Thursday, March 2, 2023

Analysis of Another Internet Outrage Story

We are supposed to be outraged - but is it true?

In this age of Tick-Tock influencers, truth has become more and more fluid.  People vie for views and hits and clicks as "influencers" online.   If you can get one video to "go viral" you can end up having a second income stream - or maybe a primary one.  We like to watch this woodworking guy as we find his videos interesting and oddly calming, even though I have zero interest in becoming a woodworker.  Apparently one of his videos "went viral" and now he makes more money from YouTube than from making tables and desks.  For now, anyway. These Internet channels seem to have a story arc - eventually the mob moves on to something else, particularly when the content provider starts phoning it in.  But I digress....

A reader sent me this link to an outrage story and I smell mendacity.  The story is so outrageous that you have to wonder if it is true.  There is no real evidence (that I can find) other than a photo of a girl sitting on a car, holding an unrecognizable piece of paper.  I Googled some search terms and find the same story, repeated verbatim, on many other sites as well - all of them being sketchy sorts of sites that publish clickbait and outrage.

The story?  The young lady "bought" a 25 year old Ford Escort, which on a good day might be worth $500, for $289 a month for 84 months, which means over eight years she would pay over $24,000 for the car.  Outrageous! 

The story is designed to get you outraged, no matter if you are right or left.  You can almost predict, word-for-word, what sort of responses you would hear from the mouthpieces for each end of the political spectrum.

From a Tucker Carlson type:

"This young lady can afford to buy designer 'distressed' jeans and pay for hair extensions, but can't scrape together a few hundred dollars to buy a 25-year-old car!  This is a failure of our American educational system, which would rather put more emphasis on Critical Race Theory, Wokeism, and Political Correctness, than basic math and reading skills!  If she only knew how compound interest worked, she would never have signed this rotten deal! This is an outrage! How can this happen in America?"

From a Rachael Maddow type:

"Another example of how the corporations are screwing the underprivileged!  Because her credit score is so low, this is the only financing offered to her!  She has no other choice!  Privileged people are poor-shaming her for taking the only option she has!  We should have laws in place making low-interest loans available to the very poor!  This is an outrage! How can this happen in America?"

As you can see, there is plenty of "red meat" in a sketchy story like this, for people of any political persuasion to latch onto.  I was skeptical of the story from the get-go because it had all the hallmarks of an outrage story:

  • There is no evidence presented to back up the claims, nor any way to verify what actually happened. The "source" of the story is an Instagram posting from "raphouse" and it is more of a meme than anything else.  This didn't stop MSN from picking it up, reporting the "controversy" rather than the story itself.  These things bootstrap themselves.
  • The story appears all over the Internet, word-for-word, cut-and-pasted, copypasta.  There is no third-party source, other than the "meme" cited above.  No one bothers to ask whether it is true or not, although some say things like, "I doesn't sound real, but.... [launches into outrage scenario]"
  • The story immediately triggers outrage when you read it, because it is so over-the-top.
  • You can be outraged by the story from different political angles.

Do shitty deals exist in this world?  You betcha!  And sub-prime lending for auto loans is one area where shitty deals abound.   People are desperate for a car - any car - and will sign their life away to get one.  Problem is, they are not sophisticated with money or with technology, and the end results are predictable.

Oddly enough, the very poor often buy the most impractical cars, too.  You would think that if your credit score was in the trash and you had little money to spend, you would seek out a sturdy economy sedan, much as my friend did.  Sadly, you see status craving the worst among the very poor.  So a single Mother working a low-wage job decides to buy a gas-hog Suburban of all things, and then complain about how expensive it is to own.  Ditto for esoteric German cars, sports cars, convertibles, and so on.  If you are poor, you got no business buying bling cars (or buying crap cars and blinging them out).  Well, you can of course, but that is how the poor stay poor - and that gets no sympathy from me.

Years ago, I hired a young woman to work for me.  She couldn't wait to get that first "pay stub" so she could go out and buy a brand new car.    Rather than save up money or start out with a used car, she bought a cheap economy car brand-new and paid through the nose for insurance.  She "loaned" the car to her boyfriend (who of course, was unemployed) and he returned it with half the front fender torn off.  That was the first week.

I tried to dissuade her from buying a brand-new car and I let her know that there was no way I could guarantee she would be employed throughout the term of the loan (I was downsizing at the time).  She was so obsessed with showing off that she had "made it" and had a brand-new car (that stays brand-new for one week!) that she signed her life away.

