"Didn't Happen" Twitter in a world of fake news

Every Christmas, something special happens on Twitter. No, not the annual ‘man called John Lewis replies to tweets about the John Lewis Christmas ad’. Nor the tedious ‘is Die Hard a Christmas movie?’ discourse. I’m talking about the Didn’t Happen of the Year Awards, aka DHOTYA.

This online competition is run by Twitter handle @_dhotya, an account that joined the site in January 2017. The purpose of the account is to highlight made-up stories by other people on Twitter and call them out for their fabrications.

A typical example might involve a mum or dad on Twitter sharing an anecdote about their child, who happens to express wisdom beyond its years, usually with some socially progressive angle (kids asking particularly astute questions about Trump for instance). Or it might be a made-up tale about heroism in a shop, where the author tackled some injustice. And then everyone in the shop applauded. Or it might just be Olly Murs telling his followers about a non-existent shooting in a John Lewis.

There’s a great deal of catharsis to be had in calling out these behaviours. It’s satisfying to identify something as fake, and there’s a sense of internet justice when people get called out for their untruths. Twitter operates as a meritocracy, with the ‘best’ content rising to the top. People who try to game the system through inauthentic tweets specifically crafted to ‘win’ feel like cheaters, and exposing them as such looks like a valid way of restoring the natural order.

And yet, there’s something sinister about the DHOTYA. Some have accused it of encouraging public shaming and dog-piling behaviours. And more specifically, with a large number of the stories it shares coming from women, there’s a worry that all the apparent fun and games are simply masking toxic misogyny. So, are these worries concerned? And is DHOTYA a hero, or villain? Let’s decide.

Everyone agrees: fake news is a real problem

We’ve increasingly seen politicians willing to simply tell barefaced lies to win elections. And nobody’s been able to quite say how much influence the made-up stories your aunt is sharing on Facebook are having. Fake news is more or less commonplace online.

Just last month, the Conservative Party rebranded its Press account as ‘Fact Check UK’ during a party leader debate. They only ended up getting a slap on the wrist from Twitter, but the outrage on Twitter at the time was phenomenal. This was actual fake news in the truest sense, happening in real-time. The Conservative Party Press Twitter account is not a fact-checking organisation and it had no right to do so. You could say that it knowingly and deliberately misled the public during the debate – especially as RTs from the account into your timeline didn’t include any indication of the source.

So with lying Tories, Trump being Trump, and Russia employing a literal troll army to flood the internet with lies, what’s our defence? The answer, so far, has been to try and call it out.

Calling out fake news

To be fair to the social media platforms, they’re getting better at this. Facebook will now tell you in a post when it contains claims that have been refuted by independent fact-checkers. And Instagram has joined the party too, apparently having just started to hide images that it thinks have been photoshopped.

And then there’s Snopes. Once the ‘Urban Legends Reference Pages’, Snopes has grown from being a ‘does the Mothman exist’ site to an increasingly important combatant in the fight against online fake news. It now describes itself as ‘the internet’s definitive #factchecking resource’ and does a great job of calling out mistruths on both ‘sides’ of the argument.

What makes Snopes different from the ‘Didn’t Happen of the Year Awards’ account then? They appear to operate the same function – calling out lies on the internet. But they feel different, don’t they? And it’s probably down to who they’re targeting.

Does DHOTYA have a problem with toxicity?

Vice has done an excellent analysis of the people targeted by DHOTYA. Their finding?

The single highest demographic accused of lying by the account is ordinary, non-famous young women, at 115 of 257 victims – 44.8 percent of all people accused. This is over double the amount of ordinary young men called out, at 57.

And taking into account that 93% of the account’s followers are male, the picture doesn’t look good. The story looks like ‘young men not believing or respecting young women’ and has echoes of the same toxic masculinity that means police don’t take reports from women as seriously as men. The same culture of disbelief that stops victims of sexual assault from coming forward.

There are other clues too. The annual competition runs in a league format that uses the same language and structure as a football league. The account has a standing arrangement with Betvictor for a betting market around the contest. The language and culture of football banter is prevalent, and we all know how that ends And the behaviour of the people who follow the account is concerning.

Look underneath almost any anecdote posted by someone on the internet, and you’ll see people tagging @_dhotya. There’s relish and zeal in tag-snitching someone to the account’s attention, and clearly, a lot of it isn’t good-natured. In I-D’s analysis of DHOTYA, they noted a tendency of the account and its followers to focus on socially progressive, predominantly left-wing liberal issues. Content like this:

So the narrative is against DHOTYA

That this is toxic online behaviour of the same flavour as 4chan trolls and right-wing misogynists. Although it’s clearly a greyer area than that. I’m sure a lot of people follow the account just for the schadenfreude of watching someone get called out for trying to pull a fast one. And the account’s owner has always defended it, saying that it picks the accounts to highlight without prejudice.

But then, when the account is run as a competition, open for anyone to vote on, the consequence that account has go beyond just the intentions of its author. If right-wing trolls (or just meanies in general) hijack the votes then that’s bad. And the author should take some responsibility for that as the platform-provider.

At the same time though, the claims that the account isn’t prejudiced are at least somewhat credible. It regularly calls out men too – with Vice’s analysis showing 112 men targeted, vs. 145 women. And DHOTYA regularly ‘punches up’, taking on the rich and vain – people who are fair targets for a bit of ridicule.

And more broadly, there are stories that we absolutely should be calling out when we see them. The worrying trend of anti-vaccination stems from absolute fake news linking it to autism, and it is correct to confront anyone who chooses to claim otherwise.

Twitter, and truth in comedy

I want my dream vision of Twitter to be a reality. I want it to be a content meritocracy where people are trying their hardest to educate and entertain others. Twitter at its best is the weird celebrating the wonderful, and vice-versa. But the fact is, there are bad agents on there, trying to game the system. (From Vice, again: ‘The Sad World of Adults Pretending to Be Kids for Retweets’).

Is that a bad thing? Who does it hurt if I make up a story about my son spouting Marxist ideology? Or claiming to have seen an ironic sign at a polling station? That’s fine, right?

Yes! Most entertainment is fiction. Go and watch any stand-up comedian and you’ll hear stories from that’ll be at least enhanced, if not outright fabricated. This, in particular, used to bother me and I even ran my own Twitter account for a while pretending to ‘not get’ people’s fake jokes.

But now… I kind of get it? I’ve done stand-up myself, and done my share of comedy writing. The truth isn’t always that funny; it’s usually quite boring. And when we come to tell each other stories, objective truth is always lost as we prioritise what’s meaningful in communication.

So why not just let people enjoy things? Because we’re also all natural critics! We form judgements on everything and it’s natural to be kind of a hater sometimes. We might also want to ask the question of whether anything should ever be beyond criticism (but that’s a question for another blog post I think).

For now let’s just say that enjoying things is fine, and not enjoying them is fine too.

In conclusion: DHOTYA = mostly harmless?

I’m choosing to still follow the account. Although we live in an age of vanishing nuance, I think it’s possible to follow an account and enjoy some of the content while regarding it as problematic. (Whereas I don’t follow, say, Glinner or Gervais).

Social media isn’t just a big part of my personal life, it’s also my job. And part of that has been creating social media guidelines for my workplace. These exist not just to protect the company from its employees (we trust them, don’t worry) but to highlight to folks the dangers of participating in the online social media space. I point people towards Jon Ronson’s TED talk ‘How one tweet can ruin your life’ – taken from his excellent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – as a source of case studies about the worst that can happen.

If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it. And although the book doesn’t cover this topic specifically, I think it goes to the heart of the matter nicely. That real people are affected by pile-ons on Twitter, and mob justice isn’t fair.

Let’s run the argument…

  1. We value truth.
  2. We value justice.
  3. Some people do not share all our values.
  4. We’re willing to concede (1) for entertainment.  ((I see you sharing The Daily Mash on Facebook)
  5. People on Twitter exploit (4) for their own ‘gain’.
  6. Because of (1) and (2), it follows that we call out (5) when we see it.
  7. (1), (2), and (6) are not inherently contradictory
  8. But (6) goes awry because of the influence of (3).
    [As an aside at this point, (8) vs (2) explains the backlash we see against (6).]
  9. We can call out (8) while still participating in (6).

And so I think that’s the answer. We know that the online world is becoming increasingly fake. Politicians lie, influencers sell us manufactured lies, and people on Twitter make up stories for likes. Calling it out is our best, and only, defence. 

And we can do so while being decent human beings. The DHOTYA account and its followers sometimes fail here, so let’s call them out too. Seeking the truth doesn’t justify misogyny let’s just be just as hard on that too.

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