Fake News and Fabulists: Is Social Media Enabling Liars?

Is the Internet enabling a grifting epidemic via information and connection?

Posted Jan 20, 2020

The expansion of the Internet and social media has led to an exponential democratization of voices and content directly reaching the public. People have risen to stardom, or at least have even made a living with little more than a GoPro camera and a steady following on YouTube or Instagram.

Unfortunately, with easy access and the pressure for instant gratification and rapid-fire content has come a potential lowering of standards as well; the “gatekeepers” who vetted content in the past are absent, leading to a proliferation of toxic material on the web such as hate speech, fake news, and the worst, live streaming murders. We have stretched liberty and freedom of speech to its very edges, with destructive consequences.

Aside from the aforementioned extremes, there has also been a steady proliferation of “milder” transgressions: people who have taken advantage of the easy spread of misinformation and instant audiences to self-promote exaggerated stories or versions of themselves for attention and fame.

There have been several notorious tales of con artists in various industries building audiences quickly until the truth blows up. In the world of writing, a particularly rich habitat for Internet communication, there was the story of Anna March, a “literary grifter” according to an article in the LA Times by Melissa Chadburn and Carolyn Kellogg, who built up a following in Facebook groups of women writers and created an image of being a successful and established freelance writer, based on one or two fortunate breakthrough clips. She set up writers’ retreats in fancy locales like Italy, most of which mysteriously fell through, and offered editing services with steep fees, also most of which mysteriously fell through. She particularly utilized the role of being a voice for marginalized groups and recruiting vulnerable and ambitious writers accordingly.

There was also the male poet who entered and won a major writing prize by pretending to be an Asian woman with his pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou, stolen from a high school classmate’s name. And more recently, in a more disturbing turn, the New Yorker profiled (and ironically enhanced the fame) of a higher stakes grifter Dan Mallory, who regularly lied to his publishing colleagues about dying relatives and other tall tales for pity, while successfully writing and publishing a blockbuster thriller soon to be a Hollywood movie, to the tune of big bucks. Beyond the ease of the social media world, he went the conventional gatekeeper route and still came out ahead due to the trappings of privilege and his ability to play the popular role of the preppy haute society artist.

Not so lucky was Anna Delvey, who rode the wave of her unspecified Europeanness into high society and almost into a $22 million loan, until she was caught and jailed. On the luckier side, one of her victims who she ripped off for $60,000 is now going to make it all back and then some by writing a memoir and selling it to Netflix.

There have been both events that catch fire on the interwebs: people who have been attacked horrifically on viral videos, and people who have faked racist receipts from imaginary waiters for attention while other authentic ones inspire outrage. In any case, the nature of truth becomes murky while indignation and emotions are set off.

Con artists have been and will be around forever, but they seem to be proliferating in the unchecked opportunities that the Wild West of the Internet provides. The key is to proceed with caution; everything we read and respond to, designed to tug at our instant emotions and instincts, needs to be viewed with a skeptical eye. But we also should not blame ourselves too harshly if we do fall prey to these fabulists; their talent is to know what the human heart responds to; we cannot help our nature sometimes, and they know that best.