That mad wag, Jimmy Kimmel, is doing another victory lap. This time, the biggest jerk on late night TV managed to fool news services, panic families of Olympian athletes and insult Russia (not that that bothers me very much) by his latest internet gag—convincing American luge athlete Kate Hanson to relay, via Twitter, his fake video of what appeared to be a wolf roaming the halls of the Olympic Village accommodations. Any collateral damage is irrelevant to Kimmel, because his objective is to cause trouble, then mock everyone who was fooled for allowing the trouble to be caused, since if they weren’t so dumb, trusting and gullible—it’s all their fault, not his, you see—nothing would have happened. (Yes, Kate Hansen is a jerk too.)
Here is what this relatively harmless (as opposed to harmless, which no web hoax is) misrepresentation accomplished:
- It took up thousands of valuable minutes of news broadcasts throughout yesterday which could have been used productively to educate the public about all manner of things they actually need to know about—what’s happening to Justin Carter, for example—remember him? Maybe a well-produced segment on why a teen shouldn’t be facing terrorism charges for an obvious joke he made on Facebook could spark some much-needed public outrage. Instead, serious news broadcast time, a finite resource, was used to further a prank.
- It made the media a party to a lie. It doesn’t matter about what. It’s a lie.
- It wasted the time, thought and energy of every person who talked about the wolf, expressed concern about it or thought about it.
- It further increased cynicism and doubt about news reports, feeding the tendency to adopt conspiracy theories and fear of sinister manipulation. How do we know the moon landing wasn’t a Jimmy Kimmel hoax?
Most of all, this will encourage other, bigger, more reckless asses than even Kimmel to go further and further with their web hoaxes, because such pranks mean viral videos and fame, no matter what harm they cause.
Earlier this week, two radio personalities revealed that the controversy and outrage they stirred up with their commentary about an antigay RSVP to a child’s birthday party was also a hoax. “We were attempting to spur a healthy discourse on a highly passionate topic,” they explained in their mea culpa, “but we made a mistake by misleading our listeners into thinking that this specific situation actually existed.”
Well yes, you fools, because making people think something is true that isn’t is called a lie, and lies are unethical and wrong. They are wrong even when some people think they are funny. They are wrong. Every single effort to deceive the news media, the aged, the gullible, the easily excited, the outraged, the emotional, the stupid, the jaded and the besotted with conformation bias is wrong—harmful, inexcusable, to be avoided at all costs and condemned in others. Could I be clearer?
I began pointing this out, to a chorus of pooh-poohing, years ago, and I have been proven correct. Web hoaxes are pollution. They make information sources untrustworthy, they cause tangible harm, they start rumors, they exacerbate social tensions, they empower the jackasses, the cruel, the arrogant, the reckless, the destructive and the Jimmy Kimmels among us, and they will, if not unchecked, cause greater, significant and recurring harm that will be difficult if not impossible to stem, because the habit will be imbedded in the culture. Clear enough?
Here is a scale of the various varieties of web hoaxes, arranged from most ethical to least.
1. Hoaxes successfully designed to be immediately recognized as hoaxes.
2. Hoaxes unsuccessfully, negligently or recklessly designed to be recognized as hoaxes.
3. Hoaxes designed to be funny because people believe them.
4. Hoaxes designed to get publicity or be part of an advertising campaign.
5. Hoaxes designed to make those who fall for it look foolish or stupid.
6. Hoaxes designed to spark controversy.
7. Hoaxes to spread misinformation just to do it.
8. Hoaxes designed to get someone else in trouble.
9. Hoaxes designed to spread malicious rumors.
10. Hoaxes designed to defraud.
11. Hoaxes designed to cause panic or public unrest.
Only #1 is truly ethical, because #1 isn’t really a hoax at all. Fake stories on The Onion websites aren’t hoaxes, because the site makes it very clear that its stories are fake. Similarly, Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” broadcast was not intended to be a hoax….not designed to be, not reasonably defined as one. I would call it a #2, the negligent variation on #1: the quirks of the medium created the conditions of a hoax, but it is hard to assign legitimate blame. The argument is made that April Fools Day justifies any hoax as a #1, because the tradition of the date puts everyone on notice that anything is likely to be a trick or a lie. My position is that unless an April Fools hoaxer reasonably believes that his victims have consented to be fooled, the he or she is responsible for unethical conduct if their “joke” is believed and causes tangible harm. Ethics aren’t suspended by the calendar. April Fools jokes are in category 2 or 3, unless the presumed consent is reasonable.
The rest? Unethical, and to various degrees, despicable. The Groupon hoax, which may have been a #2 (but I doubt it) is a #4 and a #7. Kimmels’ could be categorized as a 2, 3, 5, 6, 8 or 10.
But they are all wrong. Planting false facts in the information supply may not make people sick like putting poison in the water supply, but it is damaging enough to be recognized as not worth tolerating for the occasional giggle. We all need to stop encouraging hoaxes by shrugging them off or feeling superior because we weren’t fooled…this time. Eventually, we will be. Eventually, we will all realize that the internet gives too much power to those whose acts of mischief used to affect tens of people, but now can harm millions.