VI­RAL HOAX Have you fallen for one?


Marie Claire (South Africa) - - SOCIAL REPORT - WORDS ANNA HARTFORD

slith­er­ing un­seen through a quiet street in Ker­ala, In­dia, a gi­gan­tic python en­coun­tered a lo­cal man passed out on the pave­ment out­side of a liquor store. Af­ter as­phyx­i­at­ing him with one mas­sive con­stric­tion, the ser­pent dis­lo­cated its jaw and be­gan, slowly, to swal­low him whole.By the time wit­nesses ar­rived on the scene, the snake was al­ready too en­gorged to move :just a bulging snake­skin body bag. Some­one got a pho­to­graph and this bizarre, ter­ri­fy­ing story spread around the world. It seems un­be­liev­able, and yet, this is only one of many in­stances of gi­ant ur­ban pythons with a taste for hu­man flesh. Sim­i­lar in­ci­dents have un­folded in Malaysia and China, and even right here in South Africa – a woman in Dur­ban was also de­voured af­ter fall­ing asleep out­side. Amaz­ingly, each time some­one man­aged to pho­to­graph it. Even more amaz­ingly, each time it was the ex­act same pho­to­graph.

The killer python is just one of an ever-ex­pand­ing ar­ray of hoax news sto­ries that have usurped our col­lec­tive at­ten­tion (the ex­act ori­gins and con­text of the snake pho­to­graph are un­known, but it’s far more likely it had de­voured a goat or deer than a drunk). In­deed, 2013 was var­i­ously dubbed ‘the year of the in­ter­net hoax’ and, in all like­li­hood, we’ll be see­ing more of the same in 2014 and for­ever af­ter. Did you hear the one about the Chi­nese man who sued his plas­tic surgery-en­hanced wife af­ter she’d had an ugly baby? Like the python, it’s one of those tales with spu­ri­ous ori­gins, which emerges ev­ery few years with ever more un­ver­i­fied elab­o­ra­tions and du­bi­ous ac­com­pa­ny­ing pic­tures. It’s the great bro­ken tele­phone of the in­ter­net: if you take some­thing out of con­text enough times over, you might just fab­ri­cate some­thing new en­tirely; es­pe­cially if there’s con­sid­er­able pres­sure to make the story as zingy and sharable as pos­si­ble ev­ery time it’s re­peated. And it’s hard to tell how much we even care whether or not these vi­ral tales are true. Sure, it would be bet­ter if a man re­ally had sued his wife for hav­ing an ugly baby (wouldn’t that be some­thing!), but what­ever: it’s still a good story even if it didn’t hap­pen.

Some of the most no­table hoaxes, rather than emerg­ing from our col­lec­tive sen­sa­tion-mon­ger­ing, have been man­u­fac­tured es­pe­cially in or­der to dupe us and the many sites that en­deav­our to en­ter­tain us. US talk-show host Jimmy Kim­mel planted a fake ‘Tw­erk Fail’ video on YouTube (a woman twerks upside down, falls over, gets set alight by a can­dle) and waited for it to be picked up by the news cy­cle, which in­evitably it was (ABC, CNN and NBC all ran the video be­fore Kim­mel re­vealed he’d staged it). Else­where, on an­other de­vice, The Bach­e­lor pro­ducer, Elan Gale, man­aged to cap­ti­vate Twit­ter with his on­go­ing feud with an an­noy­ing mid­dle-aged woman on his de­layed flight (the no­to­ri­ous ‘Diane’ in seat 7A): send­ing her booze, scathing notes and telling her to ‘eat my d–ck’. By the time he re­vealed that Diane had been a fic­tion, there was al­ready a war­ring ‘Team Elan’ ver­sus ‘Team Diane’, and count­less think pieces pon­tif­i­cat­ing on what this one man’s time line meant about the de­clin­ing state of our cul­ture. The posts that spread the fake story, and the posts com­ment­ing on those posts (and the posts re­spond­ing to the posts com­ment­ing on the posts), sim­ply added a quick cor­rec­tion: ‘It seems it was a hoax, but still…’

It’s churl­ish to point fin­gers. The fre­netic news cy­cle in the age of the in­ter­net leaves lit­tle room for ex­cep­tions. Try­ing to be the one pub­li­ca­tion that holds back, won­der­ing about whether Elan Gale’s flight de­tails check out, would prob­a­bly be the death knell for any news out­let. In the scram­ble for sus­tain­abil­ity, the only me­dia com­pa­nies that seem to be thriv­ing – Buz­zfeed, Mash­able, Up­wor­thy, The Huff­in­g­ton Post – are work­ing on a clicks - at - all­costs model. ‘If you throw some­thing up with­out fact check­ing it and you’re the first one to put it up, and you get mil­lions and mil­lions of views, and later it’s proved false, you still got those views,’ Ryan Grim of The Huff­in­g­ton Post told The New York Times. ‘That’s a prob­lem.The in­cen­tives are all wrong.’

