In season 4, episode 17 of the hit television show “Friends,” roommates Joey and Chandler discover that a glitch in their cable has resulted in free and continuous pornography. The plumber who happens to be in the apartment warns them never to turn it off or they might lose the free porn forever.
Chandler and Joey heed the warning, leaving it on constantly. They soon find their reality warped by over-exposure to the porn fantasy world.
“I was just at the bank, and there was a really hot teller. And she didn’t ask me to go back into the vault and do it,” Chandler exclaims.
“Same kind of thing happened to me,” Joey says, echoing Chandler’s shock. “A woman delivered my pizza and then just left after I gave her the money.” Chandler asks whether she wanted to come inside or see the bedroom. “No!” Joey says, in shock and outrage.
Then it dawns on both of them: they’ve been watching too much porn and it’s warped their view of reality. The episode brilliantly employs humor to warn of the dangers of excessively indulging in titillating fantasy.
Cut to 2019, and an era in which the American left daily imbibes a different kind of fantasy porn to titillate the insatiable thirst for outrage. Enter Jussie Smollett, an actor who knows his audience. He is not the first actor to turn to a type of porn to revive his career. So he scripts two characters to help him act out a scene of outrage porn for the liberal media in which he pretends to be victimized by two Donald Trump supporters.
The script checks all the right victim boxes for a good outrage fantasy. Watch this montage of outrage as the mainstream media hilariously buy into it. Over and over, they ironically ask, “Who could believe that something like this could happen in 2019?” Who could believe it? So addicted are they to the narcotic of outrage, that the mere fantasy of the attack is all they need to believe it true.
You might remember a few other hoaxes over recent years. Smollett’s hoax reminds one of the failing talk show host, Morton Downey Jr. In the late 1980s, he attempted to revive public attention by falsely claiming to have been attacked by neo-Nazis.
Maybe you remember the Duke University lacrosse team being falsely accused of attacking an African-American exotic dancer. Or, more recently, you might remember a gay man falsely accusing Whole Foods of decorating his cake with the slur, “fag.”
We should also remember a recent video of a child being separated from his mother at the border that turned out to be a hoax. The Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation battle likewise had its share of hoaxes.
Such hoaxes are becoming common, even epidemic. There are hundreds of them, and several worthy authors (here, here, here, and here, for example) have done yeomen’s work compiling these lists from which I now draw. Here is a small sample of confirmed hoaxes in just the last few years.
A pro-gay Indiana church was vandalized with slurs, including one reading, “Heil Trump.” It was actually the church’s own organ player who did it as a hoax.
Firefighters battled arson at a church attended by African Americans. On the wall of the church, the presumed arsonist wrote, “Vote Trump,” in an apparent reference to the upcoming election. It was a sick hoax perpetrated by one of the parishioners.
In Lafayette, Kentucky, a woman falsely claimed to have had her hijab stolen by white men wearing Trump hats.
A Plainview, New York man was charged with perpetrating another vandalism hoax in which he painted several swastikas around the campus of Nassau Community College.
A Muslim woman made up another hijab-stealing hate crime hoax, claiming three men screaming “Donald Trump” attacked her.
April 2017: An arson case in Charlotte, North Carolina first appeared to be a hate crime when the perpetrator left a note reading, “Our newly elected president Donald Trump is our nation builder for White America. You all know that, we want our country back on the right track. We need to get rid of Muslims, Indians and all immigrants.” It was a hoax.
May 2017: A racist note left on the windshield of an African-American St. Olaf student touched off campus-wide protests and got the college to cancel classes. It was a hoax perpetrated as “strategy to draw attention to concerns about the campus climate.”
November 2017: A Kansas man defaced his own car with racist slogans. Police soon concluded this to be another vandalism hoax.
December 2017: The U.S. Justice Department announced the conviction of Juan Thompson, a reporter for The Intercept, for making hoax bomb threats to Jewish community centers.
September 2018: A Long Island, New York woman falsely claimed to have been accosted by mysterious Trump supporters screaming “Trump 2016” and to have received a threatening note and gotten her tire slashed.
October 2018: Vandalism at a Brooklyn synagogue originally believed to the work of an anti-Semitic vandal turned out to be the work of a black man with career experience as an “anti-hate” worker for City Hall.
Outrage porn is not a victimless crime. Indeed, these hoaxes inspire very real violence as the mob feels compelled to take action against vilified Trump supporters. The hoaxes exacerbate tensions among Americans and sometimes destroy lives.
But they also sell newspapers and garner clicks. A new outrage story seems to appear before the last one can be debunked. So long as Americans uncritically consume outrage porn, our collective reality warps. Stoking the rising outrage of the mob may be good for business, but it’s dangerous for our country.