opinion

The viral GoFundMe story that has curdled into something deeply disturbing.

Sometimes, the internet is a lovely place to be.

There are “viral” stories of wrong number text messages turning into beautiful bonds; little boys raising money for their beloved pet dog; nurses discovering their new colleague was once their infant patient.

We like these stories.

And last November, you probably read a story that, too, made the world around you feel a little bit warmer.

A homeless man, Johnny Bobbitt, was sitting by the side of the road in Philadelphia when he saw a young woman pull over after her car broke down.

Kate McClure, 28, had run out of fuel, and she was preparing to walk to the nearest petrol station to buy some.

But 35-year-old Bobbitt, a former veteran, stepped in to get her home safe. It was almost midnight, so instead of McClure heading off alone into the darkness, Bobbitt offered to go himself. He soon returned with a can of petrol. He used his very last $20 to do so.

Blown away by his act of kindness, McClure and her 39-year-old partner Mark D’Amico set up a GoFundMe page to detail what happened and to crowdfund for Bobbitt.

“I believe that with a place to be able to clean up every night and get a good night’s rest, his life can get back to being normal,” McClure wrote at the time. “Please help this man get into a home.”

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Social media, of course, inhaled the feel-good hit like cocaine. Donations started pouring in. McClure and Bobbitt’s faces were plastered on just about every news website, all over the globe. The fundraiser went onto amass more than AU$550,000 from more than 14,000 donors, rocketing past its original goal of $14,000.

Nice, huh?

Because when the news is groaning under the weight of negativity, these are the stories we cling to as we mutter: yes, there is hope for us yet.

Bobbitt said he felt like he’d won the lottery.

It was life-changing.

Or at least, it was meant to be.

Because months on, the story has curdled into something desperately sad.

Bobbitt says he has only seen a fraction – about US$75,000 – of the funds. It’s unclear where the remaining amount has gone.

But according to Bobbitt, after the fundraiser ended, McClure and D’Amico suddenly had a brand new luxury BMW, they went on lavish holidays across the US, took a Grand Canyon helicopter ride, and gambled at the casino.

He claims the money donated for him was fraudulently used by the New Jersey couple so they could “enjoy a lifestyle they could not afford”, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

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With the help of a pro-bono legal team, Bobbitt filed a lawsuit against McClure, a receptionist, and D’Amico, a carpenter.

According to the Inquirer, a judge ordered the pair to hand over the remaining funds to Bobbitt by September 3. They missed the deadline.

And now, Bobbitt’s legal team says they learned from the couple’s lawyers that the funds have vanished. There is apparently no money left to give.

It’s a deeply grimy turn of events.

The GoFundMe was intended to help Bobbitt buy his own home and get behind the steering wheel of his dream car – a 1999 Ford Ranger.

Instead, the couple used the money to buy him a camper van, which they parked on McClure’s family property, and a second-hand SUV which has since broken down. Both were registered in McClure’s name, denying him any control. And in June, Bobbitt said he was told to leave McClure’s property.

McClure and D’Amico have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, insisting they simply didn’t want to hand Bobbitt the money until he stopped using drugs and managed to hold down a job.

But is it really their business how another adult chooses to spend their cash? Poverty and addiction are complex and difficult issues. Sometimes you step back before you step forward.

But Bobbitt wasn’t given the chance to even try.

He wound up back on the streets, once again begging for money and food to survive.

Kate McClure and Johnny Bobbitt on Good Morning America in November 2017. Image: ABC.

A judge on Wednesday ordered the couple to testify under oath next week about what happened to the $555,000 raised.

Bobbitt's legal team is determined to establish a money trail. GoFundMe is also investigating.

The world will continue to watch as the court battle wages on.

But right now, one thing this sorry saga does remind us of is how dangerous our obsession with feel-good "viral" stories can be. They exist in a digital space where people can put on a mask and be whoever they say they are.

This is a story that, for a mere instant, represented the best of humanity, and now it is a symbol of greed and deceit.

It's easy to get sucked into a social media frenzy, but we do it without interrogating what the actual intentions and consequences might be.

D'Amico and McClure were essentially strangers to Bobbitt. Would we have so willingly and generously donated to their account if we accepted this fact beforehand?

I think not.

How do you feel about how Johnny Bobbitt's story? Tell us in the comments below.

You can follow Sophie Aubrey on Twitter.

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