I have an inordinate hatred of hoaxes. I’ve never known of one that didn’t leave its unwilling marks bewildered at best or furious at worst.
Pranks, on the other hand, can be great; they’re usually quick and fun and end in laughter for all involved. OK, maybe there’s a little pain in some pranks of the MTV "Jackass" variety, but generally with a prank you complete the gag, you get the cream pie in the kisser or the baseball bat to the crotch or whatever, and you’re done.
Conversely, hoaxes can be open-ended, often continuing until an ugly reveal wherein the perpetrator is unmasked, interrupted in their plan to carry on indefinitely spreading a false story. With a hoax, the balance is off. One side gets all the pleasure while the other isn’t even let in on it until way after the fact. Here in One Nation Under the Internet, the Internet hoax has become popular, and they all sicken me.
When comedian Elon Gale live-tweeted his midair altercation with fellow airplane passenger “Diane from [seat] 7A” last Thanksgiving, it was a Twitter phenomenon, as many of us waited and read every exchange and soaked up his (at the time) hilarious play-by-play and his (faked) pictures and notes exchanged between them. His follower count increased exponentially and it became international news.
When he revealed that it was just a hoax, most were furious at having lost all that time to following along, while some defended him, saying things like “Well, you laughed, didn’t you? What’s the difference whether he made it up or not?”
The difference is that he went out of his way to “prove” it was really happening, and in real time, taking advantage of his rapidly growing audience. He took advantage of the Thanksgiving holiday/slow news day when many folks had the luxury of being glued to their devices to follow along. Comedians entertain. Liars and hustlers take advantage of people. He could have genuinely employed the art of storytelling, began with a Seinfeld-ian “What’s the deal with pushy people on airplanes?” and left most of the rest intact. But he chose instead to dip his already phony narrative into a hard candy coating of intentionally obscured falseness masquerading as insistent truth that would only hurt all but the most hardened folks who tried to enjoy it.
That’s what a hoax does. It leaves people feeling duped, not just tricked as if by a magician or a circus clown, but taken advantage of and played for a fool.
I recently wrote about the Hollaback street harassment video that went viral, and how upset I was that the racially biased editing undermined its validity for me. Before the dust could settle on that battleground, a new video popped up depicting a pretty young woman drunkenly approaching men on the street, who respond to her with escalating creepiness and predatory behavior. As of this writing, the clip has over seven million views on YouTube. Those views are doing nothing to combat predators though, since we now know it was just a hoax, and in this case it’s one involving potentially serious subject matter.
When I first watched the video, I thought it was a bit hamfisted, with its leading lady overacting a bit and then chirping her “I feel better now” reveal when the men had displayed enough sleazy behavior for the hidden camera. “Dramatic” music plays throughout, and while I was distracted by what I perceived as flaws, and the veracity of the guys’ behavior was definitely questionable, I still felt it was good to address this topic.
One thing truly bothered me, though: As predictably shitty as these men were in the video, the setup and their actions would require some serious release forms to have been signed for this video to have been released to the public, or the men could legitimately make a stink and derail from the topic at hand.
Little did I know how deeply they could do so. Apparently, proud hoaxsters Stephen Zhang and Seth Leach (along with actress Jennifer Box and sound engineer Chris Olmedo) staged the whole thing, asking men on their Hollywood Boulevard location to participate in a “comedic, hidden-camera” video that was also described to one man as a “student video.” As The Smoking Gun reports, the men were asked “to say a couple of lines for a comedy sketch,” with no release forms signed by anyone whatsoever.
These are Facebook messages posted by two of the men in the video, Mike Koshak and Josh Blaine, who are understandably upset at their portrayals when they thought they were acting in a “comedy sketch” and are now prominently featured as lecherous scum in a bullshit attempt at latter-day cinema verité fame, the Viral Video.
Seth Leach replied to one of them in a private Facebook post, saying he’s “totally cool with you telling everyone that we came up to you and you acted the part” and “the important thing to consider is that this video is going to get you well known,” and urging him to “just go with it, dude.”
One of the poor guys (and I do mean that sincerely) featured in this abomination had the misfortune to be wearing a shirt with his employer’s logo on it, so his boss has now had to issue a public statement distancing herself from his sudden viral notoriety as a would-be rapist and I’m sure he’s not feeling great about his job security, among other things.
I know that this type of sick shit is not something that the creators, in their finite wisdom, plucked out of thin air. I know they remembered when Jimmy Kimmel's fake twerk accident clip capitalized on the frenzy around the work “twerk” that we’ve all just barely managed to survive, and that they looked at the Hollaback video and did not see an opportunity to dig deeper into a specific kind of predatory behavior.
All they saw was the shot clock starting on their fifteen minutes of fame. It’s not their fault that so many people these days would rather see poorly shot video of something they think is “real” rather than anything scripted or polished, but it is their fault that they chose this subject matter around which to craft their hoaxy bullshit.
Right now, a woman may be stumbling out of a bar or to the bathroom at a party unaware that she’s about to be sexually assaulted. What they’ve done makes it harder for every woman who’s considering reporting being taken advantage of when she was drunk.
You see, most of us don't report it to the police and many of us don’t say anything at all. People tend to doubt our stories.
Then along came this video! Finally, along comes evidence that it is that easy and that common and maybe even men who don’t think of themselves as anything even remotely like icky “predators” or “rapists” could see a bit of themselves in these guys and think about their choices in the name of progress. Because that’s what society needs. Not another asshat thirsty for Internet fame, but just a little bit of progress.
Instead, you wastrels who made this have set us back. Every time someone cries wolf about something real, you set us back. All the men who looked at your video and thought it was exaggerating or that maybe you found some nasty outliers but women should relax because #notallmen are like that, are now justified in their thinking because you staged the whole thing. Could you even have had the decency to end it by saying that it was a dramatization meant to bring light to the severe problem of sexual assault in our country? No, of course not, because dramatizations and documentaries require thought and skill beyond being a fucking liar with an iPhone and a laptop. Sincerely addressing this issue might have brought attention to an important topic, not YouTube hits.
And guess what? They’re not mutually exclusive! This is a serious issue and there are a number of ways you could have approached it that would have garnered attention without resorting to actual lying and cheating. But as we can see here in Leach’s public Facebook post, they only wanted one thing and had their eyes on the prize the entire time.
The subject matter was of little consequence to you, just a hot-button topic of the moment that also happens to have impacted many of our lives in a serious way. Fuck you running, dude. By the way, if you’re getting the sense that this is personal and I’m just another angry female who needs to chill, you’re right. I’m angry that we live in a world where I didn’t report my rape and I’m still convinced that that was the best decision. When I was raped, I didn’t even talk about it. I had been out drinking and he slipped something into my drink. I remember it in flashes, and I’m actually glad that he knocked me around first and tore my clothes beyond repair because the bruises and property damage were what told me I wasn’t making it up. I had the perverse blessing of physical evidence for a trial that would never occur.
I couldn’t have faced the police. Because when women report being raped, they are generally the ones who are interrogated. What were you wearing? How much did you have to drink?
Your video showed just how easily “regular dudes” could become predators when presented with inebriated prey, except that it was a lie.
You trivialized a serious threat when the fact is that you will never know what it’s like to be a woman falling prey to a man on the street. Of course, I’ll never know what it’s like to be an unimaginative fame-chasing charlatan, so I guess we’re even.
Hoaxes are malicious in nature because they defecate upon the notion of good faith that is required to exist in a world that is sometimes shitty enough to begin with. Particularly in the case of sexual assault survivors, whether inebriated or not, because we actually need to be believed. Thanks for shattering that, and good luck with your newfound “fame.”