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2013, year of the fake: Our love affair with viral Internet hoaxes

An image posted by @theyearofelan during his Thanksgiving travel Twitter fight.

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All of a sudden, it seems, it has become the year of the hoax. From a server faking a homophobic message, to a self-righteous airplane passenger passing notes to a non-existent "Diane," to a supposed Google employee berating protestors, stories that appear to be true but aren't are suddenly everywhere.

Call it the triumph of virality. That relatively new phenomenon in which "content" gets passed around social media very quickly – and often with little thought – has become an inextricable part of social media, and thus contemporary culture, too. Unfortunately, it seems the truth sometimes gets lost in the rush.

Nonetheless, it's not all doom and gloom. Something of a silver lining exists in the simple fact that social media hoaxes are helping to start conversations about the kind of society we want to live in. And in age when tastes in entertainment become ever-more niche, perhaps it means that social media hoax is the new soap opera or sitcom: the thing that is patently false, but we use to discuss the ideas and trends of our age.

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The appeal of these recent hoaxes has been clear. Watching Bachelor producer Elan Gale supposedly stick it to that annoying traveler we've all put up had an undeniably cathartic quality – like watching a fictional character do what we would never dare. What this shares with other recent fakeries is its seductive nature, appealing to either base instinct or heightened political feeling.

Couple those very human sentiments with the pace and immediacy of social media and it's no wonder most of us hit "share" on these things before we've had time to think. Hoaxes are thus more about form than content. It's the shape and tone of the thing that gives it its power rather than the details of the case.

As a result of that, there is undoubtedly much about the trend that is cause for worry. That mixture – of the viral structure of the Web and our own tendency to be drawn to the overblown, immediately gratifying and sensational – is a potent one, and has profound consequences for truth and trust. When news reports can't be verified as fast as they can spread, or when the things one reads frequently turn out to be false, mistrust and doubt are sure to follow. Just recently, a searing, brilliant description of what poverty is like was quickly accused of being false, even though it was later proved to be true. The simple commonality of hoaxes and lies online lessened the impact of a vital piece of writing.

All that said, I'd venture that there's something still fruitful about these Web-fuelled ruses. In the Elan Gale example, one inflammatory lie was followed by another: an anonymous message saying the imaginary "Diane" had cancer and was on her way home for her last Thanksgiving. People who had happily cheered the idea of man sending sexist, aggressive notes were suddenly chastened by the mere possibility of a different set of circumstances. That it was utterly false was immaterial, just as in Aesop's tales or in a children's books, a fabulous story imparted a lesson that stuck. All told, it was surprisingly positive.

Obviously, it would be too neat and pat to then say "well then, hoaxes for all!" A society that too aggressively blurs the line between fiction and reality will soon become a mess. But as blogger Felix Salmon cleverly pointed out, many of these fake stories – a tale about a flight, or a twerking video gone wrong – aren't really news. Instead, they are only "news" because of their virality, only shared because they are shareable. It seems we need to draw a line between an Elan Gale-style fib, and something like an activist posing as a Google employee to make a point. That the latter never happened is important because it distorts our view of reality, and should be discouraged; for the former, it seems a lot less significant.

More broadly, what it all suggests is that social media isn't simply a tool for communication or publishing. A few decades ago, TV created a new form of mass culture, a "place" where everyday people could interact with the news and ideas of the day. Social media does something similar, but it changes the dynamics, using its amplifying effect to focus on the significance of day-to-day things rather than soap opera storylines.

It's not that Twitter and Facebook will replace art or broadcast entertainment in that function, of course. What might happen, though, is that the latest happening in your local social media circles – those flippant, and yes, quite possibly false stories – will become fodder for reflection, argument and learning, the kind of thing we talk about and argue at the kitchen table or bar. And as long as those hoaxes are confined to the everyday and the innocuous, strangely, whether it is true may suddenly start to matter a lot less.

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