Ethics and the Twitter Hoax

Today on the website Gigaom Mathew Ingram wrote about journalists getting deceived by Twitter hoaxes and what kinds of responsibilities the perpetrators of such hoaxes must bear. For an example, Ingram pointed to the recent case involving reported producer of ABC’s “The Bachelor” Elan Gale, who was the architect of an elaborate Twitter hoax that took place over the recent Thanksgiving holiday and that was covered on websites such as BuzzFeed.

As reported on BuzzFeed, Gale reported on Twitter that there was a openly frustrated female passenger on his flight (see below).

t1

To help soothe her nerves, he reported to send her a class of wine.

t2

Several tweets later, Gale reported getting into a spat with the woman, who “fought back.”

t3

The problem was, none of it was true. When Ingram broached the subject with Gale, Gale responded by suggesting that he bore no responsibility for how true the argument was and for media outlets such as BuzzFeed to report on it. In a tweet exchange with Ingram, Gale said:

elan-gale-tweet1

elan-gale-tweet2

elan-gale-tweet4I would argue that veracity is wholly relevant, and that given his flippant treatment of the truth that society itself was harmed. Consider Thomas Aquinas’ conception of what constitutes the act of lying: “if these three things concur, namely, falsehood of what is said, the will to tell a falsehood, and finally the intention to deceive, then there is falsehood–materially, since what is said is false, formally, on account of the will to tell an untruth, and effectively, on account of the will to impart a falsehood.” In other words, if you say something that is not true; if you have the desire to say something that it is not true; if you have an intent to deceive by saying something that isn’t true, then you have quite simply lied. Gale more or less admitted that the story wasn’t true; in doing it in the first place we can assume that he had the desire to perpetuate a falsehood and in doing so, expressing an intent to deceive.

The problem with this is that the effective operation of society itself is predicated on what Aquinas might term “personal authenticity;” that is, a willingness to be truthful with one another. Gale seems to excuse his lie because he is a guy “who has been writing joke tweets for four years.” If so, then how does he explain the thoroughness of his hoax: The use of different handwriting styles on the “different” notes; the numerous photographs that were tweeted; his purported physical altercation with the woman; that the hoax seemed to involve at least 45 tweets (based on BuzzFeed’s reporting). If Gale was under the impression that followers were to read along in curious suspense and not think that this was actually real, then he has problems that trump being a Twitter hoaxer.

In his article, Ingram states that news outlets must—in this day and age of easily accomplished deception—responsibly vet Twitter and other forms of social media exchanges for their veracity. That’s certainly true. But how are they to do that?Because it’s difficult to identify such things as deceptive tweets, those who perpetrate these kinds of deceptions must take responsibility themselves. Perhaps what Gale did was entertainment; but if he did it knowing that he’d catch unaware followers in his web of deception, then what he did was patently wrong.

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5 thoughts on “Ethics and the Twitter Hoax

  1. On one hand, I find that Gale’s tweets were definitely made to fool people, not to entertain. If Gale believes they are simply, “joke tweets” then he has a very poor understanding of humor. What exactly is humorous about the exchange? Reading the tweets, all I could think of was what a nasty person the woman he described is, I certainly didn’t laugh at it.

    Especially when you contrast Gale’s supposedly “joke tweets” with those of Rob Delaney’s (@robdelaney), a comedian whose tweets, while crude, certainly follow the pattern of humor and irony that makes it difficult to believe in the authenticity of them (such as being trapped in a bathroom cubicle in a J-Crew).

    Gale may say he was lying to “entertain”, but I don’t really see where the entertainment is. Either he has a very skewed understanding of humor, or he was intentionally trying to deceive people. In which case, the only person it entertains is himself.

    On the other hand, BuzzFeed really shouldn’t make news stories out of tweets. Partly because it’s hard to verify tweets, but also because it’s just shoddy journalism.

  2. Jeffrey Maciejewski says:

    Very well said, Patrick. Gale is no comedian and was clearly making excuses for his egregious lie. That said, BuzzFeed had absolutely no business in reporting on this in the first place. It was cheap, click bait journalism at best.

  3. So much of the news is media people reporting on what other media people said about other media people. This smacks of a publicity stunt by a figure in the creation of “The Bachelor”, which is as close to insubstantiality as anyone could get. His Tweets, even if true, wouldn’t merit attention in a sane world. It’s a little hard to grasp the ethical issue here. You have media practitioners treating cocktail napkin scribbles by the slenderest of celebrity figures as newsworthy. I have to feel that media writers who feed on such low-end scraps of trivia deserve to be hoaxed.

  4. Jeffrey Maciejewski says:

    Well said Doug. There were no winners here. Gale did something wrong and so did BuzzFeed for giving Gale coverage in the first place. Yes–they deserved to be hoaxed and could hardly be considered innocent victims.

  5. Brock Nanson says:

    It’s about people wanting to be famous, for no reason they actually deserve or have worked to achieve. I’m disgusted that anyone or any organization that considers themselves to be in the ‘news’ business would even look at these messages let alone act on them. It’s embarrassing to them (or should be) and completely insulting to those of us in possession of more than two brain cells.

    Not much different to the way the Kardashians and the Jersey Shore alumni manage to draw news coverage for anything stupid and irrelevant that might come out of their mouths. Having a big butt isn’t reason enough to be famous. Being able to pass out in a pool of your own alcohol-vomit on a TV show isn’t reason enough to be famous. And society embarrasses itself every time it burns a watt of electricity to watch this garbage on TV.

    However, you have to give them credit for making more of themselves through scandal and negative publicity. Paris Hilton did her sex tape and look at her now. Nobody knew or cared about who she was until after that tape… now she sells her own line of perfume and God knows what else. Based on what exactly??? Other than that tape, absolutely NOTHING!!! There is no reason why we should care who she is today either.

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