This story was originally featured on Outdoor Life.
The internet can be a dark place, and on Friday, January 27th things got a little darker Esquire Middle East published an article titled “Trophy Hunter Eaten Alive by Brother of Lion He Shot for Instagram Post”. The headline alludes to controversy, bloodshed, revenge and a debate about trophy hunting. But there is a problem. Every element of the item is counterfeit.
It appears the authors of esquire Middle East, which is an offshoot of the popular global lifestyle magazine esquire with its own audience of over 580,000 readers, stitched the story together from three separate and imprecise pieces of content. They used a photo that has been circulating uncredited online for years, an unsourced story from a sketchy website, and a fictional video produced for the Australian government as part of a two-year social experiment into the effectiveness of viral content. This is how one of the most fake hunting articles on the internet came to be.
At 5 p.m. Jan. 26, verified Twitter user Fight Haven tweeted an article from the RiverCity Post.
The tweet quickly caught fire. The next day at 3:30 p.m., it had 14.7 million views, 18,200 retweets, and 171,200 likes. There were also a number of answers, one of which would become crucial to the Esquire Middle East Story. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
the RiverCity Post is a WordPress website with no semblance of organization, legal notice or identification of the responsible party. It’s just a steady stream of articles with titles like “Man eliminates 12-year-old kid for throwing dead snake at his wife” and “Kim Kardashian will fight with her sister in 1 Vs. 1.” The posts have no bylines, they are simply attributed to the admin.” The RiverCity Post Story was published on January 20th and reads:
“A big cat [hunter’s] Remains were found after he was eaten by the pride of lions he was hunting in the fields of South Africa. The lion hunter is widely known on Instagram for his videos and pictures showing his successful hunts. The man was heard screaming in the distance by people outside near the South African town of Phalaborwa. But the lions quickly eliminated their prey and had already eaten most of his body before they were driven off, leaving his head untouched. Police initially thought the man was a tractor driver working nearby, until they saw he was still pouring on [Instagram] Live and identify the man.”
Without attribution, links to police reports, or further information on the Instagram account, the article – all 111 words of it – is completely unverifiable. The most real part of the post is where the author has embedded an old video from CBS News detailing a similar story from February 2018 that may have been the inspiration for the article. Nowhere in the article does it say the lion’s brother ate the hunter, which is arguably the most shocking part of the headline.
As of January 30th, the tweet sharing this article had over 22 million views. The answers are full of debates about hunting lions and disgust for the man and woman in the article’s photo. Respondents assumed the man in the photo was the Instagram-savvy lion hunter who was eaten by the dead lion’s brother. In reality, we have yet to find out who he actually is, but the image has been used in web articles and forum posts dating back to 2016.
It didn’t take long for a single answer to add a whole extra layer of “fake” to the chaos.
Finally, a Twitter user responded to the tweet with a video showing the moments before two hunters, one a professional and one a tourist, are allegedly attacked by a lion.
The video was originally posted on YouTube years ago. Below the anti-trophy hunting message in the caption, the poster pays tribute to directors and producers and includes a link to The Woolshed Company, an Australian production company now owned by Riot Content. In the mid-2010s, Woolshed commissioned Screen Australia, a federal agency that supports the country’s film industry, to produce The Viral Experiment.
Riot has written, directed, and produced eight fake viral videos, including a surfer who was almost struck by lightning, a bear chasing a snowboarder, the lion video, and others. In 2016, they posted the videos on social media and followed their progress.
“We set out to better understand how to create short-form content that is highly shareable and snackable, capable of reaching a global, mass audience without the luxury of expensive media buys, ad campaigns, promotional strategies or to reach distribution agreements,” Screen Australia wrote on its website.
The virus experiment was a success. The lion attack video currently has 43 million views. Other videos of the experiment were broadcast by news channels around the world. At the time, the Men’s Journal and the Daily Mail were among the main media outlets to write about the lion video, although their coverage focused on whether it was real. But it obviously didn’t matter if the videos were real or staged. Websites used them to increase engagement.
A recipe for a counterfeit item
Theoretically, tweeting the fake lion video in response to the arguably fake one RiverCity Post Item is harmless. Most Twitter threads are difficult to follow and, frankly, full of nonsense. But then Esquire Middle East blended all three unrelated pieces of content – the story, the video and the photo – into one big story and brought it to a big audience.
“As John Lennon once said, instant karma will get you. That is certainly the case with a story from South Africa in which a lion trophy hunter was reportedly found dead after being eaten by a pride he had been hunting,” the article reads. “Included in that pride was the brother of one of the big cats he posed next to in one of his viral Instagram posts after chasing the animal.”
The article is just a belching of the RiverCity Post Article written in a cleaner and more journalistic way. The reader still has no idea who this Instagram user is and no reliable sources have been identified. What Esquire Middle East makes different than them RiverCity Post comes a little later in the play.
“Other [Twitter] The user shared video of the hunter in question after apparently killing the lion whose family allegedly attacked him,” the article reads. “Because this is graphic, viewer discretion is advised.”
After being introduced as “video of the hunter in question,” the Viral Experiment video is embedded in the next paragraph of the article, leading the reader to believe that not only is the story’s factual pattern correct, but that everything was caught on camera . Seven years after its release, this fake, staged video is doing exactly what it was originally meant to do: fool the world.
Esquire Middle East shared her article on some of her own social media pages, where it received virtually no attention. But make no mistake: this article still circulated around the internet as many social media users posted it themselves.
Several fact-checking websites debunked the video and RiverCity Post Articles including Snopes and MandyNews, a Nigerian fact-checking news site. If you’re the type to judge a book by its cover, you might not believe news sites like this RiverCity Post let’s say first.
Why is that important?
In 2016, the Pew Research Center conducted a study of misinformation in the news. They found that 23 percent of American adults surveyed say they “shared a made-up message.” The article goes on to say that 14 percent reported “sharing a story they knew at the time was fake,” while 16 percent “told a story they later realized was fake.”
The more important point here is that misinformation can be pieced together from the most fragmented parts of the internet. A video from Australia, photos from Africa and a storyline from wherever River City is located came together to create a flawed article on a major website. It all started with a verified Twitter user named Fight Haven, who is said to be from Florida. Now, Twitter users from around the world are perpetuating a false story as part of the larger lion hunt debate.
Ultimately, Esquire Middle East covered their backs from any real implications for this piece. They used words like “allegedly,” “apparently,” and “supposedly.” They assigned all the information to that RiverCity Post Article. And at the very end of the piece, they qualify the whole story with: “Others have questioned the accuracy of the story, we will update you if the account turns out to be incorrect.”