Nothing ever happens on the internet. You might think it does – after all, you log on every morning and manage to scroll away 80 percent of your waking hours – but if you've been online long enough, and especially if you've been on Twitter long enough, you'll realise that things that seem to happen actually… don't. They didn't happen. Didn't happen.
Look at a viral tweet and you're likely to see this two-word reply posted hundreds of times. In the last few years, the Didn't Happen Of The Year Awards (DHOTYA) have risen to prominence by quote-tweeting people telling stories on the site. While originally the account focused on the most egregious liars (2016's winner was the much-memed and now-deleted Brexit tweet "Just took 93yr Mum to vote, she's registered blind. In a very loud voice she said, 'Which box for out?' A cheer went up from waiting voters"), a constant quest for content means the account now picks on anyone and everyone.
Or does it? Ordinary people are now spotlighted by the account every day, but by eye it often looks like young lads with football avatars are piling on to young women with fake tans. A sample tweet branded unbelievable by the account, sent in January this year, read: "The wind just blew this girl's fake eyelashes off her eye and she ran after it screaming 'someone get my lashes theyre huda!!'."
Also in January, the account publicly denied accusations of sexism. "How does this page keep coming back to feminism?" they tweeted, "Almost like we don't pull guys up on their bullshit too."
We know who makes up the majority of the account's most avid "didn't happeners" – when I spoke to its owner earlier this year, he said his followers were 93 percent male, 86 percent aged between 18 and 34, and 98 percent based in the UK – but who are DHOTYA's targets? Who gets believed on the internet?
By counting 257 quote tweets (not replies) sent by the account from the 14th of January to the 14th of September, 2018 (tweets before this date were deleted), it was clear that, in the last eight months, the gender split of DHOTYA's victims was 145 women to 112 men (tweets where the gender of the tweeter was unknown, of which there were five, were not counted, and nor were tweets sent by brands or newspapers. Tweets where the writer had deleted their account were also not counted, even if their gender was clear from their username, to avoid any error).
This means that 56.4 percent of the victims are women, while 43.6 percent are men. Not a huge deal, right? A bit of bias, sure, but it's only marginal; what's 13 percent between friends? Things change, however, when we take a closer look at the demographics. 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.
It's not surprising that most of DHOTYA's victims are young – this is Twitter – but it is surprising that the total number of male victims is bulked up by older and celebrity men (Piers Morgan is a favourite, while comedian David Baddiel branded the account "cunty" after being targeted earlier this year). The pattern that appears to emerge is that the account's followers (93 percent male, 86 percent young, just as a reminder) don't like to pick on people like them – at least, not proportionally as much as they like to pick on young women. In May, DHOTYA even tweeted that its followers were immune from being called out by the account.
But hang on just a minute! Perhaps young women lie more? They are whores, after all. Dr Kim Serota is a professor of management at Oakland University who studies lying. In a 2014 study, he found that prolific liars in the UK are more likely to be younger, have a higher occupational status, and be male.
"Overall, men lie a bit more than women," says Serota, although he notes women lie more in romantic situations. If the distinctly unromantic DHOTYA was accurate at calling out liars, then we could arguably expect men to make up a higher proportion of its victims. "I think it's probably impossible to answer," Serota says when I ask what the demographic split of a non-biased DHOTYA account would look like. "The problem is that we humans are lousy lie detectors. We get it right about 54 percent of the time; chance is 50 percent."
Serota suggests there is some truth in the theory that we don't want to pick on people like us. "Put simply, birds of a feather flock together," he says. "An accusation is a form of disagreement, so it follows that we are more likely to disagree with those who are different from us than those who are similar." When I ask if gender bias is at play with DHOTYA, Serota says: "Only to the extent that gender bias has always been at play, but now it is much more public."
Why does any of this matter? As well as denying accusations of sexism, the account claims to have a zero tolerance of abuse. However, it's long been a problem online that what feels like abuse when you receive it doesn't necessarily feel like abuse when you're giving it out.
"It is a large amount of men you don't know, replying to you and sometimes messaging you calling you a liar for something you haven't lied about," says Bria Taylor, a 19-year-old who was called "full of shit" by the account after tweeting an (extremely believable!) tweet about wanting glasses as a child.
"I don't think they realise that their comment is one of many," Taylor says of the DHOTYA followers who send replies. "It can be very overwhelming and intimidating, especially for the young girls the account likes to highlight most."
The believability of this tweet is important because – anecdotally, at least – another bias appears to emerge. While men get called out for extreme lies (one of the men picked on by the account this year was singer Tom Zanetti, who claimed to get a helicopter after losing his train tickets), women often get picked on for extremely banal tweets. It seems women don't get the benefit of the doubt. When an ordinary young man posted a blatantly fake tweet in January, the account even said it was "hard to decide" whether it was a lie.
Arguably, there is some public good in calling out liars in the era of fake news (when it comes to what Clive Martin branded in VICE "the sad world of adults pretending to be kids for retweets" there is little bias, with mums being called out by the account just as much as dads). But with the account now officially working with gambling company Bet Victor, the 2018 awards could be very distressing for those picked on. Last year's winner, politician Amelia Womack, called the tweets she received "abuse" and said it could have "real, damaging effects on people's lives and mental health". DHOTYA undeniably upsets and overwhelms people – whether women or men – when it calls them out for being liars. For what benefit?
"It's a good example of how social media alters our communication," says Serota, when I show him DHOTYA's tweet saying Taylor, the woman who tweeted about lying to her optician as a kid, was "full of shit".
"Saying things we used to consider norm violations are now normal."