False in­for­ma­tion is as old as speech. What’s dif­fer­ent nowa­days, with on­line con­tent and an in­dus­try strug­gling to com­pete with it, is the un­abashed, al­most con­se­quence-free at­ti­tude to­wards false news. Back in 1983, the Ger­man weekly news mag­a­zine Stern pub­li­cized the dis­cov­ery of 62 vol­umes of Hitler’s jour­nals: the jour­nals turned out to be forg­eries and the scan­dal that en­sued dam­aged the mag­a­zine’s rep­u­ta­tion ir­re­vo­ca­bly (and the edi­tor had to re­sign). But now, with ev­ery­one do­ing it, who’s to point fin­gers? At many ‘con­tent pro­duc­ers’, you’d sooner get fired for not pub­lish­ing the hoax story

that went vi­ral than for pub­lish­ing it. Af­ter all, you get all the views for the vi­ral story, the views for the re­trac­tion, and your rep­u­ta­tion isn’t any worse off than all your com­peti­tors who did the same.

There is also a flip­side to all this. While we’ve never been more pro­lific in churn­ing out junk in­for­ma­tion, we’ve also never been bet­ter at un­cov­er­ing it. Col­lec­tively, we’re one hell of a fact checker. (Which is prob­a­bly why un­der-re­sourced news out­lets are in­creas­ingly cut­ting back on such won­drous in­dul­gences as fact check­ing and out­sourc­ing the task to their read­ers.Was that wrong? Whoopsy daisy! The dig­i­tal record is sur­rep­ti­tiously cor­rected, and on we go.) The more a story spreads, the more open to scru­tiny it be­comes. When a gay New Jersey wait­ress posted a re­ceipt show­ing that a woman she served re­fused to tip her be­cause ‘I do not agree with your life­style and the way you live your life’, there was an out­pour­ing of rage against the cus­tomer and com­pas­sion for the wait­ress (she re­ceived some of that com­pas­sion in cash do­na­tions). Un­for­tu­nately for her, the cor­re­spond­ing ver­sion of that re­ceipt was cir­cu­lat­ing in the world and, in time,it sur­faced (with a cor­rob­o­rat­ing credit-card bill): no ho­mo­pho­bic com­ment and a gen­er­ous tip.

It’s hard to know where all this leaves us: how we should ad­just the news, or our re­la­tion­ship to it. ‘It’s bet­ter for a hun­dred qual­ity sto­ries to go un­posted than to let one know­ingly false one see the light of the day,’ Luke O’Neil wrote in Esquire. It sounds a bit dras­tic: those hun­dred qual­ity sto­ries might be well worth read­ing, and if the best way to make pro­duc­ing and shar­ing them vi­able is this Faus­tian bar­gain with du­bi­ous vi­ral con­tent, then per­haps that’s one way for gen­uine reporting to stay afloat. (Though there’s cer­tainly the worry

If you take some­thing out of con­text enough times over, you might just fab­ri­cate some­thing new en­tirely

that the pub­lish-or-per­ish men­tal­ity will in­evitably re­duce the qual­ity of the so-called le­git­i­mate reporting it pre­tends to sus­tain.) On the other end of the spec­trum, there is the laid­back view. Writ­ing for Har­vard’s Nie­man Jour­nal­ism Lab, Matt Haughey pre­dicted the con­tin­ued rise of fake news sto­ries in 2014, say­ing that they will be­come ‘a fairly com­mon part of the news cy­cle’. But Haughey wasn’t much fazed (or per­haps he was fak­ing it?) :‘In the end, they spark im­por­tant con­ver­sa­tions about im­por­tant topics, and those con­ver­sa­tions don’t feel less­ened if and when an orig­i­nal story gets un­der­mined.’ It’s a bold state­ment. It’s also prob­lem­atic. People love a rea­son to be dis­mis­sive, and be­ing bullsh–tted over and over again gives them one. The next wait­ress who is sub­jected to big­otry, for in­stance, will prob­a­bly face a more cyn­i­cal crowd. Or take the heart­break­ing pho­to­graph pur­port­ing to be of a Syr­ian or­phan sleep­ing be­tween his par­ent’s graves, which was re­vealed to be a fake (well: staged by an artist, Ab­dul Aziz al Otaibi ,and not even in Syria: ‘I am re­ally shocked at how people have twisted my pic­ture,’ Al Otaibi said). What’s strik­ing, and ter­ri­fy­ing, about this in­stance of false news is that the news it pur­ports to tell is true: it is how that news has been pre­sented that is false. And herein lies the in­dict­ment: truth, as it is, has stopped be­ing a big enough seller. In­stead, we need ev­ery­thing served up as a sim­ple, wrench­ing vis­ual be­fore we pay any at­ten­tion to it. Those graves are not graves, that child is not sleep­ing.God for­bid that rev­e­la­tion al­lows people to care any less for the many thou­sands of chil­dren who have le­git­i­mately been or­phaned by the Syr­ian Civil War who hap­pen to be real, but not nearly as click-wor­thy.








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