Yesterday morning, the Los Angeles band YACHT released a statement on Facebook saying that a sex tape made by the band’s two members (Claire L. Evans and Jona Bechtolt) had been leaked online. "We assumed that we were the only people who would be privy to that video," the band wrote. "I guess we were naive. Now you have the option to be privy to that video. For us, that’s a shame." The statement received an outpouring of sympathy from fans and famous friends. The band later announced that they would "take ownership" of the video by selling it, and asked fans to pay $5 to download it. But by this morning, Jezebel had confirmed the leak was a hoax, and that no sex tape had ever existed at all. As people started to slowly realize that the leak was nothing more than a wrongheaded publicity stunt, reactions to it were almost uniformly negative. But this was more than just a bad idea: YACHT fundamentally misjudged their audience, the way information travels on the internet, the real-world implications of internet hoaxes, and their position as a band with at least some amount of reach and power.
YACHT misjudged their audience and the way information travels on the internet
There are several issues at play here that joined together to create this seemingly inevitable mess. First, the major issue: that YACHT pretended to be victims of a sex crime, further complicating the challenges of real-life victims to be taken seriously. By successfully getting news organizations to give coverage to this hoax, they’ve lent credence to the very real and persistent assumption that victims of sex crimes are doing it only for the attention. This would’ve been a very different project if YACHT had merely said they were selling a sex tape for money, but by claiming to be shocked and violated — and then thanking fans when they offered support — YACHT falsely stripped themselves of their agency. Then, by "taking control" of the story, YACHT positioned themselves as heroes, willing to put on a brave face and benefit from a horrible experience.
when you tell people you were exploited, they show sympathy, and it turns out you exploited them for PR, you aren't being transgressive.— Brandon Stosuy (@brandonstosuy) May 10, 2016
The band released a statement this afternoon, saying: "We never make light of victims of any form of sexual abuse. Frankly, it’s disturbing to us that press outlets could make the leap from 'celebrity sex tape,' which is the cultural trope this project explicitly references, to 'revenge porn,' which is unfunny, disgusting, morally repugnant, and completely unrelated." Still, in their original Facebook post, YACHT made the mistake of using the language of victims: "We hope you understand that this is not a delicious scandal. This is an exploitation." In the apology, YACHT said they expected the leak to be met with "interest, skepticism, and laughter," despite the fact that they never really made it seem very funny.
Evans and Bechtolt were obviously trying to make a statement about news organizations, and their willingness to mine trauma and celebrity for content. And the "write now, think later" mantra of online news outlets does often lead to mistakes and shoddy reporting. Some outlets, like Pitchfork and Vulture, reported the "leak" as straight news, and there is a point to be made that maybe this story (that two people consensually filmed themselves having sex) was never news in the first place. But, perhaps unintentionally, YACHT proved that it’s almost impossible to control a story once you put it out on the internet.
YACHT is a savvy band, they understand the way information is transmitted on the internet, but this time, they critically misjudged their audience and the dynamics of social media. They told an awful lie to thousands of fans, and these fans almost uniformly responded with sympathy and outrage, only to later find out they had been duped. Here’s the thing: it is easy to trick people on the internet. Websites like Clickhole and The Onion have already proven that countless times. The Verge reported on the McDonald’s Twitter hoax as if it were real, and we all remember Diane in 7A. But there’s a difference between tricking Anderson Cooper into thinking a news outlet misquoted him and tricking a bunch of people into thinking you’re going through an agonizing violation of privacy.
We all remember Diane in 7A
Bechtolt and Evans are smart; their work usually plays with technology and the darker side of the future. They know enough about the internet to have predicted this response. But they apparently thought they could pull this off, even ignoring concerns from their publicist. In the email YACHT sent to some people in media (Full disclosure: the entertainment editor of The Verge was one of them) back in April, they called the stunt an "epic project" and "the latest in our meta pranks of this garbage can music industry." They asked the recipients of the email to tweet about the sex tape as if they had bought and watched it. The email ended, "Wanna help us troll the world?!??"
Well, mission accomplished. But unfortunately, YACHT was probably too wrapped up in the assumed potential of their project to realize what trolling the world actually looks like from the outside.