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Last week, the Internet was lit up with the news and verified video showing United Airlines calling the cops to drag a paying customer off a plane so they could use his seat for one of their employees. The customer was bloodied in the interaction and at some point ended up running back onto the plane, bleeding and confused.
This was obviously a PR nightmare for United, immediately making everyone forget that Pepsi tried to sell their sugar water by co-opting Black Lives Matter and anti-Trump protests just a day or two prior.
While United continued to dig their hole deeper, like when the CEO sent out a letter calling the passenger belligerent and suggesting that everyone else involved did the right thing, the mainstream media fired up their outrage machine. They did that not by exposing United’s past of absolutely horrendous behavior, but instead focusing on the victim’s past. They found out his name, and then dug up his criminal history, publishing it without any concern for whether or not it was relevant to the story. That’s known as victim-blaming–using a victim’s history or their personality traits or demographics to make people feel less like they’re a victim, and more like maybe they deserved it. Sure, a doctor trying to get to his patients may not deserve to have the shit kicked out of him for sitting in a seat he paid for, but maybe a criminal would.
Obviously, no, a criminal does not deserve that. But knowing he’s a criminal can subtly influence you to feeling less sympathy for him. This is a central issue of Black Lives Matter — the media has a tendency to report on black victims of police violence as being older, tougher, and more criminal than white victims. Teenagers are referred to as men, and the photos shown of them are more likely to be embarrassing pics of them holding 40s than traditional family photos. Logically, you may know that these things don’t excuse unjustified police violence, but you will probably be implicitly biased against them to the point where you look for reasons to dismiss the violence as serious.
So the media’s reporting on the victim was absolutely disgusting. Yesterday morning, I woke up to Tweets on my timeline saying that it was even worse, because the media dug into the past of a completely different person with a similar name to the victim. So not only were they already immoral, but they were also incapable of simple fact-checking.
Last week I made fun of H3H3 for calling out a lack of fact-checking in the WSJ when he hadn’t, you know, actually fact-checked. So I searched high and low for proof that the media got the wrong guy, and what I found was that they actually did have the right guy. The rumor was due to Internet detectives who screwed up, dragging a second victim into the story as people passed along the unverified lie.
It wasn’t purposeful: the Internet detectives were amateurs, and they screwed up. But they put their information out on the Internet without verifying it by even calling the person they thought was actually the victim. The lie traveled quickly because it was so easy to believe: the media already screwed up, and they’ve been getting basic facts wrong about breaking news since the dawn of time. Or at least, the dawn of journalism. The lie reinforced something that many of us believe to be true, and that’s the easiest way to spread a rumor.
So please remember, if you see a Tweet with no references saying something you really, really want to be true, that’s your biggest clue that you should stop and check your facts before helping to spread what might be a lie.