As Mark Twain once said, a lie can be half way around the world before the truth has got its boots on. Or was it Winston Churchill, or James Callaghan, or Terry Pratchett? The internet is undecided. It seems likely that all of the above were paraphrasing an old proverb – but, depending on where you search and who you ask, you can more-or-less pick your own truth.
When it comes to current affairs, the power of digital falsehood can count for a great deal. Earlier this month, a false message posted by hackers to the Twitter account of the Associated Press – which read “Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured” – temporarily wiped 150 points off the Dow Jones index, and led to an FBI investigation. In the appalled aftermath of the Boston marathon bombings, rumours and conspiracies were almost impossible to avoid, ranging from allegations against an innocent Saudi witness to a digitally manipulated hoax clip from the cartoon series Family Guy.
Yet perhaps the most intriguing online untruth of recent weeks – and the most telling indictment of rapid-reaction social media habits – was not a tweet or an attribution, but an entire person: Santiago Swallow.
Steve Jobs’ phablet
Swallow’s credentials put most professional tech gurus to shame. A TED and South by Southwest speaker, his dauntingly detailed Wikipedia page described him as a “motivational speaker, consultant, educator, and author” devoted to “understanding modern culture in the age of social networking, globally interconnected media, user generated content and the Internet”. He has a book coming out later this year and over 80,000 followers on Twitter hanging on his every gnomic word.
The only problem is that he doesn’t exist. Swallow was created as an experiment by Kevin Ashton, a (real) technologist most famous – until now – for coining the phrase “the internet of things.” In a piece for Quartz magazine, called “How to become internet famous for $68”, Ashton explained how it took him just two hours and less than $70 to breathe life into his brainchild: “I generated his name on ‘Scrivener,’ a word processor for writers and author … I gave Santiago a Gmail account, which was enough to get him a Twitter account. Then I went to the web site fiverr.com, the online equivalent of a dollar store, and searched for people selling Twitter followers. I bought Santiago 90,000 followers for $50...”
And so it went on, from a striking portrait created by mashing up Google images to an automated Tweeting service generating ceaseless cod-expert opinions: “[Santiago’s] breezy platitudes come from half a dozen ‘mad-lib’-like phrases of the ‘if this, then that’ variety, coupled with a list of nouns from the new age TED/SXSW hipster vocabulary: dolphins, phablets, Steve Jobs, mobile, Tom’s shoes...”
Topped by the fake Wikipedia profile and website, Ashton had crafted a near-perfect imitation of the personas crafted by thousands of online “experts”. At least, he had done so as long as you didn’t look into the details too closely – which is a large part of the point of social media services. Numbers and popularity are a potent shorthand for credibility and expertise. To adapt the proverb: once someone has got halfway around the world, you don’t always stop to check whether they’ve put their boots on.
Truth or lie?
Writing in the New Yorker on the aftermath of the Boston bombings, Adam Gopnik reflected on the relationship between social media, journalism and expertise. “We are now,” he argued, “a nation of experts, with millions of people who know the meaning of everything that they haven’t actually experienced.” Making meanings, telling stories: this is what people do. Except that – as a creation like Santiago Swallow elegantly illustrates – much of the time people themselves are more like a medium through which stories flow. Second and third hand experience passes through our hands online as fast as we can retweet it, together with second hand claims and words and beliefs. As anyone who has watched a major event refracted live through the lens of social media will know, simply being part of something – following and the joining the countless ranks of contributors – can both overwhelm and seduce.