VIRAL HOAX Have you fallen for one?
WE’VE NEVER BEEN BETTER AT SPREADING INFORMATION, BUT DO WE EVEN CARE IF IT’S TRUE ANY MORE? WELCOME TO THE ERA OF MAINSTREAM HOAX NEWS
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.
SNAKE SWALLOWS MANWHOLE
DEAR DIANE, FROM ELAN
MAN SUES WIFE
FOR HAVING UGLY CHILDREN