It’s an entertaining story if nothing else, folks. News broke yesterday of Sarah Phillips, apparent Corvallis resident, who has allegedly been scamming people online for both cash and to gain control of some extremely popular social media accounts. Deadspin.com has (so far) the most complete rundown of story I’ve found:
Is Sarah Phillips for real? Thirteen months ago, she was an unknown message-board participant at Covers.com, a gambling website. Then Covers plucked her from the boards and gave her a weekly column, sight unseen. Five months after that, she was tapped by Lynn Hoppes, an editor for ESPN.com, to write a weekly column for ESPN’s Page 2—once the home of writers like David Halberstam, Ralph Wiley, and Hunter S. Thompson, and which has now been rebranded as ESPN’s Playbook. The swiftness of her ascent gave her that weird sort of internet half-celebrity whereby she became moderately famous before anyone really knew who she was.
The story itself is titillating for a few reasons. It’s a home-grown scandal for those of us in Corvallis, of course, but it’s also interesting because Phillips was apparently leveraging her freelance job at ESPN.com to run her scams, and the scams themselves were fairly large in scale. The cash side of the equation is nothing stellar as far as scams go, but Phillips and apparent accomplice and fellow Oregonian Nilesh Prasad, did manage to briefly snag control of some pretty sizable and influential social media accounts: the extremely popular Facebook page NBA Memes and @OhWonka, a Twitter account that shares Condescending Wonka memes.
The really interesting bit of the story, though, is the display of local citizen journalism when the news broke. Corvallis resident and recently-graduated OSU student Ray McGuinness and friends kept Twitter updated as he took to the streets of Corvallis to find and talk to Sarah Phillips.
Technology and social media have leveled the playing field when it comes to journalism. With nothing but a common and relatively inexpensive smartphone and the testicular fortitude to try, anyone can step up and report the news. This is an amazing paradigm shift in the media world, and one that plenty of professionals are still grappling with.
When anyone can report the news, anyone will report the news, and with that comes the problems of rumor-mongering, false stories, dangerously biased journalism, faked news, and a score of other issues. It’s not all downside though. When everyone is a journalist, covering up an important story becomes nigh unto impossible. Witness the scads of police misconduct videos on YouTube for an example.
Today, the average citizen has more voice and power than they ever have before, and as inspiring as that sounds, it does come with its own host of responsibilities. It’s enough to make me wonder how long it’ll be before we have to teach media law and ethics right along side math and reading in grade school.
I’ve Storified Ray McGuinness’ tweets below. Take a look and tell us what you think!