Blame it on social media all you want, but Internet hoaxes are not going away anytime soon. Here's what we can learn from Manti Te'o, Jimmy Kimmel, Elan Gale and other online tricksters.

 

2013 was a grand year for Internet hoaxes. From the fake sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial to the unravelling of Manti Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend, media manipulations have been impressively wide-ranging.

“There really is a virality industry,” media watcher Brian Stelter told CNN in a review of the year’s most notable shams, “with websites that are in the business of finding these things and blowing them up with slide shows and stories.”

Describing this virality industry as separate from, and less noble than, traditional media platforms is a common habit among those who want to make the media a central part of the world. The platforms that have risen around the viral story, and the ones most susceptible to treating hoaxes as real, don’t have a more mercenary attitude toward depicting reality. Reality can be whatever attracts an audience, because their continued existence requires a massive audience to generate a small revenue of advertising and sponsorship.

BuzzFeed’s massive readership, with 120 million unique visitors in November, is estimated to generate only $60 million in revenue for 2013. BuzzFeed’s elder, The Huffington Post, made $60 million from 25 million uniques in 2011 before being acquired by AOL. For comparison, the just-launched tech news site The Information, which runs on subscription fees, would need only 150,000 subscribers to generate $60 million, and the startup can squeeze $1 million from only 2,500 subscribers. These disparities in possible audience size for roughly the same revenue are different forms of the same basic phenomenon, a reflection of how little value media narratives have on their own. Measured in money, hard journalism is indistinguishable from a BuzzFeed narrative composed of photos and other people’s Twitter posts. 

Hoaxes create a rupture in the barrier between private desire and public reality, offering a catalyst that can merge the public and private, but which also leaves the troubling afterthought that there is something false in our most personal wants.

In Gross’s list of the year’s biggest hoaxes, a pattern emerges, with each lie invented to affirm the already established beliefs of the audience. Elan Gale’s invention of a feud with a neurotic woman appearing to have a panic episode on an airplane was a theatrical exorcism of the anxiety that we all seem like assholes to someone. This superstition has slowly made people hesitant to enter the public sphere for fear of losing control of their identities beneath a flurry of charges from those outside one’s own social group.

The story of Dayna Morales being stiffed a tip from customers who begrudged her gayness provided evidence for parties on all sides to justify their mistrust of others, inventing a scenario where all actors could be seen as frighteningly indignant. And poor Manti Te’o had come to believe in the airy nonsense about love that circulates in our culture, so that the only person he really could have fallen for was an empty symbol.

Hoaxes are in their own way a more honest lens for understanding the world than journalism. The earnest news story wants only to record an event so that it can be forgotten, treated as a problem being addressed by invested parties. Hoaxes create a rupture in the barrier between private desire and public reality, offering a catalyst that can merge the public and private, but which also leaves the troubling afterthought that there is something false in our most personal wants.

In the dawning of the mass market Internet in the mid-90s, users of a newsgroup perpetuated a story that a small city in Germany called Bielefeld didn’t actually exist. Though the city was listed on maps, users insisted it wasn’t actually there, invented through a vague government conspiracy, testable by the absence of any direct knowledge of Bielefeld by other users. No one had ever been there, and no one knew anyone who had ever been there, and so no one could refute the charge that the city wasn’t actually real.

Paradoxically, the hoax only made more people aware that Bielefeld existed, either as a fake construct or a real place, feeding a hunger of the individual to be freed from the blinders of their own self-certainty. We all live in menageries of immovable faith in our own ideals, and are all subconsciously aware this certainty makes us vulnerable to the universe of contrary evidence surrounding us, which, like dark matter, we sense but can’t actually describe.

The Internet comes alive when it insulates us from this vulnerability with hoaxes, theatrical fakeries that give people the courage to act out their own superstitious beliefs, in spite of knowing deep down they are wrong in some undiscovered way. We are all scapegoats in someone’s hoax, most of which are so earnestly and seriously presented we don’t even notice they’re there. 

Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, NewYorker.com, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.