I confess that over the Thanksgiving holiday, I didn’t check Twitter. So, the day after, when the hubbub over Elan Gale’s imaginary interlude with an irate and inconsiderate airline passenger was shown to be a hoax, I was interested in the unfolding drama. Reading Gale’s tweets, it was difficult to determine whether they were true or not, whether his claim that it was a hoax might in fact be the hoax or whether the story was fabricated from inception. None of the traditional signposts were available to indicate truthfulness: I didn’t know who Gale was, corroboration was difficult because trusted news sources did pick up the story, and I had no context to determine veracity. To be honest, I’m still unconvinced that it was pure fiction.
In the 2013 EU Kids Online report “In their own words: What bothers children online,” children described being upset when they learned that information they believed to be true turned out to be false. Many articles responding to Gale’s story indicated that adults felt much the same. Matthew Ingram argued on Gigacom that “it’s incumbent on the sources of such erroneous reports to point out that they are engaging in fiction, rather than leaving everyone to their own devices.” There’s a line between knowingly engaging in a game and feeling duped. In the case of Gale’s story, it seemed that many of those following the drama were unaware of his intended purpose.
In addition to lacking traditional markers of credibility, social media platforms such as Twitter also lack context and clearly defined boundaries between information and entertainment. Gale argued he was entertaining, yet some of his audience believed he was reporting or informing. A two-fold challenge for audiences engaging with social media is identifying the purpose and context of the message and establishing markers of credibility even when they are limited. However, when seeking entertainment, the need for rigorous evaluation seems less necessary than in other contexts, so audience members may find themselves more gullible or vulnerable to false information. Content creators and their audiences are still finding their footing in these changing media environments and the tenets of media literacy, especially critically approaching media messages, provide a way to maintain one’s bearings in the absence of clear guides.