The Year in Internet: The Rise of the Hoax Economy

Getty Images Manti T'eo

The paradox of the Internet has always been that it exists ephemerally and also forever. Out of each day’s pile of content — Buzzfeed lists, local news stories, photos of the dinners eaten by distant friends, posts like this one — very little makes an impression, which is a soothing thought if you exist in a perpetual state of fear that you’re going to become the target of collective outrage for expressing a stupid opinion. I’d guess that many of us who write for the Internet brace ourselves against the day everyone turns on us, when rape or death threats might wind up in our inboxes. It seems inevitable: We’re all asking for attention, and one day it could be the wrong kind. Most of us tread carefully because of this, editing ourselves from all angles and closing the laptop after too many drinks, but when we encounter something sensational (which often entails a certain amount of divisiveness, with follow-up counterarguments and character assassinations), we sometimes feel a twinge of envy. That kind of boldness is either brave or stupid, depending on the topic and point of view, and in the past few years has also proven to be lucrative, yielding book deals, a larger audience, and the kind of notoriety that can be manipulated into cash.

Despite Grumpy Cat’s magazine cover, it seems like 2013 was the year viral house pets with funky expressions were eclipsed by more dramatic stories. Some of these stories captured our gaze because there were lessons to be learned about humanity in general, or specific people we could help. Our focus has shifted from the amusing to the emotional — just look at Upworthy, which Fast Company dubbed “the fastest growing media site of all time” in June. Upworthy markets poignancy with click-baiting headlines (“9 Out of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact”), essentially challenging us to share if we care; and whether our support comes in financial or cheerleading form, the Internet has shown its might. That’s good, but that’s not what this year was really about.

No, 2013 was the year we were tricked, catfished, and hoaxed. Of course it was! We were so empowered by our ability to make a difference via virtual means that we forgot how vulnerable that made us to trickery. When we saw something outrageous, we were outraged, millions of us all at once; when someone was wronged, we jumped at the chance to come to his or her rescue. We didn’t bother to verify our stories; we just believed them. It’s poetically ominous that the year began with the revelation that a highly publicized sad story had been fictional: Manti Te’o’s deceased girlfriend had been fictional. This was, of course, a double-catfish. Te’o was duped along with the rest of us, he maintains, into believing his girlfriend had died (and that she had existed at all). He sustained the full impact of a blow to his dignity without anyone else being harmed, but in retrospect it seems like a warning: Don’t put your trust in people you can’t see. We ignored it.


Some of the lies were like fairy tales, harmless and embedded with useful lessons despite their factual flaws. Don’t fuck with pythons, for instance. There were half-cat goblins and the April Fool’s tease of a Google search accented with scents, which every day wafts a little closer to reality. These were the dream hoaxes, those that hinged on kernels of truth and animated them with a heaping dose of fantasy.

That breed of false story was just an early stop on the long ride, though. As we watched YouTube pranks and worried about our personal deets being monitored by the government, our dials were still stubbornly tuned to concern-hunting mode. Many of the jokes bordered on offensive (see: Cutting for Bieber), but others were just dramatic gotchas (a twerker set alight) that freaked us out and then reassured us in quick succession. But every day our consciences were scrolling around: Somewhere, someone is in trouble. If the Internet represents all the world, someone probably was. Finding him or her among the impostors was the tricky part.

The real damage caused by hoaxes this year came by way of misdirected crowd-funding. There was Dayna Morales, an ex-Marine and now ex-waitress (she left her job in a mutual decision with her employer after the incident) who posted a picture of a receipt with a note written on it denying her a tip because of her sexual orientation. Morales took to Facebook’s “Have a Gay Day” page with her evidence, and after the post went viral, she’d amassed thousands of dollars in donations. Unfortunately for Morales, the customers in question didn’t agree with her story and claimed they had tipped nearly 20 percent, leaving no derogatory comments in the margins. There were white lies, too: Linda Walther Tirado (a.k.a. KillerMartinis), a writer who posted a personal essay on poverty in the Huffington Post and received more than $61,000 in GoFundMe donations to fund her book as a result, wasn’t as poor as she led us to believe; her story was “taken out of context” when it appeared on the Huffington Post, she wrote, and her circumstances had improved since then. She probably needed the 60 grand, but who doesn’t kind of need 60 grand?

