For the last week or so, the Facebook and possibly even a Tumblr have been all a-twitter about Joseph Baken, the 22 year-old gay man who was beaten up at the Missoula Club on his birthday. It turned out that did not happen. The injuries to Baken’s face were sustained when he attempted a back flip off the curb on Higgins Avenue, where he could maybe be heard saying “call me Gabby” before executing a perfect 270-degree rotation. We know this the same way we heard about his ostensible bashing in the first place: social media. Specifically, we saw this video:
What a perfect metaphor for his time in the national spotlight.
Baken pled guilty Tuesday to filing a false police report, after the MCPD saw that and another video in which Baken can be heard saying “for Olympic gold!” before failing to qualify. He is twenty-two. Probably he went to Missoula for his birthday, messed up his face and—now we enter the realm of conjecture—returned with a story more sympathetic than “I try stunts when I’m drunk.” Then things got out of hand. If you think maybe you hate Joseph Baken, try looking at his Facebook page. For once the Timeline format is useful here, as we watch the comments of support give way to comments of indignant disdain. In some cases, they are the same people. All of these commenters, on either side of the Baken-victim/Baken-liar divide, have one thing in common: they don’t know anything.
On one hand, that is a good reason to never, ever spread false information on the internet. Most of the fault must be found with Baken himself, as originator of the lie. But I am thinking more scornfully of the bloggers and Tumblrers and Faceboogers—you know, us—who uncritically repeated his lie as report. After “this will be bad for Missoula” (local) and “Missoula is bad for gay people” (national,) the most common sentiment I read was “why isn’t the mainstream media reporting this?” It turns out that the mainstream media wants sources and evidence before it reports something as news, and it turns out that is a good policy.
The internet has dramatically reduced the time it takes to transmit a story around the world, yet the time it takes to verify that story—to source and conduct interviews—remains roughly the same. Decentralizing the news—shifting away from ABC and CNN to Facebook and Twitter—does not make old-timey standards of journalism less important. It makes them more so, the way bigger and better fireworks make it more important not to smoke in the factory. Joseph Baken sat down on a palette of Black Cats and lit a joint, and we all ran over there for a toke.
But who is more at fault in a lie: the liar or the one who believes it? Hint: it’s the liar. Still, the impulse to go on Baken’s Facebook page and yell at him for lying is the same impulse that led us to spread his hoax in the first place. It’s the exhilaration that comes with discovering that makes you angry. I like to be angry sometimes, particularly in situations that make me feel morally superior to what I am angry at. The word for this kind of anger is outrage.
I submit that a story that outrages us slips past the ol’ lie detector much more easily than one we don’t care about. That’s why we seized on Baken’s hoax so readily, and it’s probably also why being mad at him makes such a clean substitute. When you are already outraged, another outrage is even easier to seize upon. Thanks to the torrent of stories we get from the Facebook and Twitter and the rest of the internet each day, we can pretty much move from one outrage to the next. There is always Sandusky if things go slack.
That is probably bad. When I am in a state of outrage—when I read about a gay kid getting bashed at a bar that already falsely claims to serve the best burger in my town—I claim to be looking for justice. I go on Facebook and point out that not only would I never bash a gay person, but I am also angry at those who do. I don’t really want justice, though; I want justification. It’s a subtle difference, but you can see it if you look closely. Justice is closely allied with truth. We have to know how things are if we want to make them better. If we want to feel better, on the other hand, we only have to know what we heard.