Tag Archives: Johnny English

Mr. Bean And Online Skepticism

One of the courses I teach at the local university uses a book by Kenneth Gergen entitled The Saturated Self: Dilemmas Of Identity In Contemporary Life. It’s a tough book to read (if Gergen described The Real Housewives of New Jersey, it would sound like a postmodern Downton Abbey), but it has some striking insights into how a strong sense of skepticism seems to be evolving along with our technology. Here’s where I am going with this:

The other evening as I looked over my social media feeds, I noticed a post stating that British actor Rowan Atkinson – Mr. Bean himself – had been killed doing a stunt. Now, I am a HUGE Rowan Atkinson fan. My oldest daughter has the exact same sense of humor as me (sorry about that), and I recall the two of us laughing until we cried at Johnny English, Atkinson’s 2003 spoof on James Bond. So I thought it was very, very odd that I had not heard anything on any of the “nerd news” sites that I frequent – or from any of my friends – about Mr. Bean going to the big comedy of errors in the sky.

As a result, instead of clicking to learn more, I did a little investigating on my own. Sure enough, I couldn’t find anything about Atkinson dying, but I found lots of news about a malicious Facebook hack that started with a false news post about that very thing (for the record, {code} Roadies’ Jasper Jacobson caught it even before I did). I suppose the hackers chose Rowan Atkinson because while he’s a celebrity, he’s sort of a B-squad celebrity (unsurprisingly, most of my heroes are) and nobody would be quite sure he was even alive, let alone killed in a fiery car wreck.

In the early days of the internet, you could have posted something like “Jennifer Lawrence Grows Antlers,” and people would have clicked on it like crazy. Today, successful hackers need to do a lot more market research. They have to be sneakier because as a whole, people have gotten a lot more skeptical. We don’t answer phone calls from numbers we don’t recognize. We assume that all politicians are duplicitous (House of Cards’ Frank Underwood is starting to look like Snidely Whiplash in a Hugo Boss suit). And if we’re on the ball, we question every bit of information we see on the internet.

According to Gergen, it’s natural that over time we’ve simply adjusted to this as a new reality. Once we accept that the “truth” is extremely malleable online, then we can enjoy it for what it is: a reflection of the rest of our lives. If you’re careless when you go for a walk, you can get yourself into a situation that is dangerous. You can even get robbed. When you’re not careful online, the same thing happens. Gergen goes so far as to describe our new take on information as cynicism, but I like to stop at skepticism, and I actually think it’s a healthy way to approach the web.

Rest assured that Rowan Atkinson is alive and well (and, by some accounts, still wearing that turkey on his head). Jennifer Lawrence does not have antlers (how would she disguise herself with those big floppy hats?). And if something seems deceitful or too good to be true on the internet, it almost certainly is. Trust your “internet skeptic radar” and find out the truth yourself. It’s out there. Just don’t click on phony links to find it.