how the 'didn’t happen of the year awards' became the perfect twitter account for our times

Over on Twitter, a community of 100,000 truth vigilantes are eager to sniff out the bullshit behind even the most innocuous of tweets. But what does it say about the world when you can trust nothing that anyone else says?

by Matthew Whitehouse
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21 December 2018, 7:00am

I told my son that I was working on an article about The Didn’t Happen of the Year Awards. I said, “You wouldn’t believe the lies people tell on the internet, son.”

He said “I bet I would, Dad,” looking me straight in the eye. “I remember the ones the Leave Campaign told us.”

None of this actually happened, of course. I don’t have a son politically savvy enough to reference the intricacies of the Brexit campaign. I don’t even have a son. But it’s symptomatic of the kind of tweet that catches the eye of @_DHOTYA -- the internet’s self-appointed home of the didn’t happens.

The Didn’t Happen of the Year Awards began life in 2016 as a Twitter account dedicated to naming and shaming the internet’s most conspicuous lies. The ignominy that year fell to a certain @keitheadams, whose since-deleted Brexit tweet -- "Just took 93yr Mum to vote, she's registered blind. In a very loud voice she said, 'Which box for out?' A cheer went up from waiting voters" -- went viral on referendum day, picked up by Leave campaigners, and then parodied to within an inch of its life by thousands upon thousands of sceptical Twitter users.

And you know what? It didn’t happen.

Writing in another since deleted blog post, Keith said, “Now………. I DID over egg the cheer, it was more of smiles, nodding heads and murmurings. So for that I apologise and accept a guilty verdict.”

Justice was served. The case was closed.

Except it wasn’t. Log onto Twitter today and you’ll see that in the two years since, “didn’t happen” has become the go-to response to pretty much any viral anecdote on the internet. That thing your son said? Didn’t happen. That person you met at the supermarket? Didn’t happen. That amazing conversation you had with your Uber driver? Didn’t happen, didn’t happen, didn’t happen, didn’t happen.

In 2018, for every story that blows up, there are a legion of @_DHOTYA disciples quick to dismiss it as false. What began as a modest-sized account, making weekly posts on the most outrageous of fictions, has since evolved into a community of 100,000 truth vigilantes, eager to sniff out the bullshit behind even the most innocuous of tweets. For Harry Barnes, the 23-year-old owner of the handle, the whole thing is part of a much wider plan: “There’s more of a strategy to it than it probably appears to a follower.”

***

Harry acquired the handle from its previous owner in January 2018. A Customer Solutions manager from Coventry, he describes how he’d followed the account while working in social media for an energy company, and become interested in the potential platform it could provide. “Within the company that I worked for, there were obviously limitations in terms of what I could say online,” he says. “So I always had this idea in my head of what I would do if I ran the company. I always thought, can I have something on social media one day where anything goes?”

He bought the account for less than £500 at the start of the year (“It was a bit of a spur of the moment thing really”) and quickly set about adjusting its output: increasing the amount of posts made, tweaking the kind of tweets that were picked up on. “I think it’s become more mainstream since I’ve had it,” Harry says. “There’s a certain genre of content that appeals to people more than others and that tends to be the political, and the child sort of thing [the trend of adults pretending to be kids for retweets]. Before myself, it was less engaged with the followers. I’ve tried to engage a lot more with the audience and create a community, almost.”

And he’s succeeded. In the 11 months since he took over, Harry has increased the account’s following by a whopping 488%, taking it from 17,000 followers in January 2018 to a massive 100,000 in December of the same year. His tweets are well-engaged, with likes typically in the hundreds or thousands. He's signed a deal with online betting site BetVictor, offering a betting market on this year’s Didn’t Happen finals. Hell, there are even trademarks and plans for expansion beyond the world of Twitter. But his success has not been without its detractors.

Search “Didn’t Happen of the Year Awards” on Twitter, and among the thousands of tall story nominations, you’ll find a whole subsection bemoaning the account’s existence altogether. The awards are “boring”, “cynical”. The “worst lot on the internet aren't the fiat 500, or the dark fruits, but in fact those neeks who post didn't happen/10 and tag that didn't happen of the year awards on any post on twitter that has a story in it”.

