The viral story about a defendant driving with a suspended license was a hoax

A Michigan man made headlines online last week after a viral video showed him attending a court hearing via Zoom after apparently parking his car, which quickly became a national story.

Should that have been it?

The footage, which first made the rounds on social media, shows Corey Harris dialing into a hearing before Washtenaw County District Court Judge J. Cedric Simpson. “I'm looking at his record. He doesn't have a driver's license,” Simpson says about a minute into the hearing. “He's suspended and he's just driving… I don't even know why he would do that.” Harris's bail was promptly revoked and he was ordered to turn himself in to the local jail.

None of these effects would have anywhere near the lasting impact of the upcoming news cycle, which was considered an event significant enough to deserve coverage. The New York Times, The Washington PostFox News, CNN, NBC, USA todayand that New York Postamong other things.

However, it turned out that all these stories were based on a lie. Harris' license was Reintroduced years ago and was only registered as blocked due to a typo. As of this writing, there has been no flood of further articles, corrections, or reinvigorated news cycle based on this information because the truth here is not suited to go viral and show engagement.

This is a clear indication that this should never have been a national story in the first place, which would be the case even if Harris had was driving with a suspended license. A man in Michigan allegedly driving while not allowed to drive isn't newsworthy enough to merit coverage in the most influential media outlets in the U.S. (and beyond). Good for a laugh on social media? Sure. Does it warrant its own news cycle? Nope.

This idea may seem odd in a media landscape where social media virality has been the benchmark for newsworthiness for several years. In practice, however, it means that some of the biggest publications in the world – across the political spectrum – regularly build small stories that have no significance for society simply because they're good for clicks and shares. While these stories provide little to no benefit to readers, they do have real impact on the people at the center of them, like Harris, because the internet never dies.

That this was about engagement, not news, is evidenced by the fact that all of the above reports took the Zoom video at face value, which isn't really reporting at all. The media did not dig into the court records to verify Harris' story before cementing the narrative that will forever be associated with his name, namely that he went to prison as the butt of a joke. This is also evident by the lack of any urgent effort to correct this story, with the exception of a handful of media outlets.

“Twitter is not real life” has been a cliché for years. The name of the platform has changed, but the essence of the maxim has not. Harris knows this all too well now, quite literally, because the story about him that took shape on social media – and then spread in the press – was fabricated. Most of the world will probably never know it.

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