Hoaxed: When Do Internet Lies Matter and When Do They Not?

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.

Some examples:

Warrior Eli
Other Side of The Rainbow (Full disclosure: I sympathetically commented on that blog, and was listed on her blogroll.)

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.

One:

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.

Two.

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?

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10 Comments

Filed under Blogging, What Say You?

10 responses to “Hoaxed: When Do Internet Lies Matter and When Do They Not?

  1. Yes! Be aware! Anything anyone puts on the Internet goes on your permanent record, so to speak. It can come back to haunt you any time. Anonymity is not an assurance of anything, nor is privacy. I maintain my personal policy of not sharing anything that I wouldn’t be okay with sharing in court.

    Of course, question. Always feel free to question, but be nice. There’s a world of difference between questioning and accusation. If we’ve heard it once, we’ve all heard it a million times: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Even on YouTube.

  2. I definitely think we have a responsibility to the truth. It’s even just about our own integrity! When I blog, I am always thinking about who might read this. It even made me think ‘Do I want to promote on FB, Pinterest?’ – because what if I wrote something and someone I know read it and knew what I was talking about?

    I don’t use names when it comes to other people (unless maybe it is just a super-positive nod), never when it can be construed as negative. But still, people who know me might know who or what I am referring to and be offended. I am a teacher, too – and I’ve read horror stories of things teachers have posted that have come back to bite them.

    So, while I definitely think our memoirs should be rooted in truth, as best as we can retell it, I don’t think every detail of our memory needs to be out there for others to see. I’ve tried to use as my guideline – like you – if this went viral, would I be comfortable with that? Not as in, ‘Oh, that’s too personal’ – but, could I get in trouble for it????

    Thanks for bringing up an important topic!

  3. I agree. Personally, when I blogged, I tried to prioritize both honesty and kindness. Even if a story is true in the journalistic fact-checking sense, that doesn’t mean that it’s kind or right to plaster it all over the internet. I think that we’ve all had a few incidents where our behavior did not reflect our actual values or best efforts. It is rare that exposing those moments to the public will make the world a better place (obvious exceptions being violent crimes, fraud, etc.). I recently read Salman Rushdie’s memoir, and was struck by the way that his descriptions of his ex-wives often lacked kindness. Every word that he wrote may have been true, but I think that it reflects poorly on him that he chose to expose some ugly or embarrassing behaviors by trusted family members to public scrutiny. I now think less of him, not them.

  4. I think it’s terrible when a reader has to wonder whether something is true. Inaccurate memory is one thing, but outright lies or exaggerations don’t help anyone. I understand that it’s tempting to exaggerate, especially if you’re trying to get people on your side or to rally them with you against someone/something else, and you think the true story just won’t cut it. But in those cases, it’s up to the writer to explain how even though the event doesn’t sound like a big deal, it had a deep, lasting, emotional impact. It’s wrong to deliberately manipulate the story. Maybe someone DID say something awful to the mom in the Wal-mart-headband story, something that made her feel sick to her stomach and attacked, but something that other people wouldn’t necessarily get angry about. So, she exaggerated, made sure that everyone would see that person as a villain and she/her son as a victim, and validate her emotional reaction. I’m not saying that’s what happened, but I think that’s a reasonable theory. If I’m right, I would not condone what she did, but I would understand her motivation. Who among us hasn’t been tempted to stretch the truth in order to gain sympathy? As bloggers, we need to resist that temptation, and to tell the truth as we know it (not as we feel it).

  5. Thoughtful post today … thanks for this! Yes, I do think that we owe it to our readers to tell the truth, or at least to tell stories with the frame of narrative. But I also think that readers should read blogs as a genre. And not all blogs are created equal. Some are more rooted in memoir than others. This has a lot to do with the way we do (or don’t) critically evaluate information. The internet has led people to believe that everything they see/read is true. And yet, there are shades of truth. We used to try to tell our students this, and they didn’t–or wouldn’t–understand.

