Topic: Society

(September 2006)

In June, a sixteen year-old girl named Bree with the username lonelygirl15 posted her first video blog on the website YouTube. The video was just a minute and a half long, but in three months it was viewed more than 350,000 times, mostly by teenage boys.

As the summer went on, Bree created 29 more video blogs that recorded her talking about her not especially remarkable teenage life, full of angst, unrequited love, harassment from conservative parents, and other matters that would be familiar to most viewers over eleven and under thirty. Because Bree was attractive and had a natural rapport with the camera, she quickly became a cyberspace phenomenon, star of a YouTube drama, "My So-Called Life" on line.

Except "lonelygirl15" wasn't sixteen, wasn't named Bree, didn't live with her parents and wasn't even an American. She was a nineteen year-old aspiring New Zealand actress, and her video bloggings were created by filmmakers Ramesh Flinders and Miles Beckett. It was all just a device to create "buzz" and publicity for the actress and the two aspiring producers. "Lonelygirl15" was a scam.

Does it matter?

"It's just entertainment" has been a favorite defense of show business frauds for centuries, perhaps most memorably used by the participants in the famous T.V. quiz show-rigging scandal of the 1950s. The rationalization usually precedes other classics, like "people like to be fooled," "nobody was hurt," and often, "this isn't life-or-death, after all." Significantly, the people who employ these excuses are usually the ones who benefit most from the frauds.

It is true that a lot of entertainment involves illusion and the audience's willingness to accept it. Hollywood actresses are seldom as beautiful as they appear, and Hollywood heroes are seldom heroic. The ethical lines are subtle and sometimes inconsistent. Audiences no longer object to the fact that pop singers are merely mouthing to recordings of their songs while pretending that they can execute elaborate dance routines on stage as they sing, but a group that lip-synced to a recording of someone else during a live concert, a la Milli Vanilli, would be similarly disgraced. Magic fans enjoy the illusions performed by professional magicians like David Copperfield, who maintain as part of their performance that the magic is "real," but who know that their audiences know that it is not real, and whose audiences know the magicians know. But an apparent non-performer who claimed to have magical powers and charged money for people to witness them would be rejected as a fraud once he was exposed. People will laugh at a scripted film that depicts a comedian's funny reaction to some situation, and people will laugh at a Candid Camera stunt that causes an unsuspecting by-passer to react amusingly to a staged gag. But when a TV producer named Larry Hovis (yes, the same guy who was in "Hogan's Heroes") tried to fool TV audiences into believing that scripted actors in his hidden camera show were random practical joke victims, he was run out of television. He crossed the line.

In the wake of the Lonelygirl caper, some have attempted to define the line for cyberfrauds so that this one becomes the beneficiary of a "no harm, no foul" ethic. "Who was hurt, really?" they argue, like the producers of the rigged quiz shows. "People got a good storyline and a little excitement. So what if it was fake?"

But there is harm. There is harm anytime the act of lying is represented as a legitimate business tactic. While the architects of Lonelygirl15 were not seeking money, their methods could have been used unchanged to sell downloads for cash. They are indistinguishable from techniques used to defraud gullible givers out of contributions to fake charities; they are the same as the devices used for real estate fraud. There is harm any time people are made to care and devote emotional energy about something that is not real, because it may make it all that much more difficult for them to care again. There is harm, finally, because society is better, healthier and more filled with trust when there are fewer lies, not more.

The actress who pretended to be Bree has already snagged some guest appearances on talk shows that have no objection to giving liars exactly what they lied to obtain. The Ethics Scoreboard has a big objection to it. If our society wants to promote ethics and discourage frauds, it needs to make certain that Lonelygirl15 stays lonely.

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