Sydney Arlt and five other classmates created, shot, and then shared a video on Twitter last Wednesday that has since gone mega-viral. The video proclaimed to show their actual professor looking noticeably upset because only a handful of students showed up to a holiday party he threw in lieu of a final exam.
"My professor threw a party instead of having a final and no one showed up," Arlt captioned the video, adding a crying emoji and a broken-heart emoji.
Despite the video being viewed more than 7.75 million times and retweeted more than 70,000 times so far, it's entirely fake. And it was the result of a class assignment given by their professor, Andrew Cline, with the sole intention to "go viral."
Cline is a media professor at Missouri State University who's teaching a course called "The Fundamentals of Media Convergence." He told BuzzFeed News his objective in assigning the project was to show how difficult it is to go viral, and that it was "designed to be failed."
"Viral-ness is the idea of making something that draws an immediate mass audience, and if you can do that on purpose, you’re going to be a rich person," he said he told his class. "It’s very difficult to do."
Cline was expecting his students to not meet the assignment's goal so they could learn a more valuable lesson about the very challenges of going viral. But to his surprise, one student group exceeded the challenge.
"I thought the assignment was pretty impossible at first," Arlt, 18, told BuzzFeed News.
But once her group came up with the concept to dupe people into believing students disappointed their professor by not showing up to a spirited party — inspired by previously viral stories like Sad Paw Paw and numerous other incidents of the same genre — Arlt and her group knew they could hit an emotional nerve in people, and they struck viral gold.
People instantly reacted and reshared what they believed to be a compelling and sad video. Some even recorded themselves or others crying in reaction to watching it.
"I’m fully in tears what’s his mailing address I’d like to send him a Christmas card," someone tweeted back.
"Omg he even sprung for caramel delights. This professor deserves better!" one person wrote.
Cline said he received about 100 personal emails from strangers who relayed a lot of compassion and wanted to check in on his well-being.
It wasn't until the school Twitter account also fell for the viral video — the MSU account tweeted that the other faculty members "care about" him — that he and his students decided to come clean about the assignment.
"I am gratified by all the well-wishes. But... This video was made as part of an assignment in MED130. It is fake (many clues)," he tweeted from his own Twitter account.
While many tweeted that they fully believed the video to be true, and that they even teared up over it, Cline said he does not believe the majority of those reactions were "sincere" but mostly "self-serving" as part of the general social media culture and its normalized practices.
"My hypothesis is a vast majority of retweets are just no more real than that video," he said. "All the stuff I saw on Twitter [was] mostly people retweeting for the purposes of drawing traffic to their own Twitter feeds."
However, he does believe the people who made the extra effort to email him were sincere, and he said he was both touched and concerned by some of them.
The experience of being a viral subject, and enabling his students to go viral, has taught him that the everyday citizen and user of the internet is not exercising critical judgment as much as he'd like to see.
"I do feel a twinge of regret, but only a twinge. I consider that an overreaction," he said of the people who fell for the stunt and reached out to him. "All of those people who sent that email need to apply a little more critical thinking to media they’re seeing."
"I’m not trying to be an asshole," he added. "People are manipulated emotionally by things they’re seeing every day by people who are paid a lot of money to do that. As a nation, we need to wise up."
When asked if that "twinge of regret" would increase had there been a crowdfunding effort initiated from the fake viral tweet, Cline responded that such a campaign would be "an exceedingly dumb thing to do."
"That is an inappropriate reaction," he said. "To me, on a Twitter feed, you have to ask yourself, 'Do I know that person?' You have absolutely no idea if that video is true or not, having any other reaction than being entertained and to keep scrolling is an overreaction."
He was also stunned that no one questioned why a professor would throw a holiday party in the place of a final exam.
"Nobody looked at that professor and said, 'He shouldn’t be doing the thing he’s doing in there,'" he said.
As for Arlt and her successful classmates, she told BuzzFeed News that she's learned "people are really easy to manipulate" and that "people get upset when they learn they’ve been manipulated — even in a very lighthearted manner."
Although were angry by her deception and tweeted at and messaged her, Arlt said she also received many messages applauding the effort.
"There are also a lot of people who were fine with the manipulation and appreciated that my group and I could make something go viral by planning to do so," she said. "They appreciated our professor for the assignment and thought it was very clever."
Professor Cline is still processing the effects of being a viral subject, and how unexpectedly successful his course assignment became.
"They or I were absolutely unprepared to going viral. I now have to take that into account moving forward, [and] I need to be a little more careful," he said. "That’s part of the learning curve."
He described the experience like a "slow-motion car wreck" with things spinning "out of control" too quickly to contain.
"If you’ve never been involved in a viral incident, it’s a lot like being in a slow-motion car wreck. Time slows down to such an alarming and terrifying extent," he said. "You’re almost outside of your body watching it happen. This is exactly what it felt like. I’d rather not go through it again."
He did, however, give Arlt and her group project members all an A for the assignment.