Even If Sam & Nia Did Fake It, What Does Our Reaction Say About Us?

Photo: Courtesy of Sam and Nia’s Official Facebook.
One week ago, the Internet joined in a collective eye-roll at vlogger couple Sam and Nia's "shocking," all-caps pregnancy announcement. "Sweet, can’t wait to see the viral video showing her devastation if she should miscarry in a few days or weeks," says the top comment on Gawker's post. "There’s a fucking reason people don’t announce pregnancies to everyone at that point, Sam! I’m glad that, God forbid, the worst should happen, millions of people will be able to intrude on your wife’s terrible grief," said another.

Days later, when the couple disclosed that Nia had indeed had a miscarriage, the public response took a turn. It was neither sympathetic nor I-told-you-so. Instead, the general reaction was: "FAKE!"

Certainly, it's not out of the realm of possibility. The Internet is rife with hucksters and, as consumers, we've earned the right to raise an eyebrow. But once the trigger was pulled, viewers felt free to let loose with real vitriol, calling the couple whores and scammers — claiming Nia was smiling through the video and that "the way she's 'crying' should produce more tears." It wasn't just media consumers but outlets as well. "YouTube Stars Use 'Miscarriage' to Push for Jesus," read The Daily Beast's headline. "Doctor's Cast Doubt on Viral Video Stars Sam and Nia's Pregnancy Claims," said BuzzFeed's. Their post did indeed include a quote from a doctor saying that testing for pregnancy using urine from a toilet bowl is "not a method we would recommend." The rest of the post was devoted to casting doubt on Sam and Nia in general along with all the apparent evidence doubters insist "added fuel to the fire."

Most decriers claim the video just feels fake. There are thousands of comments and news stories detailing the specific theories on why everyone thinks these two are hucksters, but it all points back to a few basic points:

1. They're attention-seeking vloggers.
2. They're pretty hokey.
3. They're conservative Christians.

All these things are verifiably true. Sam and Nia have been vlogging for more than a year, openly aiming for viral stardom. Regarding their first hit video, wherein they lip-sync to the Frozen soundtrack (see aforementioned hokeyness), Sam told BuzzFeed News that, of course, he was hoping it would go viral. "I’ve always had a dream to be famous." In many ways, they're no different than the many other vlogging families on YouTube, as Slate's Amanda Hess pointed out. Furthermore, "The pregnancy obsession isn’t personal," Hess added. "It’s practically required of a successful vlogging family. From the outside, Sam and Nia may look like baby- and fame-hungry weirdos, but in YouTube culture, they're pretty mundane — with one exception: They don't hide their religious views.

Sam and Nia came under criticism last month (though it was a barely a blip of coverage compared to the media onslaught around the pregnancy/miscarriage announcements). They posted and then removed a video of them coaching their 5-year-old daughter to say she doesn't support gay marriage after she said it should be allowed. Apparently, the couple thought it was funny (kids say the darndest things!). In response to the outcry, they posted a follow-up apologizing for "taking it so lightly" and pushing their views on their child. They claim to love the gay people in their lives and were oh, so sorry if they hurt them, but as for marriage — yeah, that's for men and women. "We are Christians. We believe in everything the Bible says," Sam says with a shrug. And, that's that.

Their faith may also be why they titled their miscarriage announcement, "OUR BABY HAD A HEARTBEAT." While there's no outright political rhetoric in the video itself, Sam and Nia do evidently believe in the popular pro-life tenet that life begins at conception.

There's plenty about them to take issue with. But that doesn't necessarily make them fakers.
Photo: Courtesy of Sam and Nia’s Official Facebook.
Set aside Sam and Nia as individuals, and it's easy to see that there are two natural reactions at play here. For one thing, we are conditioned to mistrust popular Internet phenomena — and for good reason. Hoaxes happen all the time, and often we're not aware until they've been exposed. Particularly when someone announces a personal tragedy (e.g.: Belle Gibson, who was caught faking cancer, then curing it with the super-healthy recipes detailed in her forthcoming book), we're always waiting for the other shoe to drop (pre-order now!).

But, even beyond that, many of us are also naturally, unconsciously inclined to mistrust Bible-thumpers.

