Turning a Hoax Into Hope: Exclusive interview with Powerball photo hoaxer Nolan Daniels – what really happened and how he’s going to make it right

Nolan Daniels shared a photo on Facebook of himself holding up a doctored Powerball ticket, and the now-infamous “photo shared ‘round the world” became the most shared photo in Facebook history. I sat down and interviewed him*, and learned about how the idea came about, why it went viral, the frenzy surrounding it, the support, the hateful attacks, and an interesting twist that emerged. I also learned how he’s decided to use his 15 minutes of fame in a positive way – to help raise money for one woman who sent him her story.

 

On November 28th 2012, the Powerball lottery jackpot hit a record $588 million dollars, the second largest payout in American Lottery history. Having rolled over an unbelievable 16 times without a winner, people lined up across America to buy tickets. Some played the lottery for the first time, many more played with a seasoned set of lucky numbers; and undoubtedly all of those people played with dreams of what they would do if they won the jackpot. After taxes, a lump sum meant a payout of around $379 million, a fair bit under the original half-billion-plus winnings total. Though lottery officials did not release statistics at the time of the Powerball drawing, most people choose the lump sum rather than the 26-year annuity payout, which pays more. Because, let’s face it, it’s a shining crap-ton of cold, hard cash, right now. 26 years from now, the winner could be dead, incapacitated, or just super tired of having to spend all of that money.

Lottery officials revealed that two winning tickets were drawn – one in Missouri, one in Arizona. While waiting for the winners to step forward, one Arizona man named Nolan Daniels decided to play a prank on his friends via his personal Facebook page. He posted a picture of himself holding up a Powerball ticket, smiling broadly, and under it was the caption:

“Looks like I won’t be going to work EVER!!!! Share this photo and I will give a random person 1 million dollars!”

Nolan Daniels posted this photo on his Facebook page, creating a viral frenzy with over 2 million shares.

Nolan Daniels posted this photo on his Facebook page, creating a viral frenzy with over two million shares.

If you’ve been on Facebook in the last week, there is a good chance you heard about, saw, or shared Nolan’s photo. Though Nolan’s Facebook profile is private, he eventually shared the photo using public-view settings. He states, “It started out as a friends-only post. I wanted to see amongst my friends who’d actually share it as it was a pretty bad photo manipulation …it took me 15 minutes using Microsoft Paint to manipulate my Powerball ticket. Most of my friends knew it was a joke, so I changed it to public to see how fast strangers would share. I went to bed, went to work and by then it was out of control. I never would have imagined. I figured a few shares.”

What happened, however, was beyond anything Facebook had ever seen. With over two million shares at the time of this article, it is now the most shared image in Facebook history. It has more shares than the iconic image of President Obama hugging his wife, and more than any meme about cats on the internet.  And, as I looked for other information, I discovered there are several other stories behind the “photo shared ‘round the world.”

So first of all – why? Why did so many people share this particular photo, and how did it turn into a massive viral explosion? The first reason is obvious – people wanted a million dollars. But did over two million people actually believe that it could happen to them? Why does a large group of society become so interested in someone else’s (perceived) fortune? Because they want a piece of it. Even if, deep down, they know there is no chance, the stampede to ‘virtually’ crush others was staggering. Nolan received an enormous amount of private messages and public comments. When asked how many, he said, “I can’t count them…[when checking his Facebook messages] I just kept scrolling and the browser would freeze. The messages had a consistency of hate messages, congrats, and stories of why they’d need money.”

Along with reposting the photo, people shared their sentiments, including comments ranging from, “It is probably fake, but it doesn’t hurt,” “why not? It’s worth a try” to the extreme – one comment said, “this better be real or I’ll find this guy and kick his ass.” Would you? Go find a person and harm them because of a photo?

