It's a depressing reality of life in our current media climate that when I heard the story of three-year-old Victoria Wilcher, my first reaction wasn't sympathy or outrage, but suspicion. It's not that it wasn't entirely possible that a little girl had been kicked out of a KFC because the horrible scars on her face were supposedly scaring customers, but that the reaction to it was too perfectly predictable. Of course public shock and anger was going to lead to a sudden financial windfall for the family of the child. And of course, the family knew this. Because the family of Victoria Wilcher lives in the same media Thunderdome we all do and it knew exactly what would happen once its tale of a helpless child thoughtlessly shunned began making national news and turning up in nearly every single American's Facebook feed.
If you felt sorry for Victoria Wilcher because she was savagely attacked by her grandfather's dogs, then you should go right on doing that; it's beyond heartbreaking what she's suffered through. But if you've spent the past week being furious at the cruelty an anonymous KFC employee in Mississippi heaped on Victoria while lauding KFC's incredibly generous response to that cruelty -- the restaurant chain donated 30-grand for the little girl's medical care -- well, you might want to temper that a bit. That's because it's looking more and more like the entire thing was nothing more than a hoax. According to a new report in the Laurel Leader-Call, the story Victoria Wilcher's grandmother told about her granddaughter being asked to leave KFC wasn't true. The incident never really happened. It was all just a publicity stunt aimed at making money.
The Leader-Call meticulously takes apart the story told by the Wilcher family and the results aren't pretty.
From the report:
• Kelly Mullins, the child’s grandmother who was reportedly with her at the store, told KFC that the incident happened on May 15. A Facebook post attributed to Victoria’s Victories, a support site for young Victoria Wilcher... has the two in Jackson on May 15 having gone to Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital. There are two KFC locations close to the hospital — on Woodrow Wilson Drive and Meadowbrook Drive. On May 16, Victoria’s Victories wrote: “We had a small adventure yesterday, Victoria pulled her feeding tube out but thanks to the great people at Batson Children’s Hospital she is home today waiting for her new sister! Mom & Baby Abby come home today too!!”
• The source said surveillance videos show that at no time on the 15th were any children in the store who match the description of Victoria Wilcher or Mullins. The tapes were viewed in both the Meadowbrook and Woodrow Wilson KFC locations in Jackson, the source said...
• The source said no orders were recorded to include mashed potatoes and sweet tea on the same transaction, or even the two items as part of a larger order on May 15. Mullins told WAPT TV in Jackson shortly after the incident went viral on social media June 12 that: “I ordered a sweet tea and mashed potatoes and gravy. I sat down at the table and started feeding her and the lady came over and said that we would have to leave, because we were disturbing other customers, that Victoria’s face was disturbing other customers.” ...
• The family initially told KFC the incident happened at the location on State and High streets, a claim backed by a Facebook post by Victoria’s Victories, a page run by Teri Rials Bates, the girl’s aunt that read: “Thank you for your support for Victoria. If you would like to file a complaint its the KFC on State Street in Jackson MS.” That store is not in operation and has been closed for several years.
It was the "Victoria's Victories" website that first began circulating the KFC story. On June 12th it posted a picture of Victoria's disfigured face alongside a caption that read, "Does this face look scary to you? Last week at KFC in Jackson MS this precious face was asked to leave because her face scared the other diners. I personally will never step foot in another KFC again and will be personally writing the CEO." That was all it took. In no time hysterical carnival barkers like Nancy Grace were howling about the cruel mistreatment Victoria had received, donations to the family's GoFundMe site jumped from $595 to a whopping $135,000, and of course KFC paid its corporate penance by dropping a giant bundle of cash on the family.
The mechanism the internet provides for publicizing personal tragedy and injustice has always been the kind of thing that cuts both ways. Certainly, the ability to draw a crowd through social media has leveled the playing field and put power into the hands of those who formerly had very little recourse when injured. But that power was always ripe for exploitation by the opportunistic and a digital mob can do plenty of damage. KFC recognized this -- reportedly KFC employees in Jackson, Mississippi have been getting death threats -- and so it immediately threw money at the PR disaster in an attempt to come out on top of the situation. For the record, it's looking like KFC is very savvily choosing not to withdraw its donation to Victoria Wilcher just yet, because no matter what the truth is in this story it's damn well not the little girl's fault. She really was disfigured and she really does need help with her medical care -- and 30-grand is a drop in the ocean for Yum! Brands, which owns KFC.
But what the family of little Victoria apparently did may have far-reaching negative consequences. True, the emotional center of the average person's brain often overrides logic and reason, which means that skepticism gets tossed out the window even if he or she has been duped in the past. But if enough of these internet hoaxes happen -- if enough people "cry wolf" on social media in the name of making a buck -- then more and more of us really will begin looking for proof when a single person makes an incredible claim intended to provoke a wide response. Actually, I take it back -- maybe that's a good thing. There's so much outright crap on the internet these days which we willingly lap up and circulate that a little healthy suspicion might benefit us in immeasurable ways.
The unfortunate thing is that a little girl who's gone through enough in her short life has to wind up having her name now associated with lying to the country and ripping people off. She deserved better than that.