    Hm, maybe food for my OWN blog post. 🙂

  6. Esperanza

    I am a big fan of the truth. Always. That is why I blog anonymously because I think it’s a lot harder to preserve the truth when people know who you are. Or at least the topics you can talk about honestly are limited, sometimes severely.

    But I think there is so little real honesty in the world, as far as our every day interactions are concerned. I think honesty is one of the most valuable things a blogger can offer the world. But again, that is the kind of perspective I like to put into the world and the kind of perspective I like to read.

    I am what I would call a naive or gullible person. I generally believe things are true and am shocked when I find out otherwise. (Having said that even I thought the autism letter was a joke, it just seemed so… extreme. I couldn’t believe someone would actually write that). I hate that people hoodwink others with those kinds of scams, it does make us cynical and I don’t know how to not be cynical when I see things like that. I always want to assume the best of people but when you’ve been duped before, you don’t want to be duped again. I would definitely not say anything to anyone if I suspected their were being dishonest though. I may not lend my support if I were unsure, but I would never accuse, I would feel horrible if my suspicions were wrong.

    A really interesting and important piece. Thanks for getting me thinking.

  7. Dear Buddha going viral would be my worst nightmare. I write about my period every other post. That’s for my Pretend Friends not the entire world or (ACK) people I know IRL.

    As for the rest, I have 1 or 2 blogs I subscribe to that I would not be surprised if they were…..fake I guess is the best way to put it. I try to think of it like, I enjoy reading their words, I enjoy the interaction I have with them, and I’ll take it at face value. That’s what they want to put out there, so be it, I’ll take it on their terms. I don’t have any reason to believe I’ll ever meet them in real life, although I can’t say I wouldn’t take the chance as I am curious.

    We all choose versions of our stories to tell, none of us can paint the whole picture. I try my best to be as honest as possible, but I don’t fault others for not doing that. UNLESS there is some sort of reaction expected. Donating money, writing letters on behalf of, righting some sort of wrong etc. That’s stepping over the line in my opinion, getting others involved in your dishonesty.

  8. Well, truth is subjective, isn’t it? I write what I want, keeping in mind my words may come back to haunt me one day. I’m not in the habit of lying, dramaticizing or stretching the truth to garner sympathy, that’s attention seeking behaviour. I did that when I was a teenager and now I’m a grownup. And that’s why I’m an actor by trade. So I can pretend stuff, get paid and have lots of attention paid to me and then come home and clean the toilet mumbling about why I don’t have staff.
    That letter by the way regarding the autistic child was featured on Global News here on TV. The mother was shown reading the letter and crying.

  9. Since I blog a lot about my son’s medical issues, I am VERY careful about being as truthful as I can be. My mom comes with me to a lot of appointments, and I always double check with her before I write something, to make sure I heard the doctor correctly, because it’s so easy to twist in your mind what you THINK you heard and perceive that as the truth.

    The letter to the family with the child with autism of course disgusts me. Whether or not it’s a hoax, somebody wrote those words, and there ARE people out there in the world who feel that way. I look at my own child and am devastated to know that there are people who would think his life isn’t important or a nuisance to society. Heartbreaking.

  10. I definitely think bloggers should be careful w/ the truth when they post regardless of whether it has the potential to go viral. I don’t want to read a blog and always wonder if what I’m reading is true. I also think a reader has the right to question a blogger. I think there is a difference between possibly exaggerating a bit or having an imperfect memory in a post recounting an event and writing a post calculated to spark controversy and go viral. That was my big problem with the Wal Mart post. I retweeted it and posted it on FB. Normally with a blog I don’t know, I wait a bit before doing that, but for some reason, I didn’t stop to think. And then as the suspicion started mounting and questions starting coming, I was so embarrassed I had shared it. I even posted an apology on FB.

    I think that we are getting better about asking questions about events that seem contrived and suspecting hoaxes. Yes, we’re being called haters and cold-hearted for doubting, but I think past Internet hoaxes have taught us that we have a right to be skeptical if something seems too good to be true.

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