Three days ago, a widely-reported story emerged that Michael Lohan had posted to Twitter that Lindsay was HIV-positive. Michael said it was a hacker. Lindsay said it was her dad. Nobody realized that the hack itself was a fake.
According to Perez Hilton—the first major blogger to report the story—Michael's HIV tweets appeared briefly and in the middle of the night, before Michael "promptly deleted" them. But Perez's proof was a screen grab that originated on Oh No They Didn't, an anarchic gossip comment board, where a group of users had conspired to get a fake, photoshopped version of Michael Lohan's Twitter stream into the press. They succeeded. After Perez reported the news, the story drew responses from both Lohans and ended up in every major gossip outlet, from Us Weekly to Page Six.
How did the hoaxers do it, and why? This story involves multiple layers of deception, a conspiracy of self-destructing rumormongers, and—at its heart—a debate over What Gossip Should Be. But first, a timeline of the hoax:
Three ONTD-ers work together to start a rumor that Michael Lohan had posted a series of "insane" tweets, but had then taken them down. They claim to have seen the tweets and wondered where they went.
"CAPPED IT," announced user Pomme_Pilot, who posted a purported screen capture of Michael's Twitter freak out on the board.
The next morning, Perez Hilton copies Pomme_Pilot's image and puts it on his site, under the headline "Lindsay Lohan Has AIDS?????" He doesn't say where he got the image and doesn't link to ONTD. He writes that Michael "promptly deleted the Tweets, but there are screen grabs of the accusations."
Michael Lohan sees the screengrab (Does he read ONTD?) and assumes his Twitter account has been hacked. He announces this on Twitter. (Is he aware that other communicative modes even exist?) Lohan immediately accuses Perez of breaking into his Twitter account. Neither man entertains the possibility the hack itself may not have occurred.
Nattering self-appointed hall monitor to the blogosphere, Gossip Cop, debunks the "tasteless" rumor that Lindsay has HIV, thereby lending credence to the rumor that Michael tweeted it in the first place. Lindsay thinks her dad did it, too: "He's a grown man and has done the exact same things on TV/interviews, why wouldn't he lie on Twitter, and everywhere else!" ONTD's renegade gossip knows her subject well, apparently.
The tale of Michael's HIV tweets circulates far and wide. Us Weekly, Page Six, TMZ, The Huffington Post, Entertainment Weekly, The Frisky, NBC New York, and X-17 Online—to name just a few!—repeat the story and Michael's and Lindsay's competing claims.
ONTD outs the hoaxers in yet another comment board, this time pointing out Gossip Cop's error. This board contains screengrabs of the hoax's origins, and though we just learned that screengrabs are easily faked, I think we can trust the screengrabs of the screengrab hoax's origins. (Walter Benjamin's theory of authenticity and mechanical reproduction just burst into flames, by the way.) And ONTD's moderators—nine people are responsible for policing the popular messageboard—as well as dozens of users have attested to the scam.
So why did they do it? ONTD user nicknotned has a theory:
[Note: Yes, "nicknotned" also happens to be the Twitter handle of Gawker Media's publisher, but he is not the commenter on ONTD who goes by that name. More confusion.]
Recent changes to the alternately brilliant and terrifying Oh No They Didn't—such as monetizing the long ad-free site—have drawn dissent from some users. Pomme_Pilot, we are told, is among the dissenters. She and her friends have essentially turned into kamikaze gossips, perpetrating the vicious hoax with the goal of destroying the forum that hosts them. It's self-immolation in the name of universal destruction. All because they didn't like the site's editorial direction.
What have we learned from this story?
Don't trust bloggers who don't admit where they get their information. Perez's post suggests he or someone he knows took the screengrab; if he'd been forthright about where he got it, someone might have questioned it sooner.
For all its hype about "policing" the internet rumor mill, Gossip Cop doesn't know shit.
Never underestimate the destructive force of a gossip blogger scorned.