Monday, February 20, 2017

Internet pranks by academics and fake news

Some of you may remember, in 2013, that Mark Sample, a ProfHacker writer, thought it would be amusing to pull an internet prank in which he pretended to be in danger and disappear, leaving people to worry about him. 

I wrote about that in a post called "Cry Wolf," and in linking to it and rereading it yesterday, my anger at that stupid stunt came back in full force, and I added to that post and to yesterday's.

In comments on the original "Cry Wolf" post, Stacey Donahue, who had convinced me to leave it up, mentioned the #OccupyMLA hoax, so I looked that one up and added this:
Edited to add: here's a link to the #OccupyMLA hoax, otherwise known as more pranksters wasting the time and patience of everyone on a serious issue so that tweets about genuine injustices will be ignored next time when people believe it's a hoax:

All three of these hoaxers dressed it up in theory-speak and tried to spackle it  over with pretensions to doing something useful, but this is the same juvenile mindset that makes 11-year-old boys put firecrackers in mailboxes every 4th of July.  I don't see why we should either excuse it or trust the perpetrators.
And to yesterday's post, I added this:
Forgot to add this: if you want to play pranks with the the sensibilities of people who follow you, be prepared to be unfollowed and to never have anything you say taken seriously again, even though The Chronicle (a more forgiving medium) publishes your stuff. This is one scholar's body of work I never have to read. What credibility would that scholarship have? How would I know he's not making it up, too, a la the Sokal Social Text hoax?

Edited again, because apparently I still am angry about these oh-so-clever bros (see link above) messing with our minds on Twitter and thinking how meta they are for planting lies and making us fall for it: you call it a pomo experiment, but the erosion of trust is real.
Here's my question: why does this make us--okay, me--so angry? I wasn't involved, it was years ago, and there was no personal harm intended.

I think "erosion of public trust" is the key.

We've all seen that Goebbels quotation by now: "“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and or military consequences of the lie." 

We've also seen how the "straight from the horse's mouth" medium of Twitter lends credibility to the most outrageous lies and how charges of "fake news" have become the "lie big enough."

We know that if a certain tweeter-in-chief told his followers that the earth was flat and paved with unicorn tongues, they'd believe it, because he's told them that all voices but his are fake. The technique isn't new. All cult leaders do this. Charles Manson did the same thing.

That's the harm, right there, and that's the cause of the anger.  Mark Twain once said that if a cat sat down on a hot stove once, she would never do it again--but she would never sit on a cold stove, either.

Or, as the old saying goes, once burned, twice shy.

So whether you're posting fake twitter b.s. as a postmodern exercise in meta-tweeting blah blah blah with supreme contempt for the poor fools who are taken in, or whether you're doing it to control a legion of followers, you're still doing the same thing.

You're manipulating people's minds and eroding their trust in a system of information that promotes the common good. You're teaching them to trust nothing, and, in the process, to rely on their gut instincts about what's true--Stephen Colbert's famous "truthiness"--and we have visible daily evidence of how well that's working out.


pat said...

I missed the event you're upset about, but I am similarly peeved at somebody who posted the apparent fake news item about trans teenageers committing suicide after the election. I saw someone I respected pull off social media entirely after having that used as an argument against their hosting a discussion of the election. The fact is, there are topics that it's really difficult to take a critical stance towards without being a jerk, or worse; folks who play around with them are knowingly short-circuiting rational discussion, so I think being indignant is a natural response.

However, being indignant about the impossibility of rational discussion on twitter seems pretty old-school at this point.

undine said...

pat--I don't expect rational discussion on Twitter, not any more, any more than I expect the Republicans or the president to do anything but lie. (I remember when Republicans didn't behave this way, although they don't seem to.)

But I do expect that people who would normally seem to be credible sources (like an academic) to at least attempt to tell the truth and not mess with people's trust deliberately.