What does it take to get your made-up story on Australia’s most popular news site? Just an anonymous Reddit account, a story that will get people clicking, and a digitally altered image.

A Reddit user whose story was run prominently in some of Australia’s leading online news outlets in the early days of 2017 now admits the whole thing was made up because “I was bored”.

Outlets like news.com.au, Mamamia, Yahoo7, 9Honey (Nine’s women’s site) and Daily Mail Australia all ran a story in recent days based on the anonymous claim of a Reddit user who on January 1 posted that their landlord had installed a coin-operated flush in the toilet as a way to boost rental revenue. Australia’s most popular breakfast show, Sunrise, also covered the story, as did many American TV news shows. Hundreds of separate articles were filed on the toilet worldwide, according to a Google News search.

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It’s the second time in less than a month that a far-fetched story posted by an anonymous account on Reddit has been uncritically run on news outlets, then promptly denied by the original user after it garners widespread attention. In late December, numerous outlets, including news.com.au, ran an anonymous user’s fabricated account — as Crikey revealed last year — of finding out she was engaged to her half-brother.

While some Reddit users took the toilet story uncritically, it didn’t take long for some to treat it with the scepticism it deserved. When a photo of the coin-operated flush was uploaded, some Reddit users set about demonstrating how it had clearly been photoshopped, using both saturation analysis (which shows what parts of a picture have been most compressed — a tell-tale sign of editing) and by finding the images that had been combined to make the final, doctored image. Many others pointed out the mechanical difficulties of actually installing a coin mechanism on a regular toilet, and of a landlord being able to legally gain frequent access to a property to empty the coins.

It was a scepticism — boosted through the use of a (slightly) technical skill-set — largely absent from the news outlets that went with the story. Of those outlets that did express some scepticism in the copy, it tended to be placed low and fleetingly, and didn’t appear to lessen their willingness to run the (obviously fake) story.

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The user, “unlovablepig“, has in recent days deleted their account. Crikey has been unable to contact the user. But on January 4, the user, in a separate post, made a number of increasingly outlandish claims, including that the story was now being investigated by famed British documentary maker Louis Theroux and that the landlord had installed a handgun on a chain and required the user to shoot the toilet every time he wanted it to flush while billing the tenant for the bullets (“I’ve already had noise complaints from other tenants. How am I to live like this?”).

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In case that was all too oblique for some news outlets, the user than stated that it was all a bit of a joke, posting a photo of the original toilet (minus coin slot) and writing:

“I just posted it thinking it get a few likes as a laugh. I didn’t consider it trolling as it wasn’t hurting anyone. And it was so obvious a joke. But when it got a bit of attention I got my mate to photoshop the coin thingy. Minimal effort. Stock google image search. And then it went viral and I sat back and enjoyed it. Was pretty weird.”

The subsequent Reddit discussion took up the issue of media quality and ethics. “Unlovablepig” and many others laid the blame at the feet of news outlets for the traffic. The Australian Reddit community has long been aware that reporters trawl the social network for story leads, and appears more than willing to lead them astray for shits and giggles.

None of the outlets Crikey checked this morning had updated their stories to take into account the subsequent retraction, or had published articles about the later, obviously satirical comments by the same account.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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