I got caught in an internet hoax, and I’m still stewing about how I got sucked in.
This is the clip I gleefully re-posted to Facebook: a supposed Google employee is yelling at San Franciscans who were blocking the departure of a company bus to Mountain View. They were protesting the rapid rent increases here brought on by the influx of high-paid tech employees.
In the clip the man screamed, “Why don’t you guys just move out of the way? I can pay my rent. Can you pay your rent? Then why don’t you go to a city where you can afford it? This is a city for the right people who can afford it. If you can’t afford it, it’s time for you to leave.”
As it turned out, this guy was not a Google employee but union organizer Max Bell Alper who was doing a bit of political street theater by pretending to be a Google employee.
I didn’t wait to find that out, even though his real identity was published in The Bay Guardian about an hour after I saw this. Although when I saw the clip on Facebook I had a little flutter of doubt about the truth of interaction, I ignored it. I quickly posted it to my Facebook page with the snarky precede, “Listen you pesky natives, if you can’t afford to live in the city of your birth, get a better job. The measure of your worth is your ability to pay $4000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. Otherwise, you’re just in this guy’s way.”
People like him are the jerks who are shoving me out of my hometown, I thought, driving the rents beyond affordability. The clip verified for me that they really are as horrible as I believe them to be. They are cruel, dismissive, and entitled, the worst of humanity, people who have no understanding of the havoc they are causing among the residents. They are the very visible hand of the marketplace that lately has been firmly at the small of my back shoving me out of the city of my birth.
I’m a fourth generation San Franciscan. My grandfather played for the San Francisco Seals. In Noe Valley, the charming working class neighborhood of my childhood, four generations of my family lived within walking distance of each other. I went to the same elementary school and middle school as my mom and I had some of her same teachers.
If someone like me, someone with deep roots and traditions that stretch back generations, can no longer claim this city as her own, then something profoundly wrong is happening. The effect of this huge increase in millionaires in San Francisco has made me feel that that man was telling me I have no right to live here. The clip gave me a chance to hate him and what is happening around me, the world where I am no longer one of the “right people.”
Truth is that I don’t know anyone who works at Google. I have no idea how they think. It is unfair of me to assume that they are as mean spirited and dismissive as Max Alper portrayed them to be. Yet there was something that felt so right and righteous about revealing their crass materialism in public (well, among my sympathetic Facebook friends).
There’s been a lot of these fake internet memes lately, so much so that The New York Times published a story about it on the front page of the business section yesterday. There was the waitress humiliated by customers who tipped her poorly because she they thought she was gay. (Yes, bigots are cheap and mean, my friends and here is the proof.) The Thanksgiving story about the airline passenger stuck next to fellow passengers behaving badly. (Yes, holiday travel exposes you to the worst people and the worst in people.) Even my respected colleague Alicia Shepard, formerly the ombudsperson for NPR, was fooled by a Kayne West meme asserting that he had compared himself to Nelson Mandela.
I think she gets a pass on that one. Kanye West says really stupid, egomanical things all the time.
When I was thinking about how I was duped I saw it as a five-stage process.
1) Someone I trust posts this thing. In this case it was Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, someone whose work I respect very much.
2) The meme rouses in me something that I have an emotional attachment to believing to be true.
3) That meme appears to prove something I fear and justifies the feeling that the world really is as bad as I think it is, that I’m not just making this stuff up.
4) I am conscious that posting it will arouse strong feelings in my friends.
5) I need to do this quickly because it’s likely to go viral and I want to be one of the first up with this shocking piece of the truth.
The impulses behind this are emotional, status and a sense of urgency, all factors that make one less likely to verify that something is true.
But the bigger insight isn’t my jackrabbit like lack of impulse control. It’s the fact that this thing, whatever it is, says something to me that I am fully capable of articulating on my own. I’m a writer. I have a website. If something enrages me, horrifies me or even makes me feel small and discarded, I have the skill and the forum for discussing it rather than doing the cheap and easy act of repeating, re-posting. This re-posting almost as false as the meme itself. It mimics an action, or mimics an attempt to say something but repeating is reflexive, immediate and shows no judgment.