The backlash began in January when an interview with 2017’s winner -- deputy leader of the Green Party, Amelia Womack -- appeared as part of an article in the New Statesman. In it, Amelia defends a tweet she sent in December of that year, in which she describes her 11-year-old nephew saying he doesn’t like James Bond, “because he saw a cover of a James Bond book with a naked woman on it and he didn’t think that women’s bodies should be used to sell things”. According to the article, the post was shared over 400 times, and liked another 4000, before eventually being crowned winner of the Didn’t Happen of the Year Awards 2017. But Amelia has always insisted that the story was real. So why did it win?

The New Statesman article suggests the fact that “an incredibly plausible story could be crowned the least plausible story of the year speaks to a greater political environment, in which online trolls stop at nothing to disparage and discredit feminists”. The view was reiterated in a Vice article, written by the same journalist this October, which suggested the account’s targeting of tweets by young women (115 out of a total of 257 between 14 January and 14 September 2018) was a product of the its predominantly young, male following. “The pattern that appears to emerge is that the account's followers (93% male, 86% young, just as a reminder) don't like to pick on people like them,” it claimed, quoting Oakland University’s Dr Kim Serota as saying that we are “more likely to disagree with those who are different from us than those who are similar”. It’s an accusation that Harry emphatically denies.

“There’s literally zero truth in that,” he says. “My personal opinion on equality is that equality isn’t about equal results, it’s about equal opportunities. So, my point is that I don’t look at whether someone is male or female before posting. Now, the best 32 at the end of the year go through to the awards. If all 32 of those are females, I couldn’t care less. I will put 32 females through to the awards. That to me is equality.”

I suggest to Harry that, regardless of his own opinion, the account’s following does seem particularly fervent in chasing what he describes as “agendas”. A popular candidate for this year’s awards, posted by @LisaMHancox in October for example, saw an image of a Kleenex box with the text: “My 4yo son asked me what was written here. Then he asked, why are they called mansize? Can girls, boys & mummies use them? I said: I don’t know & yes of course. He suggests you should call them “very large tissues”. It is 2018”.

Among the replies, of which there are hundreds, the tweet is described as “PC gone mad”, “several kinds of wrong” and “absolute bolloxology”. It was even labelled as a “possible winner” by the account itself, adding, “This one is still pissing me off” and “Feminism has peaked”. So, if the following is nominating more young women, as the Vice article states, or stopping at nothing to disparage and discredit feminists, as the New Statesman article suggests, isn’t that going to skew the tweets that end up in the awards?

“I can’t speak for the nearly 100,000 followers, because within that, you’re going to have people on both sides,” Harry says. “But the majority will, likely, have an opinion more than another. If that is anti-feminist, potentially. But I’m not a representation of the followers. And I think that’s the key part to understand.

“I represent The Didn’t Happen of the Year Awards,” he continues. “The Didn’t Happen of the Year Awards represents me. The followers, the supporters, that community, I can’t control 100,000 people. I can only control myself and the content on the account. If 100,000 people are the trolling type, are the anti-feminist, are the anti-Brexit or pro-Brexit type, they will do that on Twitter anyway.”

***

On the 21 July this year, DJ Tom Zanetti was travelling to Liverpool, from London’s Euston Station, when he realised he couldn’t find his ticket. With the train about to leave, he asked the guard if he could pay onboard, but the guard refused. Although he eventually found his ticket, Tom says the man continued to ignore him, laughing, and talking to his colleague. When he attempted the jump the barrier, Tom claims he was issued with a 24-hour ban from the station. And that’s when things got interesting.

“I said to my bird sort yourself out and I’ll get up some other way,” Tom says. “So I rung my pal and basically said can I use the helicopter. He was having a big dinner party at some house in Surrey or something, some posh party. So I just went there, jumped on the helicopter and got to Liverpool before my bird did.”

It’s a great story. A little cocky, sure, but a great story, nonetheless. Later that day, Tom decided to tweet a condensed version to his nearly 100,000 Twitter followers. “I put it up, didn’t think anything of it,” he says. “Then some page said it didn’t happen. And it snowballed.”

