The phrase “fake news” has become a label that far too many people now consider legitimate. In other words, when actual news is called fake, a percentage of the public decides that it can simply be dismissed, regardless of the source.

Crazy as that thought process appears to those of us who’ve invested our careers in reporting the news, the reverse of that process is even more shocking.

That occurs when what (we assume) most people would consider fake news is absorbed and embraced as genuine.

To me that’s an even scarier glimpse inside the human cognitive process.

Here’s a perfect example.

In the week prior to the Super Bowl, online “news stories” began circulating warning that millions of Americans snacking their way through the big game while enjoying clever fast-food ads might actually be scarfing down rat meat masquerading as chicken wings.

Here’s one of those stories:

“FDA inspectors raised concerns when several illegal containers originating from China were seized by Customs at the Port of San Francisco and were found to contain rat meat that was meant to be shipped to different meat processing plants across America and resold as chicken.

“[The] FDA warns an estimated 300,000 pounds of the counterfeit rat meat might still be in circulation and could finish in American plates during the Super Bowl this Sunday.

“The Super Bowl is a period where chicken wings are in high demand and where restaurants and grocery stores often face a penury,” explains FDA inspector Ronald Jones. “Although there is nothing dangerous about consuming rat meat if it is properly cooked, United States laws prohibit the import and sales of rat meat as a comestible item,” he adds.

Okay, when was the last time a news release used the word “penury?” Answer: Never.

Second, do you really think an FDA news release would add a line about “properly cooked,” rat meat isn’t dangerous?

Of course not.

That’s because the Rat-Meat-on-Super-Sunday story was published in the World News Daily Report, a satirical publication that specializes in ridiculously fake stories, such as:

·         “Morgue Employee Cremated by Mistake While Taking a Nap

·         “14-year-old girl Impregnated by a Flu Shot

·         “Lottery Winner Dies After Gold-plating His Testicles

Despite the source, the rat meat story began showing up elsewhere online on (slightly) more reputable-sounding websites such as Urban Image Magazine. As its story explained, “FDA spokesman (sic) Jenny Brookside admits there is no clear way for consumers to see the difference. ‘It is up to consumers to try to identify the quality and source of the meat that is packaged, but there is no absolute way of determining for 100% if the meat in your plate is chicken or rat,’ she admits with honesty. ‘If you find that your chicken wings taste slightly different from usual, it is a good bet that they might be counterfeit meat.’ ”

The article went on to warn that, “According to a 2014 FDA study, an estimated 36 million pounds of illegal counterfeit meat is sold in the United States each year.”

Denying the Denial
Crazy as all that sounds when it is packaged in what seems like a genuine news story, so many people bought into worries about “slightly different” tasting chicken wings, that the FDA had to step in and attempt to deny the legitimacy of the fake news.

FDA released an official statement denying that the agency seized 300,000 pounds of imported rat meat from China just days before Super Bowl Sunday. Nor did the agency ever issue a warning that restaurants and grocery stores might be unwittingly selling rat-meat chicken wings, the statement added.

According to the Associated Press, FDA spokesman Peter Cassell stated that the agency “is not aware of the seizure of rat meat referenced.” and the FDA never issued any warning about counterfeit product. The stories quoted two agency officials, but the FDA “has no record of any current or past employees with those names,” Cassell said.

To be charitable, politics creates seriously raw emotions among partisans, and it’s understandable, if not plausible, how people can convince themselves that allegations about the candidates they oppose might be legit.

But it’s a mystery to me how people can read or watch what would seem to be a ridiculously absurd story and tell themselves, hey it could happen.

Here’s a suggestion: When you’re standing line at the supermarket checkout stand, any headlines you read in those tabloids sitting in the rack are not to be believed!

Those shocking tales about women giving birth to alien babies, ghostly figures that eat regular meals with the family and crazy stories about celebrities so addicted to drugs that...okay, maybe that last example is a bad one, but the point is this:

Those stories may be printed on paper, but the word “news” shouldn’t be attached to their description.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.