“Lies get halfway around the world before truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Attributed to Benjamin Franklin
These days we’re all on alert for fake news, sort of. On the one hand, we’re suspicious of any statement purported to be a fact that contradicts our view of what’s right and proper. But on the other hand, we’re always willing to click on claims of “inside information” that reveals what “they” don’t want you to know.
This week we’ve all become aware of two sad and troubling stories: the death of Kobe Bryant, and the spreading tentacles of the coronavirus.
You’d think these events would have nothing in common, but they do. Almost instantly, both stories were seized and manipulated by those who seek internet fame, and the money that comes from social media advertising for highly-visited sites, by spreading false information.
Within hours of the reported death of Mr. Bryant, a fake post popped up on Facebook that appeared to show a just-posted Kobe Bryant tweet saying he had information that would lead to the imprisonment of Hillary Clinton. And then his helicopter suddenly crashes. Clearly, within minutes of the posting, Ms. Clinton was able to have Kobe’s helicopter shot down.
It shouldn’t be necessary to say this, but I guess I have to: It’s been verified that Kobe posted no tweets that morning. Also, there were no signs of any bomb or missile debris at the crash site.
Regardless, in the immediate hours after the fake post and helicopter crash, Google Trends reports that searches for “Kobe Bryant Hillary Clinton” spiked.
But wait, there’s more. A famous, and I use the term loosely, American conspiracy theorist, Umar Johnson, posted a video on YouTube within hours of Bryant’s death also claiming that Bryant had been assassinated. His proof? Helicopters don’t normally crash, therefore this must be an inside job by—I’m not making this up—the Illuminati, who are also, Johnson claims, white supremacists. And there you have it.
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And then there’s the coronavirus. Americans have a habit of badly freaking out whenever the words “contagious” and “virus” (or “bacteria”) get within a sentence of each other. There was the Bird Flu (2000), SARS (2003), the Swine Flu (2009), MRSA, which became widely feared around 2015, and now the coronavirus, which appears to have a mortality rate of about 5% of those who catch it. Serious, but not panic-worthy, especially when people use common sense efforts to avoid contamination.
But it is not difficult to find recently-posted YouTube videos claiming without proof that the coronavirus exists because of the eating habits of Asian people, which sometimes includes items that Americans might not find appetizing. From there it’s a quick jump to rolling out ethnic slurs and stereotypes of Asians in general.
What’s at stake for those so eager to jump on the bandwagon of lying about those in the grip of tragedy?
Fame? Of course. Money? Naturally.
Because for all that we proclaim ourselves on guard against the evils of fake news, we are—to be honest—liars. We say we’re not the gullible ones, and then click on whatever conspiracy gobbles up our Google feed. Give us just a whiff of an article that promises to reveal “the real truth,” and we’re instantly ready to wade in the muck. True, some of us will walk away shaking our heads, but there’s a subset of us who will believe it, simply because we see it, and seeing is believing. Right?
And so the posters post—and pray. They pray that their lies go viral, which is the modern term for what used to be known as hitting the mother lode. Virality grants both fame and cash as advertising attaches itself to highly-viewed content. And so what if you walk away from their absurd claims? It doesn’t matter to them. You clicked, and they get paid. Game over.
P.T. Barnum is credited with coining the phrase “there is a sucker born every minute.” Can you imagine what Barnum would be doing if he were alive today? I doubt he’d be running a circus. He’d be running a conspiracy-theory website. And he’d be making a killing.