There are people out there so delusional that they have no understanding of how money works.  Even a meth head will show up at a car dealer, with no money, no job, and no credit, and expect to be able to buy a brand-new car.

And yes, shady car dealers (are there any other kind?) offer crappy deals to low-income people, as I noted before.  Monster Motors is still in business, but I noticed when we drove buy there the other day they had few new cars on their lot (it is, or was, a Toyota dealership).  They seemed to be pushing a lot of used cars.  Mark and I went there once to look at a truck, but they won't let you onto the lot unless escorted by a salesman, and then only after they have run your credit score.  Tellingly, their reviews on Yelp are almost all 1-star.  To get an "average" score of 2.0 you have to really work at it.

Funny, too, because a Toyota dealership is a license to print money, and instead of going after volume sales, they decided to go after sub-prime borrowers and tack on outrageous fees ($3000 for the "Monster protection package") and sell fewer vehicles.  I wonder if Toyota is starving them of cars or something.   As I noted before, sometimes you have to drive a little to a larger dealership that is willing to deal and be willing to walk away from crappy deals rather than fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy and try to "rescue" a shitty deal.

And yea, we used to have laws against such shitty deals.  You sign a shitty deal,  you pay the stupidity tax.  And guess who votes for the candidates who promise to repeal "onerous government regulations" that used to outlaw such shitty deals?  Yup - the very same people who pay the stupidity tax the most.

Assuming this story was legit (and that's a big assumption) or that someone else signed a shitty deal like this but not so outrageous, why would a finance company loan the money?  Well, they make back the purchase price (that they paid for the car) in the first few months or so.  So if the car goes a year without a major breakdown and the consumer continues to pay, they get their money back - and then some.   Default and repossession is all but assured, as the car has some major mechanical malfunction and the consumer stops making payments on the car.  It probably isn't even worth repossessing at that point.  If the customer is smart, they declare bankruptcy, but even then, the balance of the loan might be"worked out" over time and it is likely that given the onerous interest rates and long term of the loan, that very little of the principal was paid off, even after two years.

But that's not the point.  The point is we are supposed to be outraged by it all - the story isn't likely true, it is just click-bait designed to troll us, so they get clicks and get revenue.  And this is true not just for plainly outrageous (and sketchy) stories like this, but for almost everything you see on the Internet.

And such stories existed long before the Internet.  60 Minutes and other "news" programs liked to put up stories about shady operators operating out of storefronts in suburban Miami.  The 60 Minutes "news team" would show up with a camera, shouting, "Sir, we have some questions about your burial insurance scam aimed at the elderly!" and the man would put his hand over the camera lens and say "No comment!"  Ratings were boffo!

Of course, none of these news programs would ever dream of going after their advertisers.  Small-time scam operators or sleazy used car dealers were fair game.  Major corporations?  Rarely, if ever.  Maybe back in the day, they went after Ford for the Pinto and GM for "side-saddle" gas tanks or Suzuki for the Samurai (in all three cases, the "investigative reporters" hired people who did doctored demonstrations).  But today?  It would be suicide to go after your own advertisers, unless of course, you were trying to blackmail them into advertising on your channel.

Oh, right, that never happens.

So, what's the answer?  Well, there probably isn't one, as we see these "outrage" stories and click on them, which perpetuates these types of stories.  Even if you click on it to debunk it or to confirm your suspicion that it is click-bait, you clicked on it.  These bastards always win, it seems.

Lately, however, it seems that in order to get hits, people have to crank up the "outrage meter" all the way to 11 in order to get a response, as we are so inured to outrage at this point.  Tick-Tockers stage "pranks" designed not to get you to laugh, but to get you outraged.  In a famous one recently, a "prankster" steals someone's luggage at the airport and then when the owner gets upset, accuses them of being racist.  It was probably all staged - including the alleged "victim" involved.  But it is disturbing that people are thinking that public space and public decency is something to be exploited for Tick-Tock points or whatever.  It makes you not want to go out in public.

Maybe that's the point.

But how to shut this down remains to be seen.  Some want to ban Tick-Tock, but that just shuts down one channel among many.  "Influencers" would simply move to Facebook or YouTube or Instagram or whatever, if they are not already cross-posting to all these outlets.

Social Media serves one master - the almighty dollar, not us!