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Website's practical joke about 'Back to the Future' becomes global meme

If there's one thing Back to the Future taught us, it's that one day, we'll all have hoverboards and flying cars, and Biff Tannen will rule the world after getting rich off of knowing something he shouldn't.

Of course, that was Back to the Future II, the 1989 sequel to the now-classic Robert Zemeckis flick that debuted on July 3, 1985 — 25 years ago this last Saturday. Among the many adorable plot devices: Michael J. Fox's Marty McFly experiments with Dr. Emmett Brown's time machine on Oct. 26 of that year, jumping backward in time to Nov. 5, 1955, to the date Christopher Lloyd's character invented the flux capacitor, which makes time travel possible. Unfortunately, Marty has trouble getting home, eventually making his mom (Lea Thompson) fall in love with him in the past, jeopardizing his future.

All that is institutional knowledge for a dork like me, but most every kid I grew up with remembers this story line. The big question for me this week is, why did so many people on the Internet adopt the idea that the sequel's events took place on Monday?

It started as most of these things do these days, a minor rumbling on Facebook, a couple of posts on various blogs. But by Tuesday legions of people had taken to calling July 5, 2010, "Future Day," the date to which Marty, his girl Jennifer (played by Elisabeth Shue) and Doc Brown jumped in order to stop Biff's evil reign and rescue the McFlys' children from a future worse than death.

"Great Scott! It's Future Day! In Back To The Future, Doc Brown sets the time circuits for 25yrs in the future...that day is today! #futureday" read the oft-retweeted message, using either that hashtag or #greatscott to collate the results. It spread with the same fervor as a World Cup goal (#worldcup) or best wishes for Frida Kahlo's birthday, which was, in fact, on Tuesday — she would have been 103 years old.

Problem is, Monday was not Future Day. Oct. 21, 2015 will be (and for the record, part III was set beginning Sept. 2, 1885). The fact that the tweet credited this to the quarter-century old original, despite happening in the second movie, should have tipped people off to its lack of veracity, but the masses didn't care.

British movie site and magazine Total Film (@TotalFilm) claims responsibility for the global phenomenon, saying they Photoshopped a fake DeLorean dashboard after sending out the original tweet.

"A casual office conversation brought up the 'fact' that 5th July 2010 is referenced in Back To The Future (though Doc and Marty never actually go there), so sensing a bit of fun for our Twitter feed (and without checking) we posted the Tweet. Then things got interesting," a story on TotalFilm.com read.

The site says many of Total Film's 30,000 followers called them on the error, so they faked a photo to "prove" it and posted it on Twitpic. Once it became apparent that misinformation can spread like wildfire on the web, they added a caption to the altered image that read, "We got it wrong. Apparently 5th July 2010 isn't mentioned in Back To The Future. So we went back and changed it..."

This wasn't just a minor meme on the blogosphere, but a full-blown fact of life, according to retweeters. Thousands spread the news, especially via Twitter, in an attempt to display their '80s pop culture cred.

While this is an innocuous and unimportant artifact of online culture, it struck me as a perfect example of what's wrong with social media in general and the 140-character-limited Twitter in specific. The very idea that someone can take an easily verifiable fact and spread an untruthful discourse far and wide is frightening. Sure, it's about a silly-but-popular movie from 25 years ago, but it speaks to the vulnerability of a medium meant to spread information, whether true or not.

Such is the way of modern media. We don't have hoverboards or flying cars, but we do have birthers and Holocaust deniers and the fairly widespread notion that love bugs were created in a lab at the University of Florida (or Georgia, depending on whom you ask). Snopes can only keep up with just so much.

This behavior has been going on for ages, long before the Internet. Rumor trumps fact in almost every facet of our lives, something I would hope social media would discourage, since the same tools spreading rumor allow the assertions to be disproved in an instant. But human nature allows it to happen anyway. There's simply no impetus to discredit something before preaching it as gospel online in this day and age.

That's a future Zemeckis didn't show us, in which a medium meant to unite us in truth and understanding is instead used to further splinter us with fabrications. It's not using knowledge to a dishonest end, as Biff did; rather, it's eschewing knowledge wholesale and taking someone's word for it. That does not a well-informed populace make. Pretty heavy introspection from a practical joke, I understand, but you've got to keep up with the parable here.

Then again, maybe I'm just unhappy there aren't any hoverboards or flying cars yet. Hey, we still have five years to get there.

— Joshua Gillin writes about entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

Website's practical joke about 'Back to the Future' becomes global meme 07/06/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 6, 2010 7:29pm]
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