Ryan “Merf” Murphy, 42, from central Illinois, unemployed, divorced, with time on his hands, had a good idea one day that kind of got out of hand. Still, he meant well.
A year ago, not long after the pandemic lockdowns began, like many, he found himself hooked on the social media app TikTok. He watched more videos than he posted, and when he posted, it was nothing special: “Sleepy” Joe Biden memes, George Carlin jokes, thoughts on cancel culture; his most popular post (45,000 views) was a clip of Ruth Bader Ginsburg explaining to Stephen Colbert why a hotdog qualified as a sandwich.
Then last month, he stumbled on a good story.
This story you’re reading is about that story, because, for a time, I wanted to believe it.
So did a lot of others.
Around Father’s Day, Merf — which is what he prefers being called — recorded a video of himself while he was driving. The news was too big to pull over or change into something more formal. He needed to get this out now. He wore a Nintendo 64 T-shirt he bought at JC Penny that afternoon and spoke breathlessly, relaying the amazing nugget of information he just learned: A local farmer in his small town was having a fuel tank removed, the backhoe struck something large, nobody knew what, a large leg bone of some sort. So “some people from California,” archaeologists, flew in, took a look and decided it was a dinosaur bone. Indeed, the largest dinosaur tibia ever discovered. Merf said the archaeologists were planning on an excavation of the farm and expected to erect an observation tent.
It was all pretty exciting.
“The biggest shindig our little town has ever had,” he said.
Merf lives in Sherman (pop. 4,549), just north of Springfield. He left that part out of the first video. He also left it out of the next several videos he posted about the bone. In the videos, he was earnest and big-hearted, almost Muppet-like. You liked him. You suspected he’s getting some of the facts wrong, but it was easy to give him a break because, well, he was excited, he was not a scientist, he wore a Nintendo shirt on a weekday and said official sounding things with the shaky authority of the recently deputized.
He also peppered each update about the dig with fresh details: Local police wanted him to stay quiet, he was trying to get media credentials so he could ask more questions, the University of California and “Bureau of Land Management” were here with “ground penetrating radar,” trying to determine the size of the excavation site.
A week after the initial video, he posted himself standing at dusk beside an open field. You couldn’t really see what was going on behind him. But it looked like something big was happening. The Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois were now in control, he said. For the next update, shot in daylight, there were even backhoes.
He also apologized: He had agreed to stay quiet about this “as a favor,” he said, because, you know, science moves slowly and there’s nothing to show yet — “nothing is going to happen anytime soon.” Many of his details seemed believable and mundane, but plenty of others were inconsistent. (He never explained why he was telling social media when he had already agreed with the authorities to stay quiet.) Still, he — and, by proxy, his rapt viewers, everyone on the down low — had quite the scoop.
Finally, in late June, after four videos and a couple of weeks of updates, he posted a new video explaining he had just received a press release from the “Department of Interior” officially explaining the situation. At which point, the video cut abruptly to pop star Rick Astley singing “Never Gonna Give You Up,” doing his famous loose-limbed shimmy. In the world of online memes, this was called a Rickroll, a good-natured gaslighting that leads the viewer nowhere, to Astley dancing.
The whole thing was a prank.
In fact, Merf had offered the punchline — “biggest shindig our little town has ever had” — in the very first video but few noticed. It was so poorly delivered, you might have assumed Merf was just corny.
But here’s the thing: It wasn’t a joke to everyone.
Some of those who left comments on his videos recognized the prank immediately. But many others wanted to believe the news. Even after he revealed it was a joke, followers wanted to hear more about the dig. Thousands of people believed the reports. Neighbors called and asked for directions to the site. His ex-wife called, astonished that dinosaur fossils were found in Sherman. His own mother called to hear more. Even Snopes, the longtime fact-checking website known for debunking urban legends, filed a report — concluding that Merf’s claim needed more investigation.
When Merf woke the morning after posting the first video, it had 1,200 views — modest, but lot for him. Within weeks, though, that initial report alone had gathered almost 700,000 views. He shot from 400 followers to, now, roughly 8,000. As of mid-July, he was still being asked for updates.
Merf realized that he had, in a sense, created fake news.
