ISIS’s violent bona fides are not in doubt to anyone paying attention. They’vetargeted religious minorities, beheaded aid workers, sold women into sex slavery and have been all-around devastating for those under their rule. But as America debates the possibility of a full-scale ground invasion of ISIS-controlled territory, it’s important to note that much of the ISIS threat — namely that which targets the West — has been habitually overstated by an uncritical media.
In no particular order, here are the ten most bogus ISIS scare stories over the past year:
1. Female genital mutilation edict – July 2014
Who it fooled: Most major media outlets from Time to Reuters to The Atlantic to the BBC (whose story has since been scrubbed online). Above all, the UN itself.
Why it’s bogus: Actual residents of Mosul and regional experts quickly knew it reeked. The story was subsequently discredited by experts and jouranalistsand called a hoax soon after.
2. Church-burning in Mosul – July 2014
Who it fooled: Human Rights Watch, The Atlantic, The Independent,The Times of India
Why it’s bogus: An intrepid archaeologist, Sam Hardy, called BS and thanks to the magic of reverse image Google search and some prodding by yours truly, it was eventually retracted by several outlets and never mentioned again.
3. ISIS in Mexico – October 2014
Who it fooled: Fox News, Judicial Watch, The Inquisitr .
Why it’s bogus: Absurd on its face, the story was quickly and roundly debunked.
4. ISIS recruiting emo British teen – December 2014
Who it fooled: Metro, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph
Why it’s bogus: The person who uploaded the picture admitted on Twitter it was a fake. The media subsequently deemed it a “hoax”.
5. ISIS Caliphate map – July 2014
Who it fooled: ABC News, International Business Times, Breitbart
Why it’s bogus: The original story from ABC News cited a map that had been floating around the Internet for months. To this day, its one and only source is a tweet from a noted white supremacist website Third Position.
io9.com and others eventually deemed it a hoax.
6. ISIS beheads Christian children – Aug 2014
Who it fooled: Originally asserted on CNN by self-proclaimed Iraqi-Christian activist Mark Arabo–a grocery story industry lobbyist whose previous media appearance was on a local San Diego news channel to oppose an increase in minimum wage–this story spread among right-wing and Christian media.
Why it’s bogus: After a fairly thorough inquiry, snopes eventually determined the claim was “inconclusive,” having found no independent evidence it occurred.
7. $425m bank robbery – June 2014
Who it fooled: The Washington Post, International Business Times,Fox News, Mic, Vocativ
Why it’s bogus: The story was based solely on accounts from the former mayor of Mosul and was later found to be uncredible by The Financial Timesand, ultimately, US officials themselves.
8. ‘Over 100 Americans have joined ISIS’ – October 2014
Who it fooled: NBC News, Washington Post, Al Jazeera
Why it’s bogus: After the FBI admitted there were only “about a dozen” Americans fighting alongside jihadists in Syria in September 2014, several media outlets continued to report “over 100,” despite the government correcting the record several weeks prior.
9. #AllEyesOnISIS “Twitter storm” – June 2014
Who it fooled: The Daily Mail, McClatchy
Why it’s bogus: Yours truly showed that the “Twitter storm” was simply areposting of weeks- or months-old tweets by an overzealous ISIS fanboi.
10. ISIS’s ebola terror plot – December 2014
Who it fooled: The Daily Mail, Fox News, Mashable, random right-wing media
Why it’s bogus: “Iraqi media” was the only source for the story, and the Iraqi minister of Health quickly debunked it.
Adam Johnson is a freelance journalist; formerly he was a founder of the hardware startup Brightbox. You can follow him on Twitter at@adamjohnsonnyc. A version of this post appeared on his blog Citations Needed (2/20/15).