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Zaki Hasan Headshot

Morgan Freeman and the Media: Anatomy of a Hoax

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A phenomenon we see with increasing frequency in today's social media age is the immediate "share," where we can propagate a picture or quote to our entire social circle with the flick of a finger whenever we see something we like or agree with. While this can help facilitate dialogue about a variety of issues, it's also apparently divested us of the need to practice due diligence in finding out if the information we're posting and/or citing is actually legitimate. Instead, we simply take it at face value if it supports what we already believe. Confirmation bias, they call it.

We saw a microcosmic exemplar of this phenomenon occur in real time this past weekend in the wake of the Newtown shootings, with a quote purporting to be from Oscar winning actor and one-time "Easy Reader" Morgan Freeman decrying the media's passive-aggressive role in promoting violence by giving fame to the perpetrators of said violence. First one person shared it, then another, then another, and before you knew it, entire Facebook and Twitter feeds were subsumed by people slapping Freeman an imagined high-five. Here's the questionable wisdom in question:
You want to know why. This may sound cynical, but here's why.

It's because of the way the media reports it. Flip on the news and watch how we treat the Batman theater shooter and the Oregon mall shooter like celebrities. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are household names, but do you know the name of a single victim of Columbine? Disturbed people who would otherwise just off themselves in their basements see the news and want to top it by doing something worse, and going out in a memorable way. Why a grade school? Why children? Because he'll be remembered as a horrible monster, instead of a sad nobody.

CNN's article says that if the body count "holds up", this will rank as the second deadliest shooting behind Virginia Tech, as if statistics somehow make one shooting worse than another. Then they post a video interview of third-graders for all the details of what they saw and heard while the shootings were happening. Fox News has plastered the killer's face on all their reports for hours. Any articles or news stories yet that focus on the victims and ignore the killer's identity? None that I've seen yet. Because they don't sell. So congratulations, sensationalist media, you've just lit the fire for someone to top this and knock off a day care center or a maternity ward next.

You can help by forgetting you ever read this man's name, and remembering the name of at least one victim. You can help by donating to mental health research instead of pointing to gun control as the problem. You can help by turning off the news.

I could quibble about some of the sentiments expressed there, and it's a trifle simplistic, but the broad strokes are fine. Sure. Only problem? Morgan Freeman didn't say it. Not only that, but it was apparent from the beginning that he didn't say it, for two very simple reasons: 1) Without a regular web or social media presence to put his thoughts out there, and without some new movie to promote, what context would this statement have emerged in? What reporter would be asking for Freeman's take on this tragedy the same day it occurred? And 2) He's rarely spoken up about an issue like this before, so why start now?

Those red flags meant that it didn't pass the sniff test with me, so the first thing I did was Google the relevant bit from "Freeman." And while I couldn't find any actual reliable media sourcing for it, I did get plenty of message board and Facebook posts citing it, all affixed with some variation of, "Hey everybody, Morgan Freeman is right!" Then I hit up Snopes (which should really be one of your bookmarks if it isn't already), and they couldn't find any confirmation (they've since added a statement from Freeman's reps saying, in essence, "Uhh...no.").

Also interesting was the common refrain whenever the quote's questionable sourcing was pointed out: "It doesn't matter who said it, it's still true." But doesn't who said something matter just as much as what they say? Doesn't that play some role in whether we internalize it? As is clear after reading this article tracking the supposed Freeman quote's metamorphosis into a viral phenom, there's heavy irony in folks decrying the media's prevailing influence while re-posting something they likely wouldn't have given a thought to had it not come from an actor whose voice they like.

A true "through the looking glass" moment that couldn't have worked better if it was planned that way.