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The twice-stolen identity of Taiwan Jones: why people lie on the internet

How one viral tweet inspired a horde of liars.

Roy E. Handy III was on an aeroplane sitting next to a professor marking exam papers – or so the viral tweet goes.  

On Thursday 19 October, Roy gained over 80,000 Retweets and 300,000 likes on a tweet sharing his experiences of the flight. “This professor graded tests next to me the whole flight,” the tweet began. “If there’s a Taiwan Jones at Howard, boy you failed the fuck out ya midterm”.

By 8:53pm, Taiwan Jones had heard the news. After an internet campaign to #FindTaiwan, the student finally saw the tweet and tweeted his own, forlorn, response: “Fuck”. But three hours and one minute later, another man named Taiwan Jones spoke up. “I just found out I failed my midterms,” he wrote.

One Taiwan received over 160,000 Retweets – the other, over 320,000. By Friday morning, “Taiwan Jones” was trending in the United States, and UK newspapers such as the Evening Standard had run the story on their websites, assuming the second Taiwan to be the real student.

This is a story about liars and the internet – but just how many liars? Last month, a Twitter user’s account was suspended after they changed their Twitter name and pretended to be Dameka, a childhood enemy of rapper Nicky Minaj. After Roy’s plane tweet went viral, a man copied it and claimed to know the exam result of a “Michael Turner at Butler”, and then another man pretended to be Michael. Logic dictates at least one Taiwan must be lying.

“It wasn’t that deep,” says @TaiwanJoness (the first Taiwan) over Twitter’s direct messaging service. “I randomly saw the main tweet on my timeline. I almost instantly thought of pretending to be the guy.”

@TaiwanJoness is not Taiwan Jones. He is a 20-year-old student from Sweden who wishes to remain anonymous but admits to me that he is not Taiwan. “I never expected it to blow like it did,” he says, referring to his viral tweet. “It was just for fun.”

***

In 1996, social psychologist Bella DePaulo found that most people lie once or twice a day. Dr Joanne Meredith, a psychology lecturer at the University of Salford and an expert in online communication, explains that “people lie in general” and it’s hard to separate online and offline motivations.

“Because you don’t have the face-to-face context and all the paralinguistic cues, you’re able to lie potentially more easily online,” she says, explaining why people might lie on the internet. But another motive is one that is all too often behind internet phenomena. “People want likes and retweets for self-esteem purposes,” she says, describing a high number of likes as a “hit”.

The fake Taiwan denies he was motivated by a desire to get retweets (“at the end of the day, it’s just numbers on a screen”) but admits he did have other reasons. In the past, he has played similar tricks – posing as a journalist called Sergi Esteban and successfully fooling people and some news sources into believing a fake piece of football news.

“During the summer, journalists and the media spread so many rumours, 90 per cent was fabricated and everyone still believed them,” he tells me. “So I decided to see how gullible people were. It’s actually scary how gullible people are.”

This self-reported motivation is notably more moral than Dr Meredith's suggestion, and ignores the potential immorality of online identity theft. Did the fake Taiwan ever feel guilty about stealing the identity of the real Taiwan Jones? “That never crossed my mind,” he says. “But I have a feeling that Taiwan Jones at Howard doesn’t exist.”

@JonesTawian_ lives in Washington DC and is going to graduate in 2019, at least according to his Twitter bio. In a series of tweets and screenshots, he explains that his friend texted him to let him know about Roy’s tweet and his own exam failure. There are only two holes in his story. First, that until recently his Twitter handle used to be @SaucyIV_. Second, that when The Washington Post rang around every “Howard” university and college in the United States, they found not a single one had a student named Taiwan Jones.

“Whether the tweet is fact or fiction is my business,” says Roy E. Handy III when I ask him about his viral tweet. Roy is a graphic designer and photographer, and has tweeted his pleasure that this experience gave exposure to his work. “Nothing motivated me to send [the] tweet. It was a tweet. I logged on, tweeted my experience, logged off,” he says. “Then boom, a ton of retweets and followers, which was cool but it was cooler to see everyone globally support my photography work as well.”

Roy’s reluctance to say whether the tweet was fact or fiction suggests it was the latter. “Believe what you may,” Roy says. “I’m just happy that it brought everyone together to laugh for a moment.”

Dr Meredith believes that lies can easily get out of hand online, so the motivation behind them may not necessarily match their eventual impact. “When you read that tweet you get the impression that it was potentially designed just to be humorous for the particular people who followed him,” she says of Roy’s tweet. “There’s a real lack of control between what you put out there online and who your eventual readers are going to be… What was potentially a lie, but a lie for comedic purposes, suddenly becomes something an awful lot bigger.”

This could also be true for the two Taiwans, who may have been attempting to make a small joke for their followers. Then again, they may have known exactly what to expect. “Piggybacking onto something that’s gone viral is quite an easy way of getting a self-esteem hit,” says Dr Meredith.

Yet the ease of lying online may mean that, as the first fake Taiwan told me, “it’s not that deep”. Dr Maarten Derksen, a professor of behavioural and social sciences at the University of Groningen, says we should separate the phenomena of “lying” and “bullshitting”.

“There are many kinds of lie, and there is a large grey area between truth and untruth,” he says, relying on the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit as “discourse that doesn't care about truth”.

“Perhaps the internet is a better place for bullshit than for lies, because although it is easy to fake on the internet, the medium also offers a lot of possibilities for checking things,” he says. And although many publications did publish the story of Taiwan Jones without fact-checking it, many average Twitter users sleuthed around to determine the internet histories of both Taiwans.

Perhaps, then, this isn’t a story about liars and the internet. As Dr Derksen suggests, it might be about bullshitters.

“My experience from hanging around on the internet is that it is a great place for the spread of bullshit,” he says. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Can you match the YouTube comment to the YouTube video?

Can anyone? 

It's called the YouTube comment thesis. It's called that because I just called it that, in that sentence you just read, but it's called that nonetheless.

The YouTube comment thesis goes like this: YouTube comments are so bizarre, nonsensical, and yes, offensive, that it is often impossible to match the comment to the video from whence it came. 

For example, check out this comment on a video of Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer being sung at the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton:

With that in mind, it's now time to test the thesis. Can you match the following YouTube comments to the YouTube videos they sit under? 

 

 

 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.