championship games, and referees are not on the Patriots’ payroll, this incident is emblematic of a greater problem plaguing our nation … fake news. This story depended upon decontextualized video footage juxtaposed with a suggestive narrative that said what many wanted to hear. It was deemed credible because it was trending on social media and because some notable names were involved in the conversation, such as current NFL players. Additionally, it was later coo-berated by an independent video of the NFL Commissioner. And it was given greater credibility when mainstream media outlets reported the story with headlines such as: “Jaguars Not Alone in Noticing the Patriots had Just One Penalty in AFC Championship Game” (The Washington Post); “Was Patriots-Jaguars Fixed? Tom Brady Conspiracy Theories Fly After AFC Championship Thriller” (Newsweek); and “NFL Conspiracy Theorists Claim Footage of an Official Congratulating Tom Brady After Comeback Victory Proves the Patriots are Unfairly Favored by Refs (After New England were Only Called for ONE Foul All Game)” (The Daily Mail).
The majority of Americans only read headlines, and the rest often don’t read beyond the middle of the article.,  So when mainstream media outlets lead with sensational headlines and frontload the article with unsubstantiated claims, the article produces confusion. In this regard, even the mainstream media participates in fostering fake and misleading news. Sometimes this is for profit and ratings, and sometimes it appears to be agenda driven. In the above example, most media outlets did little-to-no investigative reporting, failing even to ask the referees or Patriot players for comment. Instead, authoritative voices were replaced with multiple Twitter posts from random unknown individuals, often without even balancing these with comments and reactions from Patriot fans.
We live in an age where reporting what disgruntled fans are complaining about on social media without any investigative questioning constitutes real news. And this is true whether these disgruntled fans belong to the arena of sports or of politics. With increasing frequency, tweets, salacious gossip, and anonymous sources undergird the headlines of our nation’s most trusted news outlets.
In 2017 The New York Times reported that White House aides work in the dark because they cannot find the light switches; CNN assured the nation that our president offended Japan and embarrassed America because he didn’t properly feed fish in Japan; TIME reported that the president had removed a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. from the Oval Office; and Newsweek obsessed over the president’s handshakes and the motive behind the Polish First Lady’s refusal to shake President Trump’s hand. Each of these stories were later proven to be fabricated.
A little discernment goes a long way in avoiding false and misleading information. Here are a few basic steps we can take to help safeguard ourselves from falling prey to disgruntled fans who are endeavoring to portray their emotional reactions and desires as meaningful news:
1) Look at the source.
The video of the NFL Commissioner came from Satire Daily. This should immediately discredit the video as being genuine. Many trending news stories originate from satire news sites.
2) Consider the motive.
Many trusted sources are so biased that their reporting must be critically weighed. For example, CNN has a hostile relationship with the president, as do Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake; while WND and radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are biased in favor of the president.
3) Don’t believe everything you see.
Video juxtaposed with suggestive narratives can be extremely persuasive and highly misleading.
4) Get the whole story.
Read past the headline. Often, pertinent facts and balancing content is found at the end of an article or a news report.
5) Context is king.
We live in an age of sound bytes, pull quotes, and memes. Seven seconds of audio is not sufficient to determine context. Likewise, a 30-second news lead-in to a story is not sufficient to determine context.
Whether evaluating internet conspiracy theories or mainstream news reports, these five tips will help us to discern truth from error. After all, until we can discern truth from error, how can we possibly know when and on what issues we should take a stand?
1. Bieler, Des. “Jaguars Not Alone in Noticing the Patriots had Just One Penalty in AFC Championship Game.” The Washington Post, January 22, 2018. Accessed January 29, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2018/01/22/jaguars-not-alone-in-noticing-the-patriots-had-just-one-penalty-in-afc-championship-game/?utm_term=.b8a328062b36.
2. NFL Research. Twitter Post. January 21, 2018, 3:39 PM. Accessed January 29, 2018. https://twitter.com/NFLResearch/status/955223352737697793.
3. Bieler, Des. “Jaguars Not Alone in Noticing the Patriots had Just One Penalty in AFC Championship Game.”
4. DiRocco, Michael. “A.J. Bouye: Patriots were Goading Jaguars to Commit Penalties.” ESPN, January 22, 2018. Accessed January 29, 2018. http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/22173282/aj-bouye-jacksonville-jaguars-criticizes-officiating-afc-championship-game.
6. OurState_CSU. Twitter Post. January 21, 2018, 3:08 PM. Accessed January 29, 2018. https://twitter.com/OurStateCSU/status/955215619909193729.
7. McAlister, Curtis. Twitter Post. January 21, 2018, 3:36 PM. Accessed January 29, 2018. https://twitter.com/CMcAlister79/status/955222655300403201.