"Sadly, religious bias is very common," says Sondra Thiederman, a leading expert on workplace diversity and bias reduction. "Most often, in my experience, this sort of bias is directed at Muslims and at conservative Christians."

For liberal or moderate media consumers, this may seem justifiable. After all, think about the Duggars, the Robertsons, and all those right-wing "family values" politicians who were busted doing the very things they publicly condemned. Plus, it's not as if Christians are a minority group in the Western world, so come on, they can take a little heat, right?

Thiederman sees this all the time, noting that the bias against conservative Christians is particularly disturbing, simply because "many people seem to feel that that particular bias is okay — that there is no need to defeat it or apologize for it." But, she adds, "bias is bias. It is destructive, demeaning, and counterproductive no matter who the object."

Bias, by it's very definition, perpetuates division and prejudicial treatment, and that's undeniably detrimental to our society. That's not to say that we have to let these people off the hook for their prejudiced views, but instead we should recognize that we're hanging on to some prejudice, too.

It's a fraught moment for anyone who stand firmly pro-choice, as we do, with Planned Parenthood under attack by anti-choice groups, alarming quotes about abortion restrictions coming out of last week's GOP debates, and personhood laws taking center stage in a very concerning way. But those comments and hoaxes shouldn't necessarily color our view of Sam and Nia. At this point, there's little reason to condemn them as fraudsters working for the far right. Thus far, they haven't parlayed their new visibility into some anti-choice propaganda, or made requests for cash.

It's worth noting that the couple has expressed happiness over their increased viewership, but is that really evidence of a nefarious plot? More likely, it's just a super-religious couple scrambling for a silver lining after a personal tragedy. Viral success has always been one of their goals, after all — and this is no doubt another behavior that may seem bizarre to those of us whose lives and careers are not enmeshed in YouTube culture. But there's something about the general public's leap over Occam's razor and into the land of conspiracy that speaks less to the facts at hand and more to our own unconscious bias. If it just feels like a stunt, then maybe we should first address that feeling in ourselves.

I'm reminded of last year's finale of Lindsay Lohan's docu-series on OWN, when the actress revealed that she'd had a miscarriage during filming and that's why she'd been unable to shoot for a number of days. In a tone that echoes the response to Sam & Nia, her disclosure was met with immediate suspicion, both subtle and overt: "Lindsay Lohan Claims She Had a Miscarriage...," "Lindsay Lohan Says She Had a Miscarriage...," "Did Lindsay Lohan FAKE a Pregnancy?" We're so used to seeing the actress as a trainwreck that when she shared this news, we all got that icky feeling. More important, we felt comfortable saying so just because, well — it's Lindsay Lohan, right?

Except, no. She's a woman sharing a deeply personal moment of loss and grief. And deserving of human decency.

After all, who knows? Maybe the miscarriage truthers are right and this whole thing is a hoax. But the point still stands: Whether or not they faked it, we treat them a certain way because of a bias that exists in us. And, openly acknowledging the existence of an unconscious bias — painful and shameful though it may be — is the first step toward neutralizing its power.

Yet, ultimately, if there's any lesson from this viral sensation, it's that we need to remove any taboo or sense of shame associated with discussions of miscarriage and loss. That's one thing Sam and Nia have repeated in the last week that's hard to argue with. "People think they have to hide their feelings about miscarriage or feel like people won't understand because it's not a big deal — it's just a miscarriage. And so, they hide it because they don't want people to judge them," said Sam in their most recent video. "We had all this support around us because everybody knew, and the people who aren't making it public to their friends are basically mourning by themselves."

I spoke with Christiane Manzella, Ph.D., F.T., clinical director of the Seleni Institute, which specializes in women's reproductive and maternal mental health. She echoed this sentiment regarding Sam and Nia's miscarriage video. "We’ve been taught not to share about pregnancies in case we miscarry," she says, noting that she often hears the same expressions of emptiness and devastation that Sam and Nia gave from couples she counsels after miscarriage. "'A bomb dropped into our lives.' We hear this every day."

Dr. Manzella believes that "if there was a sense that women and their partners felt free to share, then there would be more support in the losses because people would see that this happens much more frequently than we recognize."

We may never know for sure the intentions behind Sam and Nia's videos. But does it really matter?

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