Internet hoaxes existed long before 2013, and they’ll continue to dupe the unsuspecting long after the year is done. But as many a pundit has decried already, 2013 marked a sort of zenith for online fakeries. It was the year the media decisively elevated social media phenomena, real or imagined, to the level of actual news.
A confluence of factors were at work here: The ever-growing popularity of social media, the ease and cheapness of sourcing from it, the gratifying avalanche of page views that await any well-timed post on the Internet zeitgeist. Many, many media critics — often those belonging to the proverbial “old school” — blamed news outlets for spreading fakes by failing to check who made them. It’s a criticism that is, at least in part, well-deserved. Among the stand-outs this year:
Twerking fail: A viral video of a girl twerking clumsily — and consequently setting herself on fire — earned nearly 10 million views on YouTube before Jimmy Kimmel revealed he was behind it.
Diane in 7A: A passive-aggressive fight between a disgruntled airline passenger and “Bachelor” producer Elan Gale was, it turned out, invented by Gale for “a few laughs over a slow Thanksgiving weekend.”
New Jersey waitress: 22-year-old Dayna Morales claimed a family denied her a tip because she was gay. The “evidence” — a receipt, which Morales faked — earned her thousands of dollars in donations before the restaurant caught on to her lie and fired her.
“Poverty thoughts”: A Gawker-commenter-turned-essayist made more than $60,000 off her widely covered story about living in poverty. The Houston Press later discovered that she isn’t particularly poor.
Amazon Santa letter: That cute letter to Santa, complete with lengthy Amazon URL, was written by an adult. Two years ago.
Google employee: A union organizer later said he was engaging in a bit of “political theater” when he dressed up as a Google employee and berated anti-gentrification protesters blocking his way to a company bus.
Pace Foods meltdown: The very weird Twitter exchange between comedian Kyle Kinane and the corporate account of Pace Salsa was, disappointingly, just a weird Twitter exchange between Kinane and someone pretending to be Pace Salsa.
But while media coverage may have legitimized 2013’s Internet hoaxes, it also legitimized something else — the social media conversation. Broadcasting a video of a girl’s “twerking fail” on local news, even if said “twerking fail” was actually engineered by Jimmy Kimmel, is an implicit acknowledgement of the value of social media in culture. That video would once belong only to the niche group of savvy web users who sought it out on YouTube. Now it’s a piece of the cultural commons, so omnipresent that even your grandmother has, if not seen it, at least heard of it.
That may not seem particularly revolutionary to digital natives, who eat and breathe this stuff. But if 2013 was the year of the Internet hoax, it was also the year that Internet narratives eclipsed their medium. An argument between two airline passengers has rarely been news before; now, by sole virtue of the social media conversation around it, said argument has ascended to the level of The News.
Depending on your age, outlook and interest in things like other people’s airplane drama, that will either delight or horrify you — particularly given the fact that the vetting of social media stories hasn’t kept up with the stories themselves.
Take heart, though. There’s always 2014 for that.