STOP ME IF you've heard this one before: Last month a topless Justin Bieber ambled into a West Hollywood Starbucks in search of a caramel apple macchiato. When the barista asked the troubled pop star to find a shirt, the Biebs lost his cool, threatening to have a bodyguard "kick his ass." Enter Blake Griffin, who rose from a nearby table to keep the peace, but when the tiny Canadian stepped up to the Clippers big man -- SMACK -- Griffin sent Bieber to the floor, then out the door, crying. And the world rejoiced.
One problem: Starbucks doesn't offer a caramel apple macchiato.
Also, it never happened. The tale came courtesy of EmpireSports.co, a satirical sports website that its founder (and Biebs-Griffin author), Aaron Smith, thinks of as a social experiment proving that "there is a certain percentage of people who will believe just about anything." But that's not to say there's not an art to the sell in this industry. Posting stories from his house in Sellersburg, Ind., on Feb. 8, Smith reached for the most volatile star in the click-bait galaxy. "Everybody hates Bieber," he recalls thinking. "All I have to do is put him in a fight with a nice athlete." That's when Griffin came to mind. "I needed a large LA guy," Smith explains. "If Blake slapped him just once, he'd cry. That'd be hilarious."
And for millions, it sure was. By the time the hungry cyberknuckleheads -- this writer included -- had finished retweeting Empire's fiction, we'd crashed its server and made a national hero out of an unsuspecting baller.
For six minutes (that's all, I swear!), I bought it. Because I wanted to buy it. For six glorious minutes, Smith's BS made me feel worse about a punk pop star and better about a high-flying giant who'd have my back in a cruel world where Justin Bieber can egg my house today and make my girlfriend squeal at his show tomorrow. When justice is a half-court prayer, Blake Griffin is the law.
That's my reasoning anyway. But to gain a better understanding of my credulity, I phoned professor Stephan Lewandowsky, the chair of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol in England and one of the planet's foremost conspiracy experts. He consoles me on two counts. One: "If something conforms to your worldview, politics or expectations, you say, 'That's really cool,' and you pass it on," he says. "If you believed this for only six minutes, you did incredibly well." The second? "You'd think [the hoax] has to be believable, but I'm not so sure. Think of NASA's fake moon landing or MI6 killing Diana -- highly unbelievable and yet, some believe it."
Feel even better, Twitter: Unlike NASA's "con job," the Biebs slap hit in the age of social media, when, unhinged from the mores of mainstream media, we can read a "fact" seconds after it's posted but never see the digital correction. Or as Lewandowsky puts it, referring to a 2009 Pew poll, "When Sarah Palin wrote a Facebook post about so-called death panels in relation to Obama's health care plan, in [less than two] weeks, 86% of Americans had heard it." And our efforts to debunk falsity only reinforce the message we're hoping to dispel. "By mentioning it, you're repeating it. Truth is less important than the number of times you hear it. Eventually, it just becomes a part of the culture."
Even now, Smith won't own his faux news: "Millions around the world would be devastated if they knew for sure the story is fake, so I'll just say I have an eyewitness. But his vision isn't great."
The Bieber slap was tale totally fabricated -- but that doesn't seem to make it any less real.
Sunday 02/06 3:18 P.M. "Blake Griffin Smacks Justin Bieber at Hollywood Starbucks." @EmpireSportsNet
6:56 P.M. The story finds its social media footing: "Blake Griffin punches out Biebs. Is this for real? If it is I am a Griffin fan for life." @JonPnw
10:03 P.M. "Justin Bieber's altercation took place at a WeHo Starbucks. And you'll never guess what ridiculous drink." @FrontiersMag (A bona fide nonfiction publication)
Monday 02/10 7:10 P.M. "I was sitting in the corner of Starbucks and Blake did not smack Bieber! Well at least not that hard." @ChrisKaman (Lakers reserve and former Blake Griffin teammate) 1,294 retweets
9:15 P.M. EmpireSports.co crashes. "Kaman took it to the next level," Smith says. "People started thinking there was some validity to it."
Tuesday 02/11 11:54 P.M. Complex.com post: "Twitter Really Wishes That a Fake Story About Blake Griffin Slapping Justin Bieber Was True."
Wednesday 02/12 2:07 P.M. "Some of the rumors out there ... you just gotta laugh. People are creative. It's all love." @justinbieber 123,911 Retweets
Thursday 02/13 Original EmpireSports story gets 2,000,000 page views
6:11 P.M. Deadspin revives the rumor. Posts piece titled "Clippers Refuse to Deny Blake Griffin Beat Up Justin Bieber."
6:23 P.M. "I don't believe Blake Griffin hit Justin Bieber at a Starbucks because Griffin hasn't hit anything outside of 2 ft. from the basket in years." @Allawallakoala
Friday 02/14 1:30 P.M. "Bieber fans were saying, 'It's not true without a photo,' " Smith says. His new post? A Photoshopped pic of a black-eyed Bieber. It scores roughly 100,000 hits.
Sunday 02/16 1 A.M. EmpireSports.co crafts a new Bieber story: a doctored photo showing the Biebs kissing a guy. It goes nowhere. "People are more interested in seeing Bieber get slapped," Smith surmises.
40,000 page views
Seven-day tally for original EmpireSports story: 6,500,000 page views
ESPN Magazine March 6, 2014