Or conversely, “real” news to many of those who followed him, left messages begging for more details, asked for the location of the town and the name of a nice hotel so they could vacation there and watch the dig. They left notes of congratulations on his town’s good fortune, and warnings about the inevitable federal bigfooting and media scrutiny to come. Unwittingly, Merf had entered the zeitgeist and given a master class in how easy it is to sell a tall tale in 2021.
Social media, after all, is a 24-hour seminar conducted by people explaining subjects beyond their pay grade. Merf, at the very least, sounded sincere, curious, surprised. He never winked. For a hot second I wanted to believe him: A few years ago I had asked paleontologists about Illinois fossils and their replies left me ...
Because, Merf said, “we all want something to believe in.”
Or we all hope there’s something new under the sun, I said.
“Or that,” he agreed. “That part I understand. The shock was the people who wanted to believe even after I showed them, without a doubt, that I was just dragging out a dumb joke. I’m a dad and I laugh at stupid things. So truly, I don’t know what happened here. But then it’s hard to know what’s true anymore. When you left a message asking to call, I checked to see if you were real. And you exist.”
But dinosaur bones in Illinois?
Illinois is one of the handful of states where not a single dinosaur fossil has ever been extracted from the soil. Blame the ice age and the harsh scouring of its landscape. Basically, the age of the land in Illinois and the age of the dinosaurs don’t match well.
“As yet, no dinosaurs are known from Illinois,” said William Simpson, head of geological collections at the Field Museum. “There were very few Mesozoic rocks (the age of the dinosaurs) exposed in our state.”
Paleontologists — not archaeologists, one of the several details that Merf got wrong — have long hunted for dinosaur fossils in Illinois and many have concluded that the chance of finding any is improbable at best. Not that this stops Midwesterners from presenting Illinois paleontologists with “evidence” of local dinosaur bones.
“Not a week goes by when that doesn’t happen,” said Joe Devera, senior paleontologist with the Illinois State Geological Survey. A local doctor once gave him a skull, convinced it was a dinosaur. “I told him it was a cow. He said no, he knows, he’s a doctor. I said, ‘Tell me where you practice, so I make sure never to go there.’”
When Merf made that first video about the farmer and the fuel tank and the gigantic tibia, he didn’t know any of that. He had assumed that others knew exactly what he knew about dinosaurs. “Meaning, I never thought much about it. I forget where Sue (the famous Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the Field Museum) is from. I might guess ... Illinois? People have found woolly mammoth remains in Illinois.”
Which is (actually) true. (Sue was found in South Dakota.)
Merf committed to the dinosaur story after he came across a TikTok video of “some dude” who told bad jokes. “The guy said, ‘Archeologists is the science of partying, because every time they dig up something, it’s a shindig.’ I thought I could do better.” He wondered what a 60-second version of the joke might look like.
“I devised a script, and after about two hours, I rehearsed what I wanted to say. When you’re excited, there aren’t many pauses, so I did about eight or 10 takes then later went into the editing tools and removed the pauses to give a sense of being quick and urgent. And I was quick and precise but just before I hit publish, I thought I could do better. So I added the theme from ‘Jurassic Park.’ Then before I hit publish again, I slipped in the ‘Jurassic Park’ logo. I also decided to add the detail about an observation tent so I could sell the idea of the town being excited. It made it seem more real. For the punchline, I looked into the camera, for two or three extra beats.
“I figure people would get it. I thought I had made a superior dad joke. I drove up to Chicago that weekend to have dinner with family and before I got there, I was up to 30,000 views. I actually had to log out of my phone because there were so many notifications coming. Some people were like, ‘Eloquent dad joke!’ I never deleted those comments. I just posted a follow-up, and by now I was googling ‘dinosaurs’ and ‘archaeology’ because some people were pointing out no, paleontologists study fossils.
“But I figured I could chalk that up to misspeaking in excitement. I found an article about the University of California and a Bureau of Land Management and I thought, OK, so I’ll drop those names, too. It sells the legitimacy. The more big words I used, it seemed, the more people wanted to buy it. That said, I did also start to ask myself, ‘Why do people even believe this? How could they?’”
