A story on the website LoveThisPic.com declares that “Smoking In Cars With Children Is Illegal Starting Jan. 30, 2018.” Sounds good, right? The story is accompanied by a photo of a haggard-looking woman puffing away on a cigarette in the front seat of a car, as kids sit in the back seat. The photo is certainly upsetting and grabs one’s attention, which is why the story–published Feb. 3, 2018 by “Michele”–has gone viral on social media.
There’s just one problem. It’s not true.
While it is true that smoking in cars with children present is illegal in a handful of U.S. states and local municipalities, there is no nationwide ban on it and there are no known plans for one.
It isn’t illegal to smoke in cars with kids present in Pennsylvania, although you don’t have to be a doctor to know it should be.
The fact-checking site Snopes.com has confirmed that this story is an example of fake news, but reading the story (instead of sharing it without reading it–which many of us have been guilty of) should also confirm that.
The writing is deliberately vague about where the ban is in effect (as evidenced by confusion expressed in the comments on it), and although the story wasn’t published until February, the author refers to the law “becoming” effective in January; a mismatched tense mistake no reputable journalist is likely to make. Any reputable journalist will also have a byline that includes his or her last name, so the fact that this story is by “Michele” is another red flag.
According to Snopes.com, this story originated “with Now8News, a fake news site that masquerades as a local television news site while publishing fabricated clickbait stories.”
“The basis of the original Now8News article was a report of a vehicle smoking ban enacted in England and Wales in 2015,” Snopes reports.
It’s pretty obvious that the reason fake stories like this one succeed is because they elicit an intense emotional reaction from readers. We want them to be true, and we’re thus excited to let everyone else we know, too. Before you know it, a fake news link has been shared millions of times and misled or confused nearly as many people.
As someone who is not only a journalist, but also a human who cares about kids’ health, I know I wanted this to be true. I even shared it on Facebook before I quickly learned it was fake. It’s embarrassing, but it’s not the first time I have mistakenly shared fake news and it probably won’t be the last. If you’re on Facebook enough, no matter how skeptical you are, sooner or later you will fall victim to the plague of fake news that has intensified greatly over the past couple years and share something that isn’t true.
I deleted my post because I know from past experience that leaving it up–even with an edit letting my friends know that it is fake news–will only result in more shares. And at the end of the day, a con is still a con, even if it’s for a good cause like promoting awareness about kids smoking in cars. My mission is to share truthful information, and I can’t justify sharing something I know to be a lie, no matter the context.
The side effects of sharing fake news are also quite insidious. When they involve legal matters–as this one does–they muddy the waters that our law enforcement officials must clean on our behalf on a daily basis. Worse yet, sharing results in more clicks and more revenue for the publishers of fake news…which means they will continue to publish more fake news. You might like the message of one fake news story. What about the next one?
Is it possible that someone who is a smoker with kids will read this story and voluntarily stop smoking while their kids are in the car with them out of fear of being fined? Yes. However, I don’t think that is likely to happen. If someone is already smoking in their car with their kids present, the threat of a measley fine of “up to $100” (the punishment the fake news site reports they could face) is unlikely to deter them. We all know what the consequences for drinking and driving are, and yet tens of thousands of people continue to drive while intoxicated each year, with DUI arrest rates essentially flat.
Well-meaning individuals may continue to share the post despite knowing it is fake, in hopes that it will have a deterrent effect–and that’s their choice. I would argue, however, that energy spent on social media vigilantism would be better spent on urging and advocating for action by local, state and federal elected officials on what is clearly a public health issue. A ban on smoking in cars with kids is long overdue. And we need real action, rooted in truth–not fake news–to make it happen.