The online rumour mill of doom

Facebook really is a social media platform of firsts. For instance, it was where I saw someone spell ‘flying’ with a ‘ph’ instead of an ‘f’. And thanks to Facebook’s mind-bending algorithms presenting me with largely irrelevant content produced by total strangers, I was also recently afforded the opportunity of seeing the status update of an Ibiza-loving prick with Jägermeister and foam for brains, who proclaimed that his friend was “the girl that put the ‘E’ into ‘partiE'”. (I weep for the future.)

Still, on Facebook it’s not the spelling that’s important – it’s the message. And even that doesn’t have to be entirely accurate. Over the years, whenever someone’s shared some alarmist drivel on their timeline I’ve immediately hit Snopes in an effort to debunk their post with a helpful link.

I remember a Facebook friend once posting a warning on her timeline about a ‘new’ car-jacking trick aimed specifically at women, which involves leaving a bloodied child’s car seat at the side of the road to lure hapless female motorists from their vehicles. Once out in the open they are then set upon by savage gangs, who beat, rape and torture them to within an inch of their lives. (“This happened to a friend of mine just this morning!” warns the opening sentence of the message.) This is usually billed as one of the fun activities of ‘National Gang Week’, which I guess is a bit like Bob-a-job week, only with ruthless gang initiations and sickening violence instead of enthusiastic scouts running errands and performing useful household tasks.

The various versions of this scare story are usually embellished with extra details. If the fake baby in the abandoned car seat fails to stop lone women in their tracks, then industrious gangs have been known to throw eggs at the windshield as well. (With the addition of some flour and butter, it’s how I imagine a delinquent Mary Berry might incapacitate random vehicles, encasing them in a giant choux pastry.) But DO NOT operate your windshield wipers, screams the message in shouty capital letters, as eggs mixed with water become milky and will block your vision up to [a very precise] 92.5%.

There are various other stories that do the rounds as well, which some Facebook users share in the belief that they’re providing a valuable public service – although they do so unquestioningly, too busy snapping pointless selfies to spend a couple of minutes investigating the truthfulness of the message. There’s the man who pretends to be injured to trick people (women) into coming to his aid, before – you guessed it – he launches an unprovoked attack; there’s the man who creeps into the back seat of a woman’s car at a petrol station, with the aim of kidnapping her as part of a gang initiation (this one’s been doing the rounds since the 1950s, apparently); and now there are stories that tap into parents’ fear of paedophiles, like the rumour which spread like wildfire on Facebook recently that the children’s app ‘Talking Angela’ is actually just a front for predatory sex offenders.

It’s a wonder we leave our homes and venture out into the world at all, when it’s probably safer to just deadlock all the doors and stay logged into the online rumour mill of doom.

Of course, for every terrifying warning message shared on Facebook reminding us that evil lurks everywhere, there are hundreds of worthy videos designed to inspire us. Videos with clickbait titles – ‘This man was caught on CCTV masturbating over a jigsaw of Caernarfon Castle in WHSmiths, but what happened next will warm your heart…’ –seem to pop up in my news feed every few days.

I’ve also noticed a significant increase in the number of ‘social experiment’ videos cluttering up my news feed recently, which aim to shame us and remind us what disconnected, self-centered shits we all are.

One such video entitled ‘The importance of appearances experiment’ features a scruffily dressed man who collapses in the street, apparently dying from a persistent cough. He then weakly asks for help from passers-by, who simply go about their business and leave him to perish on the pavement amid a blur of aloof Parisian pedestrians; their untrusting nature no doubt fuelled by self-preservation after years of being force-fed Facebook scare stories. After all, helping someone in distress will only lead to a hideously violent gang attack, right? Or maybe it’s just misdirection and the coughing man’s hidden accomplices are going to try and eat my children or groom them online with a talking cartoon cat.

The twist to this video is that when a smartly dressed man in a suit starts to die from the same cough, on the same street, he immediately attracts a swarm of concerned people offering first aid and comfort. The video ends with the scruffily dressed man – who continues to quietly expire on the pavement – picking himself up, dusting himself down and shrugging in disbelief at the hidden camera across the street.

The lesson here? Next time you see a man dying from a cough on the high street, kick him forcefully in the balls to see if he’s committed enough to his hidden camera bullshit to remain in character. And if you end up assaulting a genuinely dying man, only then shall you be judged.

Another social experiment video, produced by DM Pranks Productions – responsible for other groundbreaking works, such as ‘Putting hats on people’ and ‘Would you pick up an iPad with semen?’ – features a fake hit and run accident at a petrol station. The video even has three on-screen icons to help viewers keep track of people’s reactions: a red cross indicates the number of people who check to see if the victim is OK (he’s fine, he’s acting); a phone indicates those who ring for help (sorry to have wasted your time, officer, the victim was acting); and a skull and crossbones shows the number of people who callously do nothing (fuck you, actor man).

The deleted scenes from this laugh-a-minute hidden camera ‘prank’ apparently include the moments when the hit and run accident wasn’t “convincing” enough, so the people who chose to walk away from the scene probably just sniffed a set-up. Either that or they assumed a homicidal maniac would be waiting for them in the back seat of their car once they’d finished administering CPR to the victim.

For years, Facebook has been the medium through which horror stories have been shared that helping others will ultimately lead to our brutal and untimely deaths, and that the world is full of violent scumbags intent on tricking us into a shallow grave. But now we’re bombarded on a daily basis with soul-searching videos bemoaning our cold detachment from the world.

With a fleeting click of the ‘share’ button, Facebook users want to protect us from the world and preach to us the importance of engaging with it all at the same time. Beware those play-acting men with violent hidden agendas, but shame on you for walking past actors feigning injury or distress to illustrate the point that we’ve evolved into emotionless robots.

What’s that? An emotionless robot recently knocked on your neighbour’s door asking to read their gas meter, but the fake ID it flashed was concealing a bazooka?! I’d best just check Snopes.

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