WFNGW: Why did so many fall for the catcalled cyclist video?
In ‘When Fast News Goes Wrong’, we expose the quirks of hyper-fast online news, reporting on premature conclusions, social media misfires and hoaxes taken at face value.
If you believe the metrics, it’s increasingly understood that by far the most shareable stories on social media are those that evoke a sense of anger and indignation in the reader. Which might explain a lot of media mishaps of late – including why this footage of a London female cyclist ripping off a van’s wing mirror with her bare hands, apparently in revenge for some aggressive and misogynistic catcalling, went so big so quickly after it was published on a viral video agency’s Facebook feed last month. And why so many mainstream publications swiftly ran the story, despite several indications that the video was staged.
The one minute and 22-second clip – which seemed to have been accidentally caught on a motorcyclist’s helmet camera as he approached the cyclist remonstrating with one of the van’s passengers at traffic lights – amassed a million views within hours of its publication on Tuesday 22nd February.
But one aspect of the episode that should have had alarm bells ringing in medialand was its location: the film begins with the motorcyclist riding down Whitfield Street – a part of the Fitzrovia area of London where there is a particularly high concentration of advertising, marketing and creative agencies. (We know this because it’s also a former location of The Slow Journalism company’s office.) And it ends a few blocks away on Chenies Street, directly opposite RADA, one of the UK’s leading drama academies.
Nevertheless, the woman was being hailed as a hero on Twitter and Facebook for taking a stand against sexist bullying. So, quickly running this equation in their respective newsrooms: justified rage + ultimate victory = social media catnip, a corps of traditional media jumped into the fray online. The hastily scrambled headlines included:
“Female cyclist catcalled by man in van chases him down and exacts her revenge” (The Independent)
“Van driver shouts vile catcalls at female cyclist – then she takes epic revenge” (The Sun)
And, talking of epic…
“‘That’s exactly what you deserve, you scum’: Furious female cyclist takes revenge on catcalling van driver who asked if she was on her period by chasing him down and TEARING OFF his wing mirror” (Mail Online)
Which managed to misquote a clip that was likely to have already been fabricated (it was the motorcyclist cameraman, not the avenging cyclist, who called the van’s passengers ‘scum’).
By the time the story was settling into the news agenda, commenters on Reddit and Facebook were already questioning its authenticity (what kind of superhuman do you have to be to be able to tear off a wing mirror sans toolkit?), and the following day a witness had come forward saying he had seen actors being prepped at the location and that the scene had required more than one take to nail. A spokesperson for Jungle Creations, the viral video agency who had originally published the clip, admitted the incident may have been staged, but said they had been sent the content anonymously: “We rigorously vet all content received from third parties to ascertain its credibility, but unfortunately our usual high standards were not met on this video.”
Fact-checking standards at a viral marketing agency are one thing, but why didn’t the media organisations who hit “publish” take steps to verify the story’s source? (Some did, of course, including the BBC.) Never mind so-called “fake news”: in an age of flash-trends and viral all-pile-ons, it seems established media are capable of being taken in by the most unsophisticated of marketing pranks. If a story seems too good to be true, that’s when it probably needs an extra layer of verification. Hopefully, fast journalists of the future will look back on the fable of the wing mirror and reflect.
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