A real-life lesson in not believing everything you read on social media outlets or the Internet hit fairly close to home this past week when many web surfers, including reputable news organizations, accepted as truth a post about an incredible con job which supposedly took place in Portsmouth and Scioto County.

Last Thursday, a Facebook site called “Portsmouth, Ohio Official” posted a story that a local man had attempted to pass himself off as country-music star Travis Tritt and had successfully conned the Portsmouth River Days committee out of a lot of money, then attempted to do the same thing with the folks who book entertainment for the Scioto County Fair.

Here’s the “news” that was posted:

“***WANTED***”

“Billy Lee Eldridge, 46, of West Portsmouth has a warrant for his arrest for fraud and criminal possession of forged instruments. According to an arrest report, Mr. Eldridge convinced The River Days committee that he was country artist Travis Tritt and accepted payment of $2,250.00 for a performance at this year’s River Days festival. He then tried the same scheme for The Scioto County Fair but was discovered as a fraud when they asked him to sing Here’s A Quarter. He panicked and fled. Last seen in the Lucasville bottoms. Message this page with info of his whereabouts.”

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(A supposed photo of Eldridge was posted, which amazingly bears a strong resemblance to the real Travis Tritt.)

As it turned out, it was a complete and deliberate fabrication. More bluntly, it was a lie, which received a lot of attention on Facebook in the form of shares and likes. In fact, 2,400 Facebookers actually shared the post, greatly extending its reach and 1,900 took the trouble to post a comment of their own.

In spite of the name, “Portsmouth, Ohio Official” does not represent any governmental organization or civic organization in Portsmouth or Scioto County. Instead, it describes itself as a “media/news organization” although its content is confined to its free Facebook page. However, it’s also popular with 19,049 “followers” and 18,634 “likes.” A review of its recent posts shows a series of parodies, satire and jokes, some of which could easily be taken as facts by those unfamiliar with the approach.

Conventional news organizations were among those taken by this truly “fake news,” including Fox News Channel 19 in Cincinnati, which quickly followed up with a lighthearted retraction story.

On the next day after its initial post, “Portsmouth, Ohio Official” ran a follow-up post, which rightly took news organizations to task for reporting information which was not true.

That follow-up post read: “To the MULTIPLE news organizations, including Fox News (who always dismisses different outlets as fake news) who ran the Travis Tritt bandit story without verifying sources or operating within the confines of professional journalism ...”

Even Travis Tritt himself took note of the news scam with this cautionary post: “Just can’t believe everything you read on the internet these days.”

However, it seems to me that the greater sin was “Portsmouth, Ohio Official” posting that concocted story in the first place. It obviously misled and misinformed literally hundreds of people and it did not reveal the real truth until the next day. Many Travis Tritt fans apparently took offense to the whole situation, but “Portsmouth, Ohio Official” was the farthest thing from contrite. In fact, it responded with this defiant post: His fans are pretty upset in the comments. Here’s a quarter, call someone who cares.”

As a journalist myself, I agree wholeheartedly with that point. When information is posted on social media or the Internet, it should certainly be checked and verified before it is published or broadcast, unless it’s coming from an official, reliable and verifiable source. It seems as if a check with the River Days or Scioto County Fair officials would have been the appropriate step before reporting a story from an unknown and unproven source. However, in this day and age when social media is so popular, journalists do find themselves staking out Facebook for potential stories, leads and tips and they do want to report stories as quickly as possible.

BUT… getting it right is much more important than getting it first.

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That’s About It… Be Seeing You.