For an Increasingly Jaded America Internet Hoaxes Are the New Reality TV


With online hoaxes increasingly going viral, has the internet become the new reality TV?

Reality TV became popular in the 90s as a method for entertainment execs to skirt the expensive unions affiliated with traditional television production. Instead, they developed concepts around colorful real-world characters and shot miles of cheap videotape which they crafted into episodes using fresh-out-of film school editors. No writers needed. Show producers – who aren’t covered by unions – instead took over the writing chores, setting up situations with their found on-camera talent, who were also – you guessed it – non-union. No troublesome Screen Actors Guild actors or demanding Writers Guild writers. More money in the execs’ pockets. The process of making TV was changed forever.

But reality TV has little credibility with today’s increasingly jaded viewers, who’re well-familiar with the formula. Yes, there are still plenty of reality TV shows, but the genre has greatly declined in popularity.

But now we have the online hoax.

One of the latest: Mom Writes Horrifying Response To Birthday Party Invite From Kid With Gay Dads. Here we have a Baldwin, NY mother responding in an unexpectedly nasty manner to her son’s invite to a birthday party for a little girl – a party hosted by the girl’s two gay dads. The mother’s written response: “Tommy will


attend. I do not believe in what you do and will not subject my innocent son to your ‘lifestyle.’ I’m sorry Sophia has to grow up this way.”

The story first appeared this year on February 12, authenticated with photos of the original invite and the indignant mom’s reply, and empathetically wishing Sophia a happy birthday. It received the intended response – readers were outraged by the homophobic mother’s action, and expressed sorrow for the birthday girl.

Two days later however, the story was updated with the news that it was a hoax. Turns out it was created by Steve and Leanna, two radio hosts at K98.3 of Long Island, NY, who posted it and the photos on the station’s Facebook page. Then it went viral. On the 14th, the two hosts copped to the hoax on the station website, citing their intent as “attempting to spur a healthy discourse on a highly passionate topic”, and apologizing for misleading their listeners with the story, “even after it was clear that it had taken on a ‘life of its own.'”

That last sentence is confusing. Would they have been okay with the falsehood if they’d misled only a hundred listeners? A thousand, maybe? Perhaps they intended to fool only their Baldwin, NY listeners – home of their fictional dad and daughter?

The internet is loaded with similar hoaxes. Spend an hour on Facebook or YouTube and you’ll come across more than you realize. And therein lies the evolution from reality TV.

Television started out and was quickly characterized by fictional comedies and dramas. Sure, there have always been news shows, documentaries, and other non-fiction outlets on the tube — but they’re identified as such. The internet is a different animal, though. Traditionally, we use the internet to gather what we assume is factual information, unless like its television counterpart it’s identified as otherwise (like in a credit-crawl, where actors are identified). Maybe it’s not always well-vetted fact, but as internet-users we take the credibility of sites we visit into account. And we’re generally aware of sites with agendas that spin the truth for their own purposes. Overall though, we make the general assumption that we aren’t being intentionally misled.

That’s not the case with these hoaxes though. That’s their whole raison d’être — to mislead. For what reason? To see how many people they can fool before they’re debunked? To raise awareness of an issue by constructing circumstances that illustrate a point? To generate a mutual empathy? Whatever the reason, these hoaxes degenerate the steadily-eroding integrity of the internet.

It’s a conundrum. With so much user-generated content, the internet is now recognized as our go-to source of timely and unedited truth.

But then there’s the flip-side.

Beware internet-surfers. You may be the next to be hoodwinked. You see, with reality TV, the joke is on the subjects of the show. But with internet hoaxes…

The joke is on you.

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