Man’s fake coronavirus claim shows how desperate people are to go viral: experts

Man who forced WestJet flight to turn back with coronavirus stunt said he was ‘looking to get a viral video’
ABOVE: A WestJet flight from Toronto to Jamaica was forced to turn back Monday after a passenger made an “unfounded claim regarding coronavirus.”

A Vaughan, Ont. man who falsely claimed he had coronavirus, causing a Toronto-to-Jamaica WestJet flight to return to the airport, says he just wanted to go viral.

“I had my camera with me. I was looking to get a viral video. I was looking to get it up on all the social media platforms,” James Potok, 28, previously told Global News.

“It seemed to me like this was in poor taste, in retrospect. What I did, I stood up, I said, ‘Can I have everybody’s attention? I just came back from Hunan Province — and that was it.”

READ MORE: Man who made fake coronavirus claim causing Toronto-Jamaica flight to return wanted to make viral video

“I figured it would invoke some type of reaction, not on the plane. More people seeing on social media, going, ‘Wow, this kid’s got some balls,’ or, ‘This kid is crazy.’”

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WestJet said Flight 2702, with 243 passengers on board, was on its way to Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay on Monday when it was disrupted by an “unruly guest.”

The airline said the plane returned to Toronto, where law enforcement and paramedics were waiting.

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Potok was assessed upon landing back in Toronto and was deemed symptom-free. He was later charged with mischief and is due in Ontario court in March.

Given the prominence of social media and the fame that can come as a result of going viral, Josh Klapow isn’t surprised by Potok’s story. He’s a clinical professor of public health at The University of Alabama at Birmingham.

He is, however, surprised by Potok’s motive for making the claim.

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“Some people want to go viral just because they want to be famous, but this guy … gave us a rationale that was more business-minded,” said Klapow.

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“It presents a little bit more of a logical rationale than what a lot of people are doing when they’re filming videos to go viral.”

This incident is interesting, said Klapow, because it could signal a new use for social media.

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“I think it’s a little scary that this was a self-marketing attempt,” said Klapow.

“What we may be seeing [more of] is a broader array of people taking less than well-thought-out measures to self-promote, promote a product or drive traffic.”

This marketing model could be easily adaptable for brands and PR companies, filling the online space with “more noise,” Klapow said.

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“When there’s more web-based noise, [that] means we have to do more extreme things in order to not get lost in the noise … which means you’re going to get more people like [Potok],” he said.

Regardless of a person’s motive, going viral ensures one thing: hundreds and millions of ‘likes’ online.

It’s arguably one of the easiest ways to get a quick hit of dopamine, which is a brain chemical that makes us feel good.

Doing it for the dopamine hit

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, also known as a chemical in the brain which transports information, and it can explain why people are willing to risk a lot for ‘likes’ online.

“Dopamine affects our brain’s reward system, and doing something which our brain finds pleasurable leads to more dopamine being released, and increased desire to repeat that activity,” said registered psychotherapist Renee Raymond.

“Social media is such an integral part of many people’s lives and it’s hard to ignore the demand to want to be liked.”

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Social media stunts or pranks are a quick and easy way to get a lot of likes in a short amount of time.

“There are many YouTube and Instagram stars which have gained followers and likes for their stunts, which reinforces the desire to engage in these types of activities,” said Raymond.

Unfortunately, dopamine is “indiscriminate” when it comes to good and bad behaviour — you can feel it when you do something good and when you do something dangerous.

“For some, the consequences of chasing things which are pleasurable might be ignored because of how desirable the intended outcome is,” Raymond said.

“We see this with gamblers, they chase the ‘high’ of winning and may spend several dollars chasing that feeling.”

In this case, Potok likely ignored the potential consequences in his chase for ‘likes’ and the subsequent dopamine hit.

Taking the moments to slow down

When it comes to social media, Raymond said using mindfulness is critical.

“[It] can help with slowing down our impulses and giving us time to process our choices,” she said. “Mindfulness is simply being more aware and engaged in the present.”
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“Being aware of the fact that decisions you are making are maladaptive is the first step in better decision-making.”

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The next time you’re trying to decide if you should do something that could have risky consequences, take a few moments to slow down.

“Consider if the feeling you’re about to chase and its consequences are worth the decision,” she said. “Asking yourself what alternate choices you can make can also help with deciding if something you want to do for fame and attention is a good decision.”

When in doubt, ask a few responsible people you’re close to, like your parents, friends or colleagues, if the choice you’re about to make is a good one.

⁠—With files from Nick Westoll