Truth has never been an essential ingredient of viral content on the Internet.
However, