fake news

Five Signs a Viral Story Is Fake

Illustration: Intelligencer

Over the weekend, the anonymous Twitter user (and author of a book of his own collected tweets) @SixthFormPoet spun a tale of graveside romance that went viral on Twitter. Poet claimed he used to put flowers on a grave that never seemed to get any attention — only to discover that it was the grave of a man who murdered his wife and her parents on Christmas Day. As penance, he found the graves of the victims and went there to place flowers on them instead. Which, would you believe, was where he met his now-wife, the niece and granddaughter of the deceased. Wow. What a story. What a completely detailed story that totally, absolutely happened.

Now, to be fair, I don’t actually know that @SixthFormPoet’s story didn’t happen — though I couldn’t come up with any news stories about triple homicides at Christmas in Sussex, where the story is meant to take place. But more often than not, viral Twitter threads telling outlandish, too-good-to-be-true stories are, well, too good to be true. Remember the guy who claimed he’d tricked a member of MS-13 out of a brick of heroin and gotten away with it? Fake. (Morris later came clean, claiming he was afraid real members of MS-13 would try to hurt him for his lies … and also to raise money to crowdfund a movie.)

The benefit to stories like these popping up so frequently is that they become easier to spot. Once you know the formula, it’s hard to read past a tweet or two before checking out, knowing full well what you’re reading is just fiction. And not particularly nuanced fiction at that. Here’s a checklist for what you should be keeping an eye out for:

1. The person tweeting the story is the hero.

Nobody ever tweeted a Twitter story in which they are the villain. Or a supporting role. Or even just a witness to something crazy. No, they are always at the center of the crazy. The one who saves the day or gets the girl or wins the lottery. This, as you well know as a human being living on planet Earth, isn’t how life works. Don’t fall for it.


Is SOMEONE TWEETING AT YOU LIKE THIS? IS THEIR STORY BEST TOLD IN A SHOUT! The tweeter doth caps lock too much, methinks. A light Google search for Christmas Day triple homicides in the Sussex area didn’t lead me to anything confirming this thread was real. Scrolling through the replies, at least one person claimed to have heard the entire tale before from another source. A surefire sign of a borrowed legend.

3. It takes more than one tweet to tell.

Nowhere does the advice “be brief and be seated” apply more than Twitter. It’s the whole point of Twitter. (Or at least it was before the platform doubled its character limit.) If somebody needs 17 tweets, each more outlandish than the last, to tell you a story … it’s probably fake. There’s a reason good liars often avoid getting tangled up in too many details. (See: the story of Zola — it involves a road trip and a fellow stripper and is being made into a movie — told over 148 tweets. Zola, a.k.a. Aziah Wells King, later admitted parts of the story were dramatized.)

4. “Story time!”

Anybody who seems to be eager to tell their ridiculous tale to an audience should send up a red flag for you. If a person tweeting a thread does so pretending they are talking to an audience of millions before they’ve even got a dozen retweets, be suspicious.

5. There are follow-up threads.

Shane Morris, of MS-13 thread fame, claims he tweeted the thread after a different thread about doing shrooms went a little bit viral. He wanted to see if he could one-up himself. Since tweeting the thread about the graveside episode of How I Met Your Mother that is, allegedly, his life, @SixthFormPoet has also tweeted a thread about his children saving money to go to Disney and then deciding the day of the trip the funds would be better spent helping a local man who was, at the time, homeless. And a follow-up thread to that about how said local man went on to meet a friend of the family’s and now the two are engaged. (The woman met the man at a party she only attended because she called @SixthFormPoet and said she’d attempted suicide by … drinking two cocktails and taking four Advil.) Sometimes people really do live insane lives where repeatedly insane things happen to them … those people probably aren’t tweeting about them for attention.

Five Signs a Viral Story Is Fake