There were also the stories that vampired from our hearts instead of our wallets. Something was smelly from the get-go when television producer Elan Gale messed with our Twitter minds over Thanksgiving weekend, but we (I! I! Me included!) still became invested in his airplane mate Diane, all her shenanigans, and the crow she had to eat as Gale delivered notes to her along with tiny bottles of liquor. Why did Gale do it? Because it made him Internet famous (for the umpteenth time; Gale is not new at this) and gained him followers and name recognition. Something about it was almost Upworthy: Gale was a misogynist for telling a woman to “eat [his] dick,” Diane the ghost victim was suffering from fatal cancer, and we were all too fat and sad from eating too much turkey to stop ourselves from chiming in. Opinions were thrown like coins in every direction. The antidote to Gale’s joke was a Twitter war between Pace salsa and comedian Kyle Kinane, but that turned out to be a Te’o-style meta con, a comic-on-comic logjam that tricked us (and Kinane) into thinking Pace employees were benignly blackmailing him to force him to stop tweeting missives like “Pace Picante ads do everything short of calling you a queer for not eating their salsa.” We worried that teenagers would die at the hands of armed grandmothers after playing the “Knockout Game.” We actively looked for things to worry about, because this year we wanted to feel less guilty for gawking at sad things. We were basically asking to pay the price of admission to a theme park comprised of other people’s troubles, and it came from a benevolent and sincere place.

What these hoaxes say about our culture is too complicated to be fully understood yet. It’s not just liars and half-cats: This is about capitalism, and ambition, and keyboards mightier than swords. Our approach to the digital world, contained within the physical one (still separate but, in many ways, no less important or influential), has been cleaved in two. Some of us game it, identifying its possibilities and how we can manipulate it into serving us under false pretenses; others stiffly obey its rules (still paranoid its quirky logic will lead to our being publicly maligned, somehow) and serve as an audience for the ones who understand how easily we’re tricked. There is always a storyteller and a listener, each with a role we haven’t quite figured out how to occupy. To ignore heart-wrenching stories is to be callous, but to indulge them (we now know) is often foolish: They’re just too easy to fake.

Everyone has a site-crashing story within them. It’s the one you save for a few months into a new relationship or accidentally spill at a booze-soaked dinner party, the monologue that stops any conversation cold and hands you a roomful of eyeballs on a platter. It’s the secret story, your secret story, and right now you know it’s worth a lot of money or a lot of sympathy. But that’s true for a reason: Those stories aren’t easily given up, and revealing the softest part of your belly allows strangers to spear you with rape-threat arrows. This year we honed our ability to fabricate new ones that served the same purpose. Our confessions became tools we used for either fun or profit.

The difference between skepticism and paranoia is slight, and remaining rational when your emotions are being purposefully needled is an ancient conundrum. As the Internet evolves to more resemble what we used to think of as “life,” we’re forced into the tedious process of applying stale rules to what we want to believe is new and different, a clean and optimistic universe. Don’t talk to strangers (or at least verify their identities before cutting checks); don’t believe everything you see. What was once a confessional campfire now seems eerily lit by studio lights and infiltrated by performers. While we’ve spent the past half-decade mourning the death of fiction, we’ve momentarily forgotten how insulating it is to clothe ourselves in lies. In a way, it’s reassuring to think about how little we’ve changed, how silly it ever was to imagine we could create a virtual world that abolished self-interest by way of exaggerations produced for effect. And just like that, 2013 was over, twerking into the fires of the past.

Filed Under: Internet