A New Jersey couple posted a feel-good story about a homeless man helping a young, helpless woman in distress on GoFundMe, asking for donations to help the seemingly-deserving man get back on his feet. The story went viral. Kate McClure and her boyfriend Mark D’Amico raised over $400K for Johnny S. Bobbitt Jr.
The couple claimed that the homeless man, Bobbitt, spent his last $20 on gas for a stranger, McClure, when he observed her car break down off a highway. They wanted to thank him, they claimed, by raising money for him.
The story seemed real. There was even a picture to back it up. The American publicwanted it to be real. The story was shared on Facebook and Twitter hundreds of thousands of times and people donated in droves.
Last week we discovered that the story was fake. We discovered we were scammed, bamboozled, fooled, victimized. The couple raising money for the seemingly-deserving man were con artists, and we were their prey.
But why did we believe them? Why did 14,325 people donate their hard-earned money? Why did we want so much for the story to be true? After all, all that we had was a picture and a tender story. Why is that enough for us to buy into an idea?
This is a fascinating part of human psychology. Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out information that supports what we already believe. Emotional reasoning is justifying a conclusion based on our emotional connection to the issue. Combining the two, it looks like we really wanted for this story to be true and we put scrutiny skills aside to make it true.
Americans are generally honest people. Our culture depends on honesty. We are outraged when we learn that someone lied. But our expectation of truthtelling also leads to our gullibility.
According to a new MIT study, lies penetrate social media “significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.” In the research paper entitled The Spread of True and False News Online, MIT researchers looked at 11 years of Twitter stories spread by over 3 million users. Their conclusion: “We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information.” The explanation appears to be based entirely on our negative emotions: “false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise.”
Kate McClure intended to make people afraid for the well-being of the homeless man. She wanted us to believe that because Johnny Bobbitt gave up his last $20 to buy her some gas to help her get out of the dangerous neighborhood, that he may not have enough money left for food; and certainly because he is so kind, we need him to survive, maybe even flourish. “Okay so wait the gas part is completely made up, but the guy isn’t. I had to make something up to make people feel bad,” McClure textedto a friend. McClure intended to, and succeeded at, playing our emotions.
But McClure doesn’t appear to be the mastermind behind this scam. In 2012, Johnny Bobbitt, the homeless man, posted a remarkably similar story on his Facebook page, claiming that he helped a young woman who had car trouble, keeping her safe. Suspiciously coincidental circumstances, indeed.
This type of emotionally fear-driven scam isn’t the first and won’t be the last of its kind. Our psychological biases predispose us to fall for these schemes.
GoFundMe is saturated with money-raising campaigns that tug at our fears and our sympathies; that’s the business model. Most fundraising campaigns are legitimate and American people wholeheartedly enjoy donating and helping those in need. GoFundMe simply provides the intermediary donation collection service. Luckily, the company prides itself on ethics and has announced that each donor to Kate McClure’s cause will receive a full refund. As future donation scams unravel, which I am sure will in due time, GoFundMe will hopefully continue to protect their donors.
If this swindle story inspires you to seek out a legitimate cause to donate to, I suggest a cause that we know is real: a substantiated California wildfire relief fund.