“Please, just let me have this.” It’s what we cry when a too-good-to-be-true viral story is threatened by the too-true-to-be-ignored reality. When we say it (or, more likely, tweet it), we know something’s wrong. It’s like that uncanny moment when we realize we’re about to awake from a wonderful dream.
It comes up a lot: during the plane bae saga , for instance, when a comedian nonconsensually filmed a young man and woman in the row in front of her and created a fictional narrative that they were in a romantic relationship—to the delight of thousands, who then demanded that the poor young woman live up to that fantasy. Or, more recently, when accused sex trafficker Andrew Tate was arrested in Romania and people wrongly believed that a pizza box, seen in a video where he was beefing with Greta Thunberg, had tipped the police off to his location. They’re fun stories, to be sure. The memes that came out of the Tate arrest were priceless little gems scattered across the desolation of Elon Musk’s Twitter. But these nuggets of entertainment may come at too dear a price.
When someone says “just let me have this,” it’s worth asking why they need it in the first place—and the answer should prompt some sympathy. Even the most cursory glance at the world reminds us what a sorrowful and joyless place it can be at this moment, when we seem to be reliving the 20th century’s greatest hits all at once. In addition to providing the cozy fire of a feel-good story to warm your soul, these viral internet fictions can lull you into believing there’s some justice in the world.
Whatever else may be said about Thunberg, Tate, and the Jerry’s Pizza box, it’s a cracking good tale: Young climate activist tricks misogynist influencer into beefing with her so hard that he gets himself arrested. What’s the harm in thinking a self-parodically macho self-help guru accused of heinous sex crimes was undone by such a trivial mistake, egged on by a progressive young woman?
In one sense, there’s ample justice in the likelihood that this little lie will hound Tate for the rest of his days. But clinging to these viral white lies can also inflict serious harm. “Just let me have this” is the apotheosis of the internet as entertainment, with no tragedy great enough to banish irony and memeification. Tate’s alleged crimes are no joke, after all; the Romanian police charged him with the sex trafficking and rape of at least six women over a period of years. There’s something ghoulish about mining a bit of fan fiction from this situation for personal pleasure.
That sort of behavior is all part of the Extremely Online problem, where virality alchemizes everything into the 21st-century version of must-see TV, bleeding it dry of the need for reverence, grief, contemplation, or any emotion that isn’t some kissing cousin of an especially joyless hedonism.
But what is “this” that we so dearly want to have? Sometimes it’s the catharsis of omnidirectional rage, other times the gleeful delusion that the world is fundamentally just. And there is no room for other emotions in the void between those fantasies. All the while, people who scoff at others for falling prey to disinformation widely retweeted the fable about Tate’s pizza box.
Those same users may decry online harassment, fearing for the loss of their own privacy, while eagerly sharing threads or stories that invade the privacy of others. One especially egregious example was TikTok‘s Couch Guy saga, where a video of a tired young man greeting his girlfriend was dissected for evidence that he was cheating. He wasn’t a celebrity—just some guy—but the whims of virality turned his sleepy hug into a crime that justified turning his life upside down. People had a blast making their own semi-ironic, true-crime-esque, investigative TikToks while neglecting the fact that the young man they were comparing to a serial killer because of the way he hugged his girlfriend is a real human being.