Perhaps because you can’t tell a joke?
“Perhaps,” Merf laughed. “Actually, after 250,000 views, I reached out to a friend who’s a stand-up comic and asked for help: Where do we go with this? We started formulating ideas. He suggested a construction site as a backdrop. So I did that. By now I felt this had gone on long enough. But people were still congratulating Illinois and still asking about where they could see the dig. Even after we decided to end on a Rickroll, to finish there, I heard from people who refused to believe it was fake.”
He feared revealing the prank would invite a wave of hate and he would lose good will, “because by now I had created a nice fantasy and crushed it. But the hate that came, it wasn’t like a real hate.”
It was more like sadness.
If you tried hunting around the internet for verification of an Illinois dinosaur excavation, you likely saw the Snopes article, which left the door open for more. Merf’s reporting, told with enough straight-faced guilelessness to pass through social media as plausible, blurred into the QAnon conspiracies, stories of backroom cannibal cabals conspiring to steal presidential elections, misinformation on vaccines causing magnetism, “reports” that Donald Trump would return to the White House soon. Joke or not, it seemed at home on social media.
On TikTok this summer, one recurring video asks the question: What conspiracy theory do you 100% believe? That’s generated more than 15,000 replies. Never mind the legitimate news of a government report that intelligence agencies were uncertain about the origins of many UFOs. Never mind the existence of actual conspiracies: As the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer writes in his new book “The Cruelty is the Point,” Black Americans “go about their lives every day” knowing that real conspiracies — to redline, to medically experiment, to deny loans, to create forced labor — are part of our history.
Merf wasn’t acting in any ideological or political way. He wasn’t trying to make a point.
Still, politics found him.
“A lot of people who left comments believed the feds would now take control of the land of the farmer and claim eminent domain. For a while I got a lot of ‘OK, now you just watch. This guy is going to get screwed. Because that’s what government does.’”
When Merf mentioned jumping through hoops to get media credentials and legitimize his reporting somehow, the comments urged him to ignore the professional channels, he had First Amendment rights — to hell with mainstream media.
On a less cantankerous note, one of the recurring themes of the comments was a concern for the day-to-day operations of the farm itself. “Which was maybe the cutest part,” Merf said. “A lot of people worried about what the farmer would do for a new fuel tank, now that his land was occupied.”
Which is nice.
“Which is heartwarming,” Merf said.
For the record, he’s not a conspiracy nut, he said. He has a BA in business management and organizational behavior from Benedictine University — he understands the improbability of herding enough cats to conspire about anything. “I will say, I voted for Trump, but I’m a center-leaning conservative. So, JFK Jr. is not alive. QAnon? No.” But he does want to believe in UFOs.
We all do.
Or rather, a sizable portion of the population wants to believe. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, the existence of alien life is one of our few shared beliefs, cutting across ideological and geographic differences. (About 65% of Americans believe something from another world is here.) Folklore itself — in Chicago alone, Resurrection Mary, Candyman, the Schiller Woods fountain of youth — is a community wish to believe there is wonder left in the world.
Why not dinosaur fossils?
Science aside, geology aside, facts aside, dinosaur fossils were found just over the Missouri line; dinosaurs probably didn’t obey nonexistent state lines 66 million years ago. Dinosaurs probably walked what became Illinois and glaciers across the Midwest probably scraped clean the evidence.
Probably — right?
Merf had considered continuing his ruse. He was planning to shoot in the dug-out foundation of a nearby construction site. The popularity of the videos had been a bright spot — for the past few years, his parents have had health issues that forced him to leave his customer service job at Blue Cross/ Blue Shield and help care for them full-time.
But after a couple of weeks of videos, viewership declined. He sensed interesting waning. Eventually the amazing becomes ho-hum.
“But for a time, hundreds of thousands out there imagined the incredible,” he said. “It’s why I watch ‘Ancient Aliens’ on the History Channel. Unless you’re an expert in a field they’re talking about, what do you know? Dinosaur fossils in Illinois would have added to the record, it would have been history. If it were true. I meant nothing malicious. I just wanted to hear, ‘How cool.’ I’m still laughing.”