Earlier this week, the internet ate itself over a viral video starring a sixth grader from Tennessee who complained of verbal harassment from his classmates. In the video, the boy, named Keaton Jones, asks his mother through tears: “Just out of curiosity, why do they bully? What’s the point of it? Why do you find joy in taking innocent people, and finding a way to be mean to them?” The video’s virality eclipsed the Facebook universe and Jones became not only a national news story but an instant celebrity, earning high-profile fans like LeBron James, Justin Bieber, and Nickelback. “Bullies are straight up wack, corny, cowards, chumps, etc, etc!” James tweeted.
“Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke.” Stay strong Keaton, you’re a very brave young man and a lot of great folks have your back. @Lakyn_Jones if there is anything we can do for Keaton, please let us know. #StandWithKeaton#StopBullying— Nickelback (@Nickelback) December 11, 2017
As is inevitable in our confused, cruel world, this saccharine display of mock-solidarity was disrupted by some bad news: Keaton’s mother, Kimberly, appears to be racist. Her Facebook, which has since been deleted, contained “stand for the anthem” memes and pictures of the Jones family holding Confederate flags. And somehow, through the internet’s high-speed game of telephone, the presence of these tidbits of racist cultural ephemera on Jones’s page mutated into unsubstantiated rumors that little Keaton “may have called a few classmates the n-word,” per The Root, and that the entire incident was a scam contrived by the mother for donations. By Monday evening, the original video was deleted and celebrities were walking back their endorsements. (To make matters worse, on Wednesday TMZ reported that Jones's father is a vocal white supremacist currently in jail in Tennessee.)
But there was one more issue to be dealt with: For some reason, a stranger created a GoFundMe (“This video really touched my heart. I decided to do this GoFund Me [sic] to help with this childs [sic] future”) for Keaton, and the masses donated more than $57,000. When the information about Kimberly Jones emerged, the GoFundMe was placed on hold, whatever that means, and we were left to reckon with why, exactly, thousands of strangers donated money to a 6th grader because he was unpopular at school.
Our impulse to come to the aid of those featured in social media sob stories likely stems from a greater sense of powerlessness. Big problems, like climate change and the diplomatic consequences of our president’s senility, are abstract and overwhelming. Small problems with a human face are easier to comprehend, which is why many charities ask donors to “sponsor” an individual child or endangered animal rather than make a blanket donation to the organization. But when the beneficiaries of this neurological shortcut are unvetted strangers on Facebook with non-financial struggles, these remote acts of charity only simulate good deeds. At best, they are misguided attempts to throw money at complex problems. At worst, they are outright scams.
For a while, the dominant viral sob story-cum-fundraising event was what I’ll call the “forged receipt gambit.” By now, you’re probably familiar with this one — a restaurant employee writes something nasty on a receipt and blames it on the customer for sympathy or financial gain. In 2013, a gay waitress in New Jersey wrote “I’m sorry, but I cannot tip because I do not agree with your lifestyle” on a receipt for a $95 order, claimed the customer had done it and posted a picture to an LGBT group on Facebook. She received more than $3,000 in donations before the customers in question provided their copy of the receipt, which showed a 19 percent tip and no homophobic message. The waitress was fired and pledged to donate her ill-gotten gains to charity. (She didn’t.) In 2014, a black waitress at a Red Lobster posted a picture of a receipt with “none, [n-word]” written on the tip line. A YouCaring page created for her raised more than $10,000. The customer in question, whose name was visible in the viral photo, denied having written the slur, hired a forensic handwriting analyst to prove his innocence, and sued Red Lobster for $1,000,000. (The lawsuit seems to have fizzled out.) In 2016, a gay pastor in Austin took the viral receipt scam to the next level by purchasing a cake from Whole Foods, writing a homophobic slur on it with icing, posting photos online and then filing a lawsuit against the company. In this case, the hoaxer got too greedy. Corporate lawyers tend to be more skeptical of these stories than the general public, and Whole Foods responded by releasing security camera footage of the cake prior to the forgery. Rather than face a countersuit, the pastor admitted to the scam and apologized.
Truthful sob stories have also garnered outsize financial windfalls. In 2012, a video of 7th-grade boys taunting their elderly bus monitor, titled “Making the Bus Monitor Cry,” racked up several million views. It soon hit the national news, the boys were suspended, and an Indiegogo page created for the bus monitor, a 68-year-old woman named Karen Klein, received $703,833. Initially set up with a modest goal of $5,000, the donations kept pouring in and the huge dollar amount began to overshadow every other part of the story. Gawker, always ahead of the curve, wrote at the time: “If the outpouring of money is supposed to teach bullies a lesson, what would Klein accepting the money teach bullying victims? That no matter how senselessly you suffer, no matter how public your humiliation, there is always some dollar amount that can make up for it. It gets better, for a price.”
The psychological root of crowdfunding campaigns for non-financial hardships stems from a thoroughly modern pathology. First, some enterprising idiot, moved by a viral sob story, concludes that the best way to help the subject with their interpersonal issues is to start a GoFundMe. Sometimes, it almost makes sense. In the case of the bus monitor, the creator of the Indiegogo page proposed to “give her a vacation.” In the case of Keaton Jones, however, the GoFundMe was created because, according to the administrator, “The video that [Jones] posted really touched my heart and [I] felt compelled to help. This is best way that I knew how.” This latter rationale lacks the motivation of giving the victim a tangible gift. Fundraisers like these are effectively crowd-sourced insurance payouts that one can claim after feeling sad.
The more money the fundraiser makes, the harder it becomes to empathize with the situation. Giving to a GoFundMe for a financially stable but emotionally distraught person when the total is, say, $50, is dopey but understandable. When the total is $50,000 or $500,000, what drives people to add additional money to the pot? How can someone look at a number that large and justify adding even more? The justification can only be to spite the viral story’s antagonists, who are typically prepubescent children, by excessively rewarding the victim. When the story becomes adults trying to make 12-year-olds feel bad by giving huge sums of money to the undeserving, it isn’t a story of victimhood anymore — just a feud between assholes.
The impulse that makes us fall for viral GoFundMes is also why crowdfunding has been able to fill gaps in America’s broken health care system — paying for an individual’s medical bills is an attainable goal with tangible effects. It makes us feel good and it works. But when crowdfunding meets the mawkish pleas of Facebook grifters, this mechanism can end up lending itself to less noble causes. Because online mobs and crowdfunding campaigns provide instant gratification and easily-digestible success stories, people have developed an over-reliance on those methods. Crowdfunding is great for helping friends with financial emergencies. Twitter mobs are great for letting Jonathan Chait know he wrote something stupid. For everything else, we might have to log off.