8. Omeezy. Twitter Post. January 21, 2018, 3:27 PM. Accessed January 29, 2018. https://twitter.com/RealMellyMack/status/955220400442609664.
9. ScottyFrame30. Twitter Post. January 21, 2018, 1:33 PM. Accessed January 29, 2018. https://twitter.com/ScottyStyles29/status/955191737097465856.
10. Johnson, Travis. Twitter Post. January 21, 2018, 2:35 PM. Accessed January 29, 2018, 2:35 PM. https://twitter.com/trapj99/status/955207133116747783.
11. Dunn, Rev. Eric. Twitter Post. January 21, 2018, 1:31 PM. Accessed January 29, 2018. https://twitter.com/ericvdunn/status/955191066122178563.
12. SatireDaily. “Breaking News: NFL Admits to Rigging Games for Super Bowl.” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVtYT2itKuE&list=PLD0TFxB8VB-7LN-AYYgY_e_2JxC-qNtMU (accessed January 29, 2018).
13. Hurley, Michael. “Internet Creates Referee Conspiracy After Patriots Beat Jaguars in AFC Championship Game.” CBS, Boston, January 22, 2018. Accessed January 29, 2018. http://boston.cbslocal.com/2018/01/22/internet-creates-referee-conspiracy-after-patriots-beat-jaguars-in-afc-championship-game/.
15. Cutler, Teddy. “Was Patriots-Jaguars Fixed? Tom Brady Conspiracy Theories Fly After AFC Championship Thriller.” Newsweek, January 22, 2018. Accessed January 29, 2018. http://www.newsweek.com/was-patriots-jaguars-fixed-tom-brady-conspiracy-theories-fly-after-afc-786411.
16. DiRocco, Michael. “A.J. Bouye: Patriots were Goading Jaguars to Commit Penalties.” ESPN, January 22, 2018. Accessed January 29, 2018. http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/22173282/aj-bouye-jacksonville-jaguars-criticizes-officiating-afc-championship-game.
17. Satire Daily. “About Us.” Facebook, n.d. Accessed January 29, 2018. https://www.facebook.com/pg/SatireDaily/about/?ref=page_internal%22.
18. Watson, Deshaun. Twitter Post. January 21, 2018, 2:42 PM. Accessed January 29, 2018. https://twitter.com/deshaunwatson/status/955208905096757248.
19. Bieler, “Jaguars Not Alone in Noticing the Patriots had Just One Penalty in AFC Championship Game.”
20. Cutler, “Was Patriots-Jaguars Fixed? Tom Brady Conspiracy Theories Fly After AFC Championship Thriller.”
21. Miller, Abigail. “NFL Conspiracy Theorists Claim Footage of an Official Congratulating Tom Brady After Comeback Victory Proves the Patriots are Unfairly Favored by Refs (After New England were Only Called for ONE Foul All Game).” The Daily Mail, January 22, 2018. Accessed January 29, 2018. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5296535/Footage-shows-referee-official-congratulating-Tom-Brady.html.
22. “How Americans Get Their News.” American Press Institute, March 17, 2014. Accessed January 30, 2018. https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/publications/reports/survey-research/how-americans-get-news/.
23. Manjoo, Farhad. “You Won’t Finish This Article.” Slate, June 6, 2013. Accessed January 30, 2018. http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2013/06/how_people_read_online_why_you_won_t_finish_this_article.html.
24. Thrush, Glenn and Maggie Habermann. “Trump and Staff Rethink Tactics after Stumbles.” The New York Times, February 5, 2017. Accessed January 23, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/05/us/politics/trump-white-house-aides-strategy.html?_r=0.
25. Rocha, Veronica. “Trump Feeds Fish, Winds up Pour Entire Box of Food into Koi Pond.” CNN, November 6, 2017. Accessed January 9, 2018. http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/06/politics/donald-trump-koi-pond-japan/index.html.
26. Miller, Zeke. “Donald Trump Signed Order to Prepare for Repeal of Obamacare.” TIME, January 20, 2017. Last Updated January 21, 2017. Accessed January 9, 2018. http://time.com/4642088/trump-inauguration-obamacare-repeal-order/.
27. Riotta, Chris. “Watch Donald Trump Handshake Rejected by Polish First Lady in Hilariously Awkward Exchange.” Newsweek, July 6, 2017. Last Updated, n.d. http://www.newsweek.com/donald-trump-handshake-poland-president-wife-melania-trump-smack-video-watch-632808.
28. “The Highly-Anticipated 2017 Fake News Awards.” GOP.com, January 17, 2018. Accessed January 29, 2018. https://www.gop.com/the-highly-anticipated-2017-fake-news-awards/.