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Last week I mentioned an online Forbes article that riffed on a New Hampshire lawsuit over damages caused when a pizza was dropped by a delivery drone – an accident, and a lawsuit, that never actually happened. Thanks to a reader, I’ve found the culprit: An insurance analyst who also works as a stand-up comic, and who makes up cases for his online column.
On March 22, this person to whom I won’t link wrote a very bland, matter-of-fact article about a (non-existent) case in Merrimack County Superior Court about a (non-existent) insurance firm sued by a (non-existent) owner of a Tesla who was hit by a (non-existent) pizza dropped by (non-existent) drone delivery. The (non-existent) ruling said the drone is not an “aircraft” in legal parlance, and thus the damages had to be covered by the insurance firm despite a no-aircraft exemption clause.
That would be an fascinating case if it was true. But it’s not, so why did he write it up?
The excuse on a disclaimer page is that “Sometimes there are descriptions of cases or other stories … that are not real. They are simply provided for entertainment value. They are intended to serve as humor. You should be able to spot these.”
Not a chance. The Onion does a good job of joking and satire via pretend news stories, but this one was so bland and detailed that it was impossible for most people to tell it was fake. He even cited a real case number, albeit of a different case.
So it’s no surprise that a Forbes contributor (not a staff writer) was fooled and used the item as the basis for an article about insuring drones in an article, or that this article was later picked up by the Union-Leader’s NH Angle, an online list of articles referring to New Hampshire. (The Forbes writer has realized his error and removed reference to this non-case, with a semi-apologetic introductory note.)
No particular harm was done – the story wasn’t used to, say, alter legislation regarding drone regulation in New Hampshire – but the whole idea of parody news has been overtaken by events. Partly the issue is that in the online world it has gotten really easy to create and propagate a jokey fake news article, so it takes no cleverness to do it.
But even more than that, in a world full of unintended consequences from people thinking that imaginary things are real, making up stuff and saying “it’s your fault if you fell for it” – well, that’s a whole less funny than it used to be.
I talked to the writer off the record – he said he chose Concord at random – and urged him to either drop the fake-article idea or else make his fake articles much, much more obvious. “The audience has changed,” I said, “As a performer, you need to change to match them.”