“Over the last several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Mr. Cosby have resurfaced. The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true.”
That statement from Bill Cosby’s lawyer was posted Sunday on the comedian’s Web page. It was the first response from the Cosby camp since the recent frenzy began over allegations that the entertainer has been a serial rapist.
Those accusations date to 2006, when Cosby made public denials, settled a civil lawsuit out of court and maintained his stature as a dad-sweatered pop-culture icon.
It seemed the scandal had been put to rest. But as the past few weeks have shown, it’s become more difficult to bury a story for good — especially a story like this one, which has many of the components for going viral: a famous name, a shareable video, lurid personal accounts. The resurgence of interest in this old news story didn’t happen at random. It’s the result of what we, in the age of information overload, are inclined to click on.
This news cycle started with a stand-up routine, in which the allegations were reintroduced by comedian Hannibal Buress, who was performing in Cosby’s home town of Philadelphia. The performance video was first published a month ago on PhillyMag.com.
The video was an upsetting piece of information packaged as something more lighthearted, says University of Pennsylvania professor Jonah Berger, who, as author of the best-selling “Contagious: Why Things Catch On,” has spent the past decade studying what factors contribute to content going viral.
“At first, people may be less willing to share stories that are just negative about Bill Cosby,” Berger said. “You might want to talk about controversial topics with your friends, but you’re unwilling to bring them up. A joke is cloak or a cover around the negative information. It’s an easier introduction that allows the negative information to eventually resurface.”
Buress urged his audience to help the story resurface.
“I’ve done this bit onstage, and people think I’m making it up,” he said in the video. “When you leave here, Google ‘Bill Cosby rape.’ That s--- has more results than ‘Hannibal Buress.’ ”
Google searches for his Cosby keywords spiked the next week, as people sought the full history:
In January 2005, Andrea Constand, a former employee of Temple University (Cosby’s alma mater), said that Cosby had drugged and assaulted her the year before. No criminal case was brought against him — the district attorney investigating the charges cited a lack of evidence — but the accusation prompted other women to come forward.
The next month, California lawyer Tamara Green appeared on NBC’s “Today” show and alleged that in the 1970s, Cosby had given her pills to weaken her motor skills and then assaulted her. “I thought, you know, after all these years, it’s the same M.O.,” Green told host Matt Lauer. “I decided that if there were only two us, one a long time ago and one right now, then that’s two too many.”
Cosby denied both allegations.
Later in 2005, Constand filed a civil suit against Cosby, and her lawyer promised depositions from 13 women who reportedly had stories similar to Constand’s. The case was settled out of court before those women testified.
Some of those women went public with their accusations anyway. Former Denver model Beth Ferrier, who had an affair with Cosby in the mid-1980s, alleged in an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News that Cosby had drugged her. A year later, Ferrier and another former model, Barbara Bowman, were featured in a People magazine story about the claims against Cosby. Neither stood to gain from Constand’s case, as the statute of limitations on both of their alleged assaults had ended.
After the People story, the focus on the claims against Cosby receded. So why, eight years later, are we hearing about them again?
First, there was Buress’s joke. It wasn’t a new one. He told Howard Stern he’d performed the same bit on and off for six months, but the fact that it was captured on video enabled the segment to go viral. The clip — less than two minutes long — not only renewed interest, but also provided a comfortable context for talking about the allegations.
“The safer introduction provided an entree to the larger discussion,” Berger said.
A little more than a week later, the Daily Mail published Bowman’s graphic account of the abuse she says she suffered at Cosby’s hands. She’d given a similar interview to Newsweek in February, but the story, published so many months before the Buress video, didn’t attract nearly the level of attention on social media.
That Cosby is such a household name — “America’s favorite dad,” as the phrase goes — contributed to drawing readers to the story and made them that much more likely to share it, experts say. And as interest surged, other celebrities — including talk-show hosts David Letterman and Queen Latifah — began backing away from Cosby’s uncomfortable new spotlight.
Cosby and his representatives remained tight-lipped. They attempted to direct attention to Cosby’s decision to lend African American art to the National Museum of African Art in D.C.
But ignoring the situation only made it worse. Cosby’s team tried a PR stunt on Twitter by asking users to “meme” the comedian. It backfired. The responses resulted in images of a grinning Cosby captioned with such phrases as, “That feeling you get from being America’s most beloved serial rapist” and “When you realize you got enough cash to pay off the victim.”
With the meme campaign, Cosby employees had inadvertently hit on another key ingredient to make something go viral: Give people a chance to participate in the news. “By customizing a meme with their own personal ‘it’ jokes, it makes everybody feel part of it,” Berger said. “It lets them say to their friends and colleagues that they are in the know.”
A third factor in the story going viral came three days after the Twitter stunt, when Bowman spoke out again in a first-person article published on PostEverything, a commentary section of The Washington Post Web site. Studies of viralness have shown that content is more likely to be shared if it evokes extreme emotions — even if they are such “negative” emotions as anger or disgust. Bowman’s narrative, with its graphic details about the clinking of Cosby’s belt buckle and a lawyer who accused her of making up the story, had more than 2 million page views.
Still, Cosby said nothing. During an interview about the entertainer’s art collection that aired Saturday, NPR host Scott Simon asked for a response to the allegations against him. Cosby only shook his head. Radio silence.
On Sunday, he changed course with the 77-word statement from his lawyer, John P. Schmitt, that said that the resurfacing of these stories does not make them true and noted that Cosby will have no further comment on the matter.
Although far more subdued, Cosby’s denial is reminiscent of statements made this year by Woody Allen. The director faced similar scrutiny after a Vanity Fair profile and a Golden Globe lifetime achievement award revived the decades-old accusation that he molested his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow. In dismissing the claims against him as lies, however, Allen responded by writing a lengthy opinion piece that ran in the New York Times, as opposed to the brief statement by Cosby’s attorney posted to the comedian’s Web site.
Eventually, attention on the accusations against Allen died out — not so much due to his piece in the Times, as much as to the brevity of online news cycles, according to Berger, who thinks the focus on Cosby will probably fizzle out in the same way.
“We’d love to think important topics stick around,” Berger said. “But most likely, it will be gone again when something juicy takes its place.”