Every few months, it seems, there are a few stories that come out of the depths of the Internet, go viral, then are found to be untrue.
Last week, several people I know linked to a blog post from A Mother Thing, which detailed the experience of a mother, her son, a pink headband and a man dressed in camouflague who supposedly ripped said headband off the son’s head at a Wal-Mart. Awful, right? A story around this blog post then appeared on Huffington Post, and finally on BuzzFeed. On BuzzFeed (I am an embarassingly regular reader of BuzzFeed by the way. Go ahead and judge.) I noticed a number of people commenting they suspected the story wasn’t true.
We still don’t know whether the story is true. Here is what we do know, from The Ledger:
Asked Tuesday if she made up the story, (the blogger, name redacted) responded with a firm no. But she doesn’t care whether deputies find proof in the Wal-Mart surveillance footage.
‘I don’t think it will do any good,’ she said. ‘I just want it to go away.’
Now there is a new viral sensation around a despicable letter to the family of an autistic boy. And already, people are wondering: is this letter a hoax? At this point, it doesn’t seem so.
I’ve been thinking what these developments mean to bloggers and to readers of blogs. How important is the truth in writing blogs? And what should readers do if they suspect a hoax?
Truth and Blogging
Blogging is often maligned as journalism’s more uncouth cousin: unprofessional, uneducated but sometimes making sound points at a dinner table discussion. Blogging came out of online journaling (remember Live Journal?) and its roots seem firmly planted, even now, in the first person memoir experience. Many people have written dissertations about the memoir format and why it matters, but I think this quote by Gore Vidal (via Wikipedia) is a good superficial overview of the genre:
“A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.”
I think most people would agree that most bloggers do exactly this: they write about their lives without fact checking, relying on their own memory and emotions of events to help guide them in their storytelling. Obviously, many of the stories I have told on my blog would probably be remembered differently by others involved. Blogging always reminds me of the Rashoman Effect, and the most eye-opening writing exercise I ever particpated in was the Rashoman Slumber Party, where Bodega Bliss, Stumbling Gracefully and I each recounted our own version of the same event. Our own stories of the same event were radically different.
So, blogging “truth” is probably in the eye of the beholder. But what, then, do we as bloggers owe our readers?
When people’s perceptions of events are often radically different, I think there are lines that can be crossed while telling our stories. In the case of A Mother Thing, it SEEMS the blogger in question accused a Wal-Mart customer of touching her son in a rough way (I’m being very careful with language, here, maybe a lawyer friend like Miss OhKay can help me out here.) Is this a crime? As far as I can tell, she loaded her post onto the Huffington Post platform, which indicates to me that she wanted her post to be widely read. But I must confess my general ignorance about Huffington Post. The post went viral, even appearing in The Daily Mail in the UK.
In the back of my mind, I always consider the idea that a post I am writing could go viral. It’s very unlikely, but possible. I try to write as responsibly as I can: I try not to accuse people of crimes (my father was trained to always beware of libel laws), I try not to state blatant untruths and I try to tell events as they happened, although the Rashoman Sleepover has made me aware that this may not even be possible. I have learned from bitter experience to try not to tell someone else’s story. That’s not OK. Ever.
I think all bloggers should think about this every time they hit publish. And if they want to share something that might be in a gray area, they can always password protect a post.
Do you agree with this code of conduct?
What Do Readers Owe Bloggers?
Melissa Ford published this thought-provoking post over at BlogHer about A Mother Thing, which is what prompted me to really probe my feelings about Internet hoaxes. I sometimes read blog posts that don’t quite add up. My BS meter is pretty low and I generally trust people, but if I become skeptical, I stop reading. I do what Melissa suggests: I click away. I do this in life too. Who knows why someone lies or distorts the truth? I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. Like Melissa said, vitroil on the Internet IS a huge problem. One only needs to read the comments on YouTube to lose all faith in humanity.
However, I think there are two exceptions to the click away rule.
I think if a reader discovers a hoax where someone is deliberately representing themselves falsely for monetary gain, then investigates and brings the fraud to light: I would argue this is a new form of investigative journalism. This isn’t really very different than when a big newspaper discovers a Nigerian email scam and writes a story about it, right?
I’m probably not going to get much disagreement on this.
The big viral stories that get play, then turn out to be patently false. We don’t know whether this is the case for A Mother Thing, but the police have found no evidence of a crime at this time. It is strange that the blogger in question wrote and then (maybe: HuffPo users, let me know about this) distributed her story on a big platform then decided she wanted it to go away. I think her story should have been investigated by the police, as it eventually was. As it is now, many doubt her.
Why does this matter? To me, it’s because of James Frey.
James Frey, the memoirist whose memior about addiction was supposedly fact-checked for accuracy by his publisher turned out to have exagerations. You can read them all, here. Probably the most notable was that Frey claimed to have been in prison for 87 days, when in fact he had been detained for mere hours.
Why did this matter? To people who suffer from the disease of addiction, Frey’s memoir had been a tool to educate friends and family about what addiction does to a person. After Oprah endorsed it, many many people (the book sold 5 million copies) who did not understand addiction had their eyes opened up to what an addict goes through and how difficult it is to rehabilitate. One could make the case that the book created public empathy for addicts. So when Frey was publicly chastised on Oprah and the book received a huge black eye, you could argue that black eye extended to his topic of addiction as well.
There are so many real life events of discrimination, assault and hate crimes. But when a viral post like the Wal-Mart headband one sweeps through, enraging then causing skepticism, it causes us to become cynical. In fact, the first thing I thought when I heard about the autism hate letter was, here we go again.
That was a lot of sentences of words, as my daughter would say, on a bunch of controversial topics. As always, I want to know what you think.
Should bloggers be aware that every post could go viral and write accordingly? Should readers be allowed to question whether posts are true?