You see, Tom’s tweet had been picked up by the Didn’t Happen of the Year Awards account. For a while, he found the attention funny; the usual replies of pie charts, Venn diagrams and betting slips, each suggesting that the story was, well, absolute bolloxology. “I went into all the comments and was having a laugh with people,” Tom says. “I can take banter. And some of the stuff they were saying was hilarious.” It went too far, however, when the replies crossed what Tom describes as “a certain line”. “It came to a point where people were saying you’re a lying bastard, you’re an arrogant bastard, calling me a nonce,” he says. “They started saying I hope your son gets cancer. All this mad stuff. And because of… nothing? I’ve not even done anything wrong. I wasn’t lying.”

For what it’s worth, I believe Tom. As Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University in North Carolina tells me, “very few people lie for lying’s sake. They don’t enjoy it. That’s not the way things work.” And Tom Zanetti, a wealthy, successful musician has very little reason to make something like this up. The story was condensed, sure -- he did preface his tweet with “long story short” -- but didn’t happen? I’m not so certain.

When we speak, Tom is clearly still affected by the incident. Although he’s since deleted Twitter from his phone (“It was taking up too much energy)”, he describes how he’d asked the account’s owner, Harry, whether he could show his version of the story, but Harry refused. “I said to him, look, I’ve got people here saying the worst stuff imaginable, because of you,” Tom says. “But he knew that it was growing, he knew that it was gaining attention.”

***

When I speak to Harry myself, I ask him whether he believes the account’s followers have ever gone too far in their pursuit of truth. “I have called people out in the past,” he admits. “I’ll regularly remind people that abuse isn’t tolerated. That there are real people at the other end of the tweets. Sometimes in more of a casual way. Sometimes in a ‘that was a bit harsh, you shouldn’t be saying that’ way.

“Tom was complaining to me in direct messages that people were calling him a nonce,” he continues. “I can’t stop people calling somebody a nonce. If someone wants to call Tom Zanetti a nonce, they’re probably going to call him a nonce regardless of whether my account existed or not.”

I put it to Harry that he has a responsibility, however, as the account’s owner, to keep its followers in check. “I accept my personal responsibilities, being that I reach a high number of people a month, and I make sure, in my opinion, that I’m responsible with that,” he replies. “I recognise that I could very, very easily ruin somebody's life. Very easily. And there are many people in the public eye whose career it would be great to see fall down. But I’m not stupid enough to do that. I’m not horrible enough to do that. I’m not a bad person.

“The furthest I go is saying to somebody, ‘you are lying in this particular tweet’. And I don’t think that’s a particularly bad thing. That’s an opinion.”

***

In 2018, what did and what didn’t happen has become somewhat of a fluid concept. We live in a world of fake news and alternative facts. Of Twitter bots and Russian troll farms. We have a US President who lies an average of 5.9 times a day, only to see those lies amplified across social media at a pace unheard of even 10 years ago.

Although people have always told lies, the ease with which they may now be shared, means that their impact is often bigger and stronger than ever before. “In the same way that there has always been violence, today you give violent people guns and the damage they create is much higher,” Dan Ariely says. “With dishonesty, you give dishonest people the tools to affect many and, all of a sudden, they can create a tremendous amount of harm.” But the same can clearly be said about those trying to combat them too.

When I contact Dr Kim Serota, the professor of management at Oakland University who contributed to the Vice article on the Didn’t Happen of the Year Awards, he tells me that human beings are “are wired to expect the truth”. And, while some people are more sceptical than others, the vast majority of messages are, in fact, truthful: “If they weren’t communication would be useless,” he says.

“Do you get your kids vaccinated or not? Do you believe the Russians had nothing to do with the 2016 election or not? Do you believe your wife is having an affair or not? Do you believe the climate is changing as a result of human activity or not? The implications of what you believe are pretty profound,” he says. “If you imagine a world where you could trust nothing that anyone else says, how would we ever get along? So, we start with the assumption of truth.”

One day in the future, I might tell my son there was once a Twitter account that believed absolutely nothing that anyone said. I’ll tell him that it retweeted even the most innocuous of stories, its followers using nothing more than blind speculation to drive its targets off the internet. He’ll tell me that it didn’t happen. I’ll tell him the strangest part is that it did.

The Didn’t Happen of the Year Awards 2018 take place on Sunday 30 December.

Tagged:
Twitter
fake news
post-truth politics
alternative facts