Two weeks ago, on a Thursday like any other, I woke up, rolled over and did what I do every morning: checked my phone. On Instagram, one of my friends had DM'd me a meme from an account called dustycohen. So far, so normal – except, this time, the subject of the meme was me.
That meme was an image made to look like a VICE Facebook post. Below photos of me kissing a chicken nugget and drinking a green juice – taken from a piece I wrote for VICE a year ago – was the caption: "How this penniless ketamine dealer is queering homelessness through SLAM poetry – and why I smoked DMT in her garage." I laughed, posted it on my Instagram story and started my day.
A few hours later, the image started to go viral, and someone tagged me in a tweet with the caption "Vice out-vices itself with every headline." Predictably, below the tweet were a load of earnest comments from people fuming about the "article" – "it's almost like a bot made it!" (so close!) – or noting that I couldn't be a very good ketamine dealer if I was penniless.
By the end of the day, that tweet had more than 10,000 likes – and, incredibly, almost everyone interacting with the image thought it was real. Granted, VICE has run a bunch of stories about the topics in the caption (although I'm struggling to find anything at all positive about slam poetry) – and there's obviously a rich online tradition of coming up with similarly absurd fake VICE headlines. But I can't remember the last time VICE ran a headline even vaguely resembling the cliche the meme is mocking. The "article" just so clearly not real; surely anyone capable of using Twitter could spot that? Apparently not! Soon enough, I'd become a primary target for hundreds of people's anti-millennial, anti-VICE ire.
I can't lie – I wasn't hugely keen on strangers seeing my face and associating it with something I hadn't done, so for some kind of closure I thought I'd try to find the social media version of a needle in a haystack: the original creator of the meme.
First, I messaged dustycohen saying I was the girl pictured in the meme, and asked if it was his creation. He said he'd found the image on a Facebook meme page, and was lovely enough to take the post down immediately – he too had thought it was a genuine VICE article.
He then directed me to a niche Facebook meme page called Fried Stephanus Rice, which had posted the image around 36 hours beforehand. It was the most shared thing on the page by a sizeable margin, with all the comments underneath it – bar one – expressing pure rage about the "article". Some were likely in on the joke and just joining in the shit-posting; the page is full of blatantly fabricated posts from big publishers, as well as links to satire sites. But a lot of people seemed genuinely very mad – or vindicated – that VICE had put out this content.
Most comments were variations of "wtf did I just read" and "I fucking hate VICE", but there were also some spicier ones – lots of chat about "libtards" and "femtards", one man who believed I should be shot in the face, some stunning arguments about why this fake screenshot proved that VICE can't be trusted as a credible news source, and one guy who offered up the thoughtful analysis: "my brain says fuck no you gentrifier scum but my dick says HEY U UP? ;>)"
Andrew, my friend: I am not up, and you need to have a look at your Facebook privacy settings.
I sent Fried Stephanus Rice a message asking to talk, and while I waited also reached out to a bunch of the people who had commented on the image. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one wanted to talk to me about the fact they had publicly lost it at an article that is demonstrably not real.
There are plenty of studies showing that older people struggle to identify "fake news" and misinformation online, but what was worrying here was that most people flipping out about it were – seemingly – in the millennial age bracket, or even younger.
To find out why so many commenters who should really know better were falling for this, I called Julie Smith, who has been teaching media literacy since 1997 and is on the Board of Directors for the National Association for Media Literacy Education.
"What you're dealing with here is two things, called 'selective exposure' and 'selective retention', meaning we only expose ourselves to messages that we agree with," she explained from her home in Missouri. "So if I already think that VICE is trashy and I see something that affirms that, research tells us that I'm less likely to check that for authenticity before I share it. Typically, in [one's] social media circles, [they] congregate with people who also think VICE is trashy, and that's how material goes viral. We're much more interested in what we believe than what is true."
In fact, a 2018 study from MIT showed that information that has been fact-checked as false was found to spread further and faster than information that had been fact-checked as true. In short: humans find clickbait more spreadable, regardless of whether they know it to be real or not – something that has in part led to the whole "fake news" issue. The same study also looked at word choice and the emotions associated with them, with researchers finding that false information often provoked replies expressing surprise and disgust – in line with the replies to the meme of me. This is usually a good tell-tale sign of something being fabricated.
"If I'm doing a workshop on online misinformation, what I specifically tell people is: 'Does this message elicit a really strong emotional response from you?'" says Julie. "If the answer is yes, there's a really good chance you need to check it out for authenticity. I encourage my students to be not cynical, but critical. When you're really media-literate you can actually enjoy media much more than the average person, because you appreciate how it's constructed."
I don't mind the meme of me – it made me laugh – as long as people are aware that it's a joke and are enjoying it as such. It's when you realise how many people believe it to be real that it gets a little worrying. Also, just think: if you'd have known it was a meme, you could have laughed and enjoyed yourself for a few seconds, rather than working yourself up into a big frothy rage!
A week after I messaged them, I got a reply from Fried Rice – "meme girl is that you?" – who took credit for making the meme. I had found the original poster! Obviously what I wanted to know was: why did they make it?
"I was talking to some friends about how VICE and similar sites will report on anything," they said. "I pulled that 'headline' out of my ass, and I'm like, 'Hey, I know how to make anything say anything,' so I scrolled down VICE's page until I found a picture that could potentially match the headline. You had a 'millennial' beverage, so I was like, 'Eh, this'll work' – edit text, screen-cap and post. Then it blew up, and now I have thousands of people on this page."
What did they think was the reason for its virality? "I think it got popular because it looked real enough for people to believe it was, until they googled the headline, and it was consistent with the 'VICE posts literally anything' stereotype. I don't personally hate VICE, I just think they're generic clickbait. Some people actually really hate them. I got so many PMs asking for the link, and I had to tell them it was fake."
I should probably end by saying something about how we should all be kinder to each other online, or actually check that stuff is true before sharing it. But honestly: who can be bothered? The meme has won. And by being memed, in some ways, so have I; after all, what's a greater sign of having made it in 2019? So instead, I will finish with a heartfelt message for the legions of idiots who got all riled up about a very stupid meme: suck a dick, dumb shits!