A couple years ago, my friend Michael Sippey coined the brilliant phrase “Even if it’s fake, it’s real.” He was referring to a possibly-faked Google Street View image making the rounds of an in-progress childbirth. Sippey explains that, regardless of where the truth lies (and there are four distinct potential outcomes, not just two), it doesn’t affect the entertainment value of the image and that we should embrace this new uncertainty.
About a year ago, the Manti Te’o story began to break. The mainstream coverage mostly focused on the catfishing angle of it and painted him an innocent victim, while scrappier sources like Deadspin produced subplots involving friends who may or may not have been involved, their prior criminal activities, and the possibility of this being a coverup for homosexuality in a repressive religion, among many possibilities. To this day, I don’t feel like we know or will ever know where the absolute truth lies in the story.
Over the past few months, I’ve seen an increase in stories that seem outrageous on first read, spread like wildfire, days later get dubbed a hoax, and eventually, with additional information, end up in some sort of ethical gray area between the boundaries of truth and fiction. There’s the famous twerking video hoax reveal of Jimmy Kimmel, the never-ending story of Andy Kaufman’s death, the anti-gay waiter tip hoax (or not), Slate accusing Buzzfeed of not fact-checking the Awful First Class Passenger story hoax, and just recently the telemarketing robot that might be fake — but with additional digging no one is really sure, so it’s tough to say.
I consider myself media savvy, with decades of sniffing out the truth for my own edification and running a news-savvy community of over 60,000 users, and still I find myself feeling duped, confused, but also strangely mildly entertained at the same time. The rise of the 24-hour news cycle and the stresses on news departments to post the latest attention grab are combining with the churn of rumors and tips coming out of Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit (plus the emotional twists of Upworthy and BuzzFeed) to make unbelievable stories a near daily occurrence, with fact-checking falling a bit by the wayside.
The natural reaction is to harden, to move beyond mere skepticism towards defaulting to distrust (without going overboard to humorlessly cynical). Yet at the same time, these strings of stories are offering increasingly complex outcomes amid layers of truth and untruth that only get uncovered in bits over time. 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.
In 2014, I see no decrease in this trend. I imagine this pattern of stories — spread through social media into the mainstream, dubbed hoaxes, then finally dubbed more complicated than that — will start to become a fairly common part of the news cycle. At the same time, I don’t see myself grappling with hoax fatigue: Instead, I’m starting to appreciate the spectacle and pattern of this new flavor of breaking news and realizing in the end: Even if it’s fake, it’s real.
(That Street View birth? It was a fake.)