Second of all, how? How did something go viral so quickly, and continue to be shared even when reports emerged that the photo was a hoax? Someone not well-acquainted with photo modification might be able to spot the doctored numbers if a few moments were taken to look directly at them. The numbers were a bit blurry, and not in the correct order. And yet, it still got shared. The “how” of it appears to be the same reason as the “why” – because it didn’t hurt to try, on the off-chance it was legitimate. Let’s look at the harm vs. good factor. When I asked Nolan about the hate mail, he told me, “I have only read a handful of messages. Mainly [the] ones I’ve read is they want to sue me for lying. I’ve read other comments that I should be beaten down if anyone sees me. But if you shared my photo and moved on I don’t understand the hatred. No one gave me money, I didn’t steal from anyone. If the situation was real than they would have had the same odds to win my million than they would with the State lottery.” Nolan brings up a good point. Do two million bruised egos constitute a barrage of threats and hate mail? Because someone sent their plea for help, does that mean they have a right to threaten because they did not get the million dollars? One poster said, “After this, he’d better have eyes in the back of his head.” If he did, who would he see coming after him? Would it be members of his family?

Nolan Daniels

So here’s where the story gets more interesting. Nolan’s estranged brother, Derek Daniels, has been extremely vocal about the photo hoax. Both cite personal, family differences for the estrangement. “He asked me several months ago to stop contacting him and I’ve respected his request,” said Nolan.

Derek’s posts confirm this, albeit in different language. One post: “I heard about from people [sic]. I could not see it for we do not speak to each other. We are blocked from each other.” On several posts, he states he wants nothing to do with Nolan’s photo fame, and frequently references that he does not want anything to do with his brother, and threatens to reveal truths about him. “If I told you about the man he is, then everyone could agree he deserves some sense knock [sic] into him in a somewhat violent manner.” Derek ended a relationship in early 2010, and Nolan is now in a relationship with the same woman. “About one year together to date,” he said. “Derek broke up with her in early 2010. I’d rather not get into any more detail on the subject. This is things [sic] that should be between family.” When asked about the support he’s gotten surrounding his photo, he easily added, “My girlfriend has been the most supportive and loving person through this whole ordeal. I don’t know what I’d do without her. Other than that I’ve had very positive feedback and support from friends and family.” Other than his brother, it seems. Dating your brother’s ex? One could understand the animosity, although it appears that one relationship ending, and the other beginning, are unrelated.

Whatever the reason for the animosity, what emerged from the rapid stream of posts, articles, blogs, statuses, and interviews about Nolan Daniel’s photo was not Nolan, but Derek. Despite his protests and pleas to not be involved in the hoax, he appears to have spent a significant amount of time locating articles and posts throughout numerous public forums and informing people that he is Nolan’s brother, and telling anyone who would listen that his brother is a “giant douche.” Within hours of Nolan’s photo going viral, Derek took to his public Facebook page with posts and a “meme-generator,” altering Nolan’s original photo with new captions. “Faith in Humanity Restored/Just Kidding, I’m a Douche,” was one. Other memes were generated and a link was posted for other people to create their own “douche” meme.

Savannahnow.com’s staff writer Jason Kendall was one of the first to break the story about Nolan, and re-posted Derek’s comment, “Nolan is a Douche.” Derek told Kendall, “I think he craves the love from people…he did this to make himself feel better.”

Certainly, it must feel good to be in the spotlight, even for a few days. Having your fifteen minutes of fame is appealing to many people. When I asked Nolan about how it felt, he responded, “The stress from all of it put me in the hospital Tuesday morning. I had gastric bleeding…it’s had more negative than positive at this time but I’m sure things will turn around and get back to normal.” When asked if people recognized him when he went out in public, he answered, “No, I seem to just be ‘that guy in the lotto picture’ and that’s fine with me.” What really bothered him, he says, is that his 13 year-old son is one of Derek’s Facebook subscribers. “It’s unfortunate. My 13 year old son reads everything since I’m now “famous” and all he sees is his hate. He’s always been very public about his dislike for me but I’ve always believed things between family should remain that way. I still feel that way and that is why you don’t see me discussing it on Facebook, news, or any other outlet.” Derek, on the other hand, gave television interviews with three different news channels in Arizona, and several internet news sources and blogs. “..It was a joke, and then his friends would cling onto that, and then… it just spread from there. I don’t think it was ever meant to be as huge as it got,” he told Arizona’s Channel 3 news. Later, when someone posted on Derek’s Facebook wall that they saw him on the news, he posted, “Yeah, apparently briefly. I missed it too for I do not watch TV. I would guess that it was not uber exciting, so don’t feel bad. 3 and 5 for sure. The other was 12 maybe. [sic].” Then, a few minutes later: “Yeah, last night as well. 3 interviews yesterday. My brother was declining interviews and I was getting slammed at work and all weekend. I did them, so we can close it up. He is supposed to be on one of the local morning shows.”

Three television interviews to talk about a photo Derek states he wants nothing to do with, about a brother he has publicly disowned, so that Derek could “close it up.” Later still, he posted several more times, saying, “I didn’t watch it either…how did I do? I kept it clean and drama free…They asked a lot of questions. I guess it doesn’t really matter to me anywho [sic]… the whole thing is ridiculous. It’s funny and sad how big of a deal it is. Merikah! [sic]”

I asked Nolan about what he was doing while his brother was fielding calls from reporters. It turned out he had accepted an interview – only with a major network news broadcast with a network reporter. During the few days he saw his photo go viral, he reviewed those messages of hardship he received and was drawn to a message sent to him by a woman named Brooke. She has a rare condition called Chiari Malformation, a crippling and painful malformation of the cerebellum. “Brooke is one person who sent me a message about her hardship. She’s got over $100,000 in debt to medical bills, she’s close to being homeless, and her daughter has the same diagnosis as well. She had brain surgery for Chiari Malformation of the brain and she had her spinal cord detethered as well. [She had] severe pain that prevented her from walking and losing her job.” Nolan decided to make use of his brief time in the spotlight and start a fundraising campaign for Brooke and The American Syringomyelia & Chiari Alliance Project, Inc. (ASAP). He’s asking everyone who shared the photo to take a minute and go visit http://www.gofundme.com/Help-Brooke and http://www.asap.org/ for more information. The major network told Nolan they only wanted to talk about the photo, not the charity campaign, due to legalities. Nolan told them he would not speak with them without being able to make a positive experience out of it, and declined the interview. “That’s when I returned Channel 3’s call and interviewed, and talked to Savannahnow.com,” he said.

Why Brooke? Nolan had a surprising answer to this question: “The story hit home because Derek (my brother) had a head injury in 2008 and he my family went through a lot back then. He had thousands of dollars of medical bills, and we all had to educate ourselves on his condition and learn how to deal with it. I ended up organizing a fundraiser for him as well to cover his expenses. It’s unfortunate when bad things happen to good people.”

It is unfortunate. Sadness, sorrow, and hardship is a part of experiencing life. Nolan Daniels’ life also has an extra 15 minutes of fame, and he hopes that even as the hype dies down, a little bit of good will come out of it.

So as the story of The Powerball Photo Hoax dies down and slides into next week’s news, a new story is being created. I asked Nolan for some final words to the world, and I will leave you with his answer:

“It’s amazing what social media can do. It’s a powerful tool but also dangerous. I’d really hope people would use creditable media sources for their source of news, other than using Facebook. The fact that I broke a Facebook record is pretty surreal.  It’s been an amazing experience and I do truly regret those who spent the time sending me stories under false pretenses.”

*For purposes of transparency in my reporting, I know both Nolan and Derek Daniels personally, though neither are close friends. I interviewed Nolan. Derek’s page is open and public, and may be viewed by anyone. I did not ask for additional comment from Derek, per his Facebook request “No, my brother did not win the lottery, so please stop messaging, emailing, texting, and calling me.” (30 November status update)

Comments

  1. Your articulation of the “how” and the “why” were harmonically fused. Goes to show how social media has turned society into a sheep herd. Be that as it may, a very good lesson can be learned from this – not everything that shines is gold.

  2. Well glad i moved on an read the above article. I think ol Nolan bit off more than he could
    chew. I am feeling sorry for the dweeb now. Well, some good may still come of this.

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  1. [...] a last word to Nolan however, from an interview conducted by Lisa Becker, he does now regret the time people have wasted sending him stories (begging letters?) although he [...]

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