This past holiday weekend, while many were sitting around the table eating turkey or waiting in lines for Black Friday, Randy Liedtke and Elan Gale were cooking up something else entirely. The two, along with unwitting participant Kyle Kinane, concocted stories via their Twitter accounts that went viral, expanding far beyond the social network. And while Gale’s story of note passing to an irate female traveler and Liedtke’s fictional Pace Foods Twitter account battle with Kinane definitely got helped them exposure, the question remains as to whether it did so at the expense of their credibility.
Gale’s story, perhaps, caught on because of the zeitgeist of the holidays. A producer for The Bachelor, Gale concocted a story about a female traveler on a flight to Phoenix complaining loudly to flight attendants about a delay on Thanksgiving. After a series of supposed notes between the two that included him sending her a glass of wine and telling her to stop complaining, Gale’s Twitter updates to his 150,000 followers ended with “Diane” slapping him. After several days, Gale admitted that his story was made up, adding “I conclude by saying hopefully a few people got a few laughs over a slow Thanksgiving weekend.”
The Liedtke/Kinane battle is a completely different story. While Liedtke’s fake Twitter account for Pace Foods had been set up for months, he didn’t expect Kinane, who he considers a friend, to get caught up in it. In an article on The Huffington Post, the comedian, who also co- hosts the Bone Zone Podcast, said that at one point throughout the charade, Kinane even called him, since Liedtke had a delivery service drop some salsa off at his plane and they told Kinane they needed to verify the credit card number. He finally fessed up to Kinane later that evening, which he tweeted about the following day.
Why did both stories take off? Well, part of it can be chalked up to it being a slow holiday weekend and people’s quest for news. However, it could also be a result of both stories being pretty believable, which led to people sharing them. It’s unlikely that either Gale or Liedtke envisioned that either would take off as much as they did. A third reason might have to do with the laziness of journalism in the internet age. Many news outlets, some of them legitimate, picked up on Gale’s story, reporting it as straight news without fact checking (in fact, we initially fell for the Kinane/Liedtke battle). With the current state of the internet, if enough people pick up on something, it’ll get shared. If it gets shared enough, it’ll go viral, and soon Buzzfeed or Reddit will write about it, which leads to legitimate news coverage.
What’s this mean? Well, if the last week is any indication, it’s that we haven’t seen the last of it yet. There are probably tons of would-be Gales and Liedtkes hoping for their shot at internet infamy and trying to engineer their own social media battles. It also means that Storify is probably really psyched about all the extra business they’re going to be getting. And it hopefully means that journalists will check their sources a little more before reporting on a series of tweets as a legitimate news story. However, that’s not likely to happen, since Buzzfeed’s story about Gale’s fake battle got almost 1.4 million reads. Slate political writer Dave Weigel took Buzzfeed to task for shoddy reporting, then running another story about Gale’s confession, gaining tons of traffic off reporting that’s held to a lower standard. Even Gale got in on it, stating via tweet “In the past, when your trusted news sources were wrong, they issued retractions. Now, they write cute editorials with a lot of spice!” The internet has a short memory, so there will probably be more hoaxes made up by comedians and internet pranksters, but it takes a compelling story for something to go viral, and would-be sharers might think twice before passing on a story that might be fake.