“Life’s a rollercoaster, keep your arms inside.”
So sings Conor Oberst in his new song, “You Are Your Mother’s Child.” In the new video for the track, a puppet dad reflects on his very real children’s playful nature, as Oberst sings projected through an old television screen. It’s a sweet song, taken from his current album, “Upside Down Mountain,” and even sweeter video that has an untainted, nostalgic innocence.
The lovely clip is a palate-cleanser of sorts to what has definitely been a tumultuous last few months for Oberst. This week, a woman, who, in February, had accused Oberst of rape via comments section for an essay that ran on the xoJane website recanted her statements and apologized to Oberst via a public statement.
Her false accusation is, of course, in-and-of itself terrible, but the story- more than any in recent weeks- is a reminder of how social media spreads tales with reckless disregard as to any veracity. A spark turns into an internet flame, which conflates into a roaring fire with the strike of one small match.
In a fascinating piece for The Washington Post, Caitlin Dewey chronicles the rumor’s path from the xoJane comment to Tumblr chatter to fan sites to mainstream. She cites that one Tumblr post, which was merely a re-report of an earlier report, got 10,000 hits in one day. Similarly, in one 24-hour period, there were more than 700 tweets about the alleged rape.
On the internet, truth and fiction carry the same weight, but the most valuable currency is scandal. The more salacious an item the faster it will travel. For too long (and HitFix is guilty of this as are most outlets), attributing a story to a site now counts the same as verifying the story with an informed source or publicist. And they are two very different things. Additionally, something posted as a comment to an essay or on a Tumblr account is not the same thing as actual journalism. We act like they are there’s no difference now, giving something that is reported on a gossip site the same traction as something in the New York Times.
So, as Dewey notes, by the time Oberst’s reps released a statement saying the accusations were false, the story had already been picked up so many times on the internet that it took on the sheen of true by sheer ubiquity.
Oberst, who filed a $1.2 million libel suit against his Joanie Faircloth, his accuser, in February. He has since accepted her apology, but for the rest of his life, he’ll know that when someone Googles his name, these accusations will come up and they won’t all be amended with the fact that Faircloth recanted. They should all be taken down, but that’s not how it works on the Internet. This is now part of his footprint.
Faircloth holds the ultimate responsibility, but as Dewey writes, “Everyone who ‘boosted her signal,’ in the words of one outspoken Oberst blogger, is also complicit.” Maybe, no matter whether we’re retweeting or linking on Facebook or writing for a website, it’s time to take a little responsibility for the boost.