Tuned In

The Elan/Diane Hoax: Assuming the Worst About Strangers Wins the Internet!

If an Internet story justifies your personal worldview too perfectly, maybe be a little bit skeptical.

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Maybe you heard about it through the Buzzfeed post that said “This Epic Note-Passing War on a Delayed Flight Won Thanksgiving”: Elan Gale, a producer on The Bachelor, claimed to live-tweet a woman’s meltdown at harried airline staff, then his own scolding and shaming of her on board the flight. Maybe you heard about it through the subsequent commentaries that, no, Gale did not win Thanksgiving: that his public humiliation of “Diane” (including passing her the note, “Eat my dick”) was nasty and sexist. Maybe you heard the further twist from an online poster claiming that Diane was her cousin, and had terminal cancer. Maybe you heard it all in the “Note War Goes Viral” stories picked up in the mainstream media.

Either way, it turns out it was all fake. Last night, on the same Twitter account that launched the meme, Gale posted a picture of “Diane”: an empty chair.

Gale didn’t explain his motives–assuming you can trust someone who just pulled a massive hoax to be forthcoming about his inner thoughts–but the “how” of the story is more interesting than the “why,” anyway. Certainly the incident exposed the ecology of the media today: a button-pushing story gets tweeted. There’s a million-clicks reward for being the first to pick up on it. And hundreds of follow-up, aggregations, commentaries, and counter-commentaries get posted before anyone gets around to seeing if the flight data added up. (Which, apparently, some folks were doing before Gale gave himself up.)

But there’s another factor here: many, many people–and I’m including myself here–were just ready to believe it.

There are cons that work by taking advantage of people’s best nature: their charitable instincts, their hope, their sympathy. And then there are cons that take advantage of people’s suspicion, their judgment, their belief that the world is full of jerks. This was the latter kind.

Because, come on: we’ve seen Diane and Elan before, right? We’ve seen that self-centered, pushy person using a power imbalance to berate service people who can’t fight back, who believes his or her personal inconvenience is worse than everyone else’s. (It is possible that, in lesser moments, ahem, I have been that person.) We’ve seen that self-righteous Twitter vigilante working out his or her inner rage issues with an unsolicited tweet-shaming. And we’ve seen that guy–here, it’s always a guy–obliviously showing his privilege and sexism in a weirdly gendered attack on a woman. (Why, for instance, did Gale pick on Diane for her “mom jeans”?)

In other words, it was a brimming Thanksgiving cornucopia of Things You Probably Think Are Wrong With the World Today. Whether you were sick of the Dianes in this world, or the Elans, or both, there was something to react to. Of course this would happen: the entitlement, the righteousness, the counter-righteousness. Freakin’ people today, man! And of course it would happen like this!

That’s why I have to hand it to those of you who were skeptical of Gale’s hoax well before I was. In a culture of instant judgment, in a time of Teamthink that demands we instantly declare #TeamElan or #TeamDiane, it takes some doing to question a story that perfectly–a little too perfectly–flatters whatever worldview you happen to have, about airline travelers, or “hipsters,” or how crappy people are in general today.

None of which, by the way, makes Gale some kind of hero for pulling an obnoxious stunt that appealed to his readers’ worst assumptions about everyone else around them–their anger, their bitterness, their stereotypes. Two wrongs don’t make a right: whether it’s a selfish passenger and a tweet-shamer, or a gullible public and a hoaxster.

But we might as well get something out of this experience. Maybe people will look back on this and realize that if the world seems to be putting on a morality play that confirms your worldview, the truth might be more complex. That things don’t always have to break down into Team This Person and Team That Other Person. That we could stand to be, at the same time, a little more skeptical of one-sided stories, and a little more generous in our assumptions about people’s decency.

LOL, kidding! Of course we won’t! You didn’t actually believe that bit, did you?