Baumhower: The good, the bad and the ugly of going viralWritten by Jeremy Baumhower | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Facebook has become the home where many of us get our daily information, from news stories and celebrity gossip to must-see videos, local school delays and sometimes missing pets and runaway children. People who used to poster telephone poles are now using social media. The “share” button may just be the most powerful tool used in any media today.
On the early morning of May 21, my Facebook news feed was littered with pictures of an East Toledo man. At first I did not read why the man’s picture was being shared, nor what was being said, but as the minutes ticked away his face kept multiplying, almost spamming my Facebook page.When I read the following caption, “If you see this man, his name is Chad Michael Lesko, he is wanted by Toledo Police for 4 counts of RAPE he Raped 3 Little Girls and His own son. Please Like and Share and Get the Word out. NO ONE MESS WITH HIM!!!!” My initial feeling toward the post was disgust. The picture showed a man with two Insane Clown Posse/Juggalo face tattoos and piercings;, it met a stereotype of someone I could conceive doing such heinous things.
I watched with curiosity for the next couple of hours as the “shares” went from 300 to 900 to 1,500; when it reached 3,000 something piqued my interest. I wanted to know more about this man, so I scoured local news websites looking for any story or alert. After an extensive search with nothing found, an awful thought crept into my mind: What if this post was a lie?
By the time I picked up the phone to call Toledo Free Press Editor in Chief Michael S. Miller, the shares had hit 5,000. I filled him in on the random post, posed my scary theory and the two of us started to investigate if any charges were pending against this newfound celebrity. Hours later, as the shares of the post and picture topped 9,000, the Toledo Police told Toledo Free Press that they believed the post was a false accusation; there was no record of any such charge in Toledo or Lucas County, meaning the whole thing was a lie.
The worst part is that people were inadvertently slandering a man by clicking a button with their mouses. People who thought they were doing something good and alerting others of the face of a child molester were in fact the tool being used by someone to ruin a man’s life. It was a perfect storm of stereotypes, heinous allegations and Facebook that created a high-tech libel campaign.
I posted a screen capture of the original post, informed my friends that the allegations were false and asked that people share my post to combat the slander. At the time of my post the shares of the original warning were at 12,000. Following TFP, WTOL-11’s Rob Wiercinski did a report and MSN and Gawker picked up the story. The original post, which was created with a fake Facebook Page, hit almost 30,000 shares before the mother of Lesko’s child deleted the picture … that’s right, his 19-year-old baby mama admitted responsibility for the campaign and has apologized.
The original post was seen by tens of thousands of people on Facebook and the truth when shared by Toledo Free Press was seen by 85,000. Gawker’s piece was seen by 61,000 and MSN was shared more than 2,000 times.
The week prior, I had reached out to the Hoeflinger family, whose 18-year-old son Brian died tragically after drinking and driving. I offered his parents my column space to address the graduating class of 2013. I wanted them to share their heartbreaking story to help spread their message and warn teens about the dangers of drinking and driving and, in their words, “one bad choice.” I promised Brian and Cindy if they trusted me with their words, I would make their letter go viral. I chose to use the very same vehicle that slandered Lesko, Facebook.
My promise did not go unfulfilled, as the Hoeflinger’s open letter to the graduating class is now the most-read piece in the history of Toledo Free Press. As of print, their words have been shared almost 10,000 times and read online by nearly 250,000 people. The even better news is this number is growing by the second and shows no signs of slowing.
Facebook, when used properly, such as sharing the Hoeflinger letter, can do such beautiful things. It can even change or save lives. However, Facebook, when used for evil, can also ruin a life just as quickly.
Think before you click — someone’s life may depend on it.
Find Jeremy Baumhower on Facebook or Twitter @jeremytheproduc.