A True Story About Fake News
As a child of the ‘80s parented by Facts of Life and Growing Pains (RIP Alan Thicke), I have always enjoyed comedies with a solid moral. Cheesy? Potentially. But it’s who I am and I’ve come to terms with it. Therefore, it’s probably no shock that I ended up with a career as an idealistic writer who prefers the content I create to have some greater meaning. So, when recently crafting a piece for the holidays, I of course worked with that same intention. However, within 30 minutes of posting, I realized the message sent was quite different than the one I had intended.
You see, I created a video entitled #TechCleanseFAIL about a character who decides to take a break from technology and social media… and then chooses to document his journey using technology and social media. A comedic statement on our collective narcissism and societal need for acceptance. Believe me, I get it. We all have this insatiable desire to let the world know that we MATTER. I mean, why else pause all those #blessed moments in order to shoot half a dozen selfies, scrutinize the options for our best “blue steel,” and then spend thirty minutes searching for the ideal filter for the occasion?
Well, in that vein, my digital detox tale follows a young man through the five stages of grief brought about by his withdrawal from Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and the almighty LIKE. A comedic yet somewhat realistic warning of sorts. Once complete, I posted the following video for a trial run to the old standby, Facebook (please note that the original post was set to autoplay and did not include the title card) -
Now, let’s back up a bit. When brainstorming this piece, I decided that the best way to present the true downward spiral of our hero was to have him start at a very guarded, superficial place. This would allow the audience to watch his slow collapse into vulnerability and eventually, ideally, acceptance with his new way of tech-free living. As you may have noticed, I decided the best character motivation, avoiding the obvious political controversies as of late, would be a breakup during the holidays - a vulnerable combination...
I should also preface this with the fact that I, myself, am a very happily married man. A self-proclaimed hopeless romantic who searched far and wide to find a woman that means the world to him. Furthermore, prior to posting, my wife watched the video and had no issue with my declaration of singledom as we were both positive that once people watched the five-minute piece in its entirety, they would surely know this was just a character.
WE WERE WRONG.
People went nuts. It seems that very few watched the video from start to finish. Similar to those who simply glance at a headline without reading the full article (declaring whatever they deem the point to be as fact to all their friends and co-workers), most seemed to just watch the first 15 seconds and began spreading the gospel they believed they had learned.
Within the first hour, there were countless comments wishing me love and strength, but most just texted each other privately while the gossip train continued full steam ahead. One of my oldest friends called to say he was texted by one of our childhood friends, who heard from one of her friends, that I was having marital problems. Ex-girlfriends began reaching out. I got a message from the camp mom from the summer camp I attended almost two decades ago. I had no idea that most of these people were even still active on social media, but it seems gossip has a sort of viral appeal. And I wasn’t the only one whose phone was blowing up. My wife got a call from a girlfriend, who received at least twenty texts from various friends, who heard that we had separated.
Now, traditionally after finishing a project, I’m excited and eager to hear feedback. I look forward to learning about the parts my friends and colleagues enjoyed or notes from strangers in the online community (loving comments like: “the end is near - accept Jesus now” or “die fag”). This, however, was an entirely different situation.
After only four hours, I was pressured into adding an official disclaimer that the video was not real - although I wondered if that wasn't blatantly apparent to anyone who had watched the video to completion. Oddly enough, the texts still came rolling in… even after this confirmation that my marriage was doing just fine, and I had not, in fact, suffered a mental breakdown.
What began as a comedic commentary on the addictive qualities of technology, very quickly became a statement on fake news.
On one hand, I guess it was a compliment that so many seemed to care about the fate of my marriage, but the response did leave me a bit confused. It was never my intention to play a cruel joke on my friends, but is that exactly what I had done?
That night, I was advised to re-edit the video, eliminating the declaration of my singledom. But by that point, the piece had taken on a completely new meaning. This was now a lesson in the dwindling attention spans of modern society. No fake news story has a disclaimer revealing that it’s fake. And if we cannot prevent people from posting fake news, can't we at least take on the responsibility to read beyond the headline?! When did we become a world that requires all our news and life updates in less than 30 seconds? The world is not that simple, nor are the issues that we deal with as a society… how could we expect our news to be?
Three days later, after most of the chaos had settled, I received a call from my mother (who is not on Facebook), asking me what was going on with my marriage. She had received a call from a friend, who had been texted by her daughter, who heard that I was getting a divorce.
We’ve all heard about the threats that stem from the dissemination of fake news — from the heartache that comes with being convinced that your favorite ‘90s teen idol was killed by a lethal injection of pop rocks and soda, to the misleading headlines that potentially influenced the 2016 presidential election. But, the question that lingers for me after this experience is regarding who truly bears the responsibility for this rising trend: the publications broadcasting the misinformation or the people spreading it?