The man known as Shi seemed to move through life with ease. Not many could claim a billionaire status, a friendship with the likes of Donald Trump and Angela Merkel, a resume that included fighting poverty and directing an internet economic research center. But, inevitably, the Chinese authorities caught up with him.
Why inevitable? Well, to start with, Shi is 17 years old. And a junior high-school dropout. Oh, and one other thing – not one of his accomplishments actually existed. Except maybe for having 10,000 followers on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter until his account disappeared.
“Shi went viral on Chinese social media websites after his crafted online identity was exposed,” Reuters reported in its Sept. 12 story, which noted the Photoshopped pictures, the false claims and even a faked official Chinese news release that had gone out before northern Chinese police announced their investigation. The story also included a statement from the authorities that “we will punish those who spread rumors online with an adverse impact on the society.”
Is it just me, or could they be busy for a while?
By now, I hope, it’s not exactly news that it’s easy to lie online. In the early days, a New Yorker cartoon famously claimed that “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Today, the fictions and false claims fill our world.
We know about the fraudulent warnings about computer security , complete with viruses ready to infect the unwary.
Or the posts that call for an “Amen” for a (nonexistent) sick child or claim to break a (false) limit on the number of Facebook friends you see.
And of course, there’s the zillions of political claims and “articles” that fall apart with 30 seconds of research or less, but get circulated and recirculated, because – well, everyone knows it’s true, right? (And the tendency for real articles to get denounced as “fake news” by their subjects doesn’t help matters.)
Like many an old scam, it seems so obvious from the sidelines, yet it keeps going and going. Why?
Easy. We love a good story.
We are storytelling creatures at heart. Where there are humans, there have been stories, whether it’s ancient hunters talking about their kills over the campfire, neighbors gossiping about their friends over the backyard fence, or Hollywood telling yet one more tale of love and glory. Stories excite and entertain, they inform and educate, they give us a way to make sense of the world even when creating new worlds of the imagination.
It’s one of our best traits.
But … it also means that we can be quick to believe a story when we shouldn’t. Or to see one that isn’t there, pulling together unconnected events into deep conspiracy. And the more we get invested in a story, the harder it is to pull free from it, and the more vocally we defend it.
That’s something every con artist knows. Sure, it’s usually greed that initially hooks the “mark.” But the fuel that keeps a con going is the victim’s investment in the tale. The story has to be true, it must be true – not least because the consequences of it not being true are too embarrassing to think about. A true story means you’re smart or lucky. A false one means you’re a schmuck. Which one do you want to believe?
I’ll say it again – it is not bad to like stories. But like any of the best human instincts, it can be misused or waylaid. Check the stories you hear, especially if you agree with them. Test the claims, examine the evidence. Suspension of disbelief is great for enjoying a novel or movie, but it makes for terrible citizenship.
It’s the only way to know a sure thing from a Shi thing.