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By Jason Michael
Without even meaning to, yesterday I became a troll. When I troll people I like to know I’m doing it. But with one little tweet I managed to troll the whole of America. It has taught me something about ‘Fake News.’
Shortly before seven in the morning yesterday I came across an old Sharknado meme; the one where one of the sharks is swimming at the foot of an escalator in a shopping centre. It had been photoshopped so as to make it appear as though it was passing a car stuck on a flooded highway. Someone, as someone always does during a hurricane or a heavy flood, had put the darn thing up on Twitter again. Here’s what I did: I downloaded the image, recomposed what I thought was a rubbish tweet, and pressed the blue ‘tweet’ button. Frittering about online, I finished my coffee, and got on with the day.
Getting home shortly after seven in the evening, I fired up the laptop. Craig Silverman had sent me a message on Facebook messenger: “I saw your mega-viral tweet with the image of a shark in the street. Any chance you want to talk about it?” What was this, I thought, a free therapy session? Who this Silverman chap was, was a mystery to me. So I tapped on his profile. Craig Silverman was, according to his social media bio, the “Founding Editor at BuzzFeed, Canada.”
I saw your mega-viral tweet with the image of a shark in the street. Any chance you want to talk about it?
Right, I know BuzzFeed. Most popular click bait site on the internet. Facebook had even given him that little blue check. Craig was who he said he was. I let him know that I didn’t mind having a chat and shooting the breeze. I like Canadians. Then I flicked on Twitter. Ouch! “99+” notifications. Clicked on that. It turned out I had more than 50,000 notifications. Some of them will have to go unread I am afraid. Scrolling down through them to get a gist of what people were saying, it wasn’t all pretty. To some I was a comedy genius. That was good. But to others – many others – I was a purveyor of “#FakeNews.” Then the phone rang. It was Craig.
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) August 28, 2017
He was full of questions. Did I know it was fake? Of course! It’s a meme. Even he knew that. Do I take any responsibility for disseminating misleading information? What?! No! It’s a cat video. Will I delete it now that I am the most hated man in America? That was a toughie. By that stage the tweet had something like 25 thousand retweets. That was a new personal best. It wasn’t obscene. It wasn’t an image of carnage or death. It wasn’t gratuitous. People were actually at-ing “realDonaldTrump” and “POTUS,” trying to get the Donald to retweet it. He just might. I had to think.
Let’s be clear about this. I’m a Scottish columnist and blogger living in a two-up-two-down in the middle of Dublin, four and a half thousand miles from Houston, Texas. It says I live between Dublin and Glasgow on my profile, and, owing to the nature of some of the abuse I was getting, people were picking up on that. So that would have been the first real give-away that this wasn’t a picture I had taken, and that this wasn’t an effort at reporting the news.
On the other hand people were getting upset. Good people living in Roseau, Minnesota – just about as far as you can get from Houston without leaving the United States – were virtue signalling like there was no tomorrow about me “attention whoring” off the back of a real human tragedy – and it is a real human tragedy. But something was niggling at me about all of this. Somehow, by the vast and inexplicable wonder of global social media, this tweet was snowballing out of control. That is interesting. Why did it take the media – like the New York Times for Pete’s sake – to explain to America that a shark on a flooded highway was not real?
But something was niggling at me about all of this. Somehow, by the vast and inexplicable wonder of global social media, this tweet was snowballing out of control. That is interesting.
Then there were people like Rakesh Agrawal sending me pictures of him kissing his mother and calling me an “asshole.” I don’t know Rakesh from Adam. I thought I might have recognised his mum though. According to Twitter Rakesh founded SnapStream, “how the Daily Show gets its TV clips” apparently. He felt the need to swear at me for whatever it was about this tweet that got him upset. His annoyance was at me behaving like an “attention starved asshole,” but that he was hashtagging this abuse indicated he wanted some of that attention himself. Then I thought, wasn’t that exactly what BuzzFeed was doing, and then Mashable, the New York Times, and all the others who got on the slipstream being created by this fishy tweet?
Rakesh Agrawal (@RakeshAgrawal) August 29, 2017
No one really seemed to care about the victims. It was all about the attention and being able to get in for a slice of the action. Not one of the media outlets that picked up on my tweet mentioned how many people had been confirmed dead, how many were thought missing, or even provided emergency information for those affected or with family and friends in the Houston area. So far eight people have been confirmed dead. God rest them and comfort their loved ones.
This tweet, which I wish to hell I had never tweeted – truth be told, is instructive. No, I am not attempting to teach the wold a lesson. Trolling the whole of America has been a real pleasure. It has, but it is teaching me something about the power of fake news. At the time of writing it has 47,991 retweets, 68,958 likes, over four and a half thousand responses, and has reached 5,650,714 people. How did my Twitter account, with a following at the time of about 1,300 people – mainly in Scotland – do all of this in twelve hours?
Simple answer: People love this sort of sensation. They eat it up. It entertains them. More than this, they love being part of it. It excites them to know they have been a part of its journey around the world. All the outrage is boloney. Had this not been the case, my followers – who for the most part recognised the meme and saw the humour in it – would not have retweeted it. Their followers would not have seen it and retweeted it again. But that’s not what happened. Americans don’t want to hear about Trump sabre rattling with North Korea, or the possibility he might be in Putin’s pocket. So they pick up trifles that amuse them; things that are easy to understand.
People love this sort of sensation. They eat it up. It entertains them. More than this, they love being part of it. It excites them to know they have been a part of its journey around the world.
A shark on the road is what it is. It’s a shark on a road. This is Ockham’s Razor 101. It didn’t happen. Yet it’s easy to grasp, it tickles the imagination, it allows us to be seen to be enraged or be one of the smarty pants who myth busted it. What it is, is bubble gum for the brain. But what we are missing is that this is precisely how the media – the “real” or “mainstream” media – has operated for decades. Now these techniques of mass anaesthesia are being used – thanks to the internet and social media – by people and organisations that have more sinister messages to spread than shark memes, and if this tweet did all this in one day, imagine what is being done by well-funded, highly-ideological, and heretofore fringe extreme right-wing political groups.
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