Penn Valley Market owner falls prey to false internet rumor
March 17, 2017
Penn Valley Market closed early on March 7 after rumors spread on the internet that falsely identified market owner Balraj Singh Hundal, also known as "Happy," as a Reno man convicted of conspiracy to aid in terrorist activities.
"Fake news" is a term that has spread like wildfire lately thanks to President Trump, who tweeted in February that "The FAKE NEWS media… is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!"
Trump refers to content published by “the mainstream media,” which he claims is written by journalists who knowingly generate false content and claim that they've published factual evidence.
But fake news of a different kind can circulate quickly on sites with user-generated content, where posters can make inaccurate claims that sometimes have serious repercussions, like a conversation that started last week on Nevada County Peeps, a private Facebook group that serves as an online discussion forum for locals, regulated by a group of administrators.
A Peeps member posted the link to a KTVN news article that details the crimes of 41-year-old Baldwinder Singh, a citizen of India and permanent resident of Reno, NV.
Singh was convicted of "conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists for a movement to create an independent Sikh state in the Punjab region of India" while living in the US, according to a statement released by the Department of Justice included in the article. He pleaded guilty on Nov. 29, 2016.
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The Peeps poster falsely stated that the man referred to in the story was the owner of Penn Valley Market.
The article included a headshot of the accused man and gave a list of his many aliases, one of which was the name "Happy."
Comments on the Facebook post said the man's photo resembled Happy from the market, and the fact that they shared the same last name was, apparently, proof enough that the two Happy's were one in the same. Other commenters cautioned those who believed the rumor, insisting that the facts didn't line up.
Peeps administrators deleted the post quickly when they realized that it was spreading a false rumor, according to Harry Salvini, one of the group moderators.
Salvini says the administrators are quick to remove anything that seems problematic on Peeps.
"We're a family group and we don't tolerate negative stuff," he says. "It's our group, and if you have a problem with that, well, you don't have to be a member."
But in this case, damage was already done.
Hundal was on vacation in India when the rumor started, and his employees said it was difficult to dispell the false accusations customers were talking about at the store.
"We've had a lot of people coming in and saying that they didn't even want to come in here anymore, because they thought that Happy was a terrorist," says Rebecca Weaver, an employee at Penn Valley Market.
Store manager Victoria Dudley says she sees some resemblance between the photo of the Reno convict and her boss, but she's disheartened that people would jump to such extreme conclusions without having all the facts.
Hundal plans to soon return to Penn Valley. He was unavailable for comment.
Baldwinder Singh is currently serving a 15-year sentence in a U.S. prison.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Pera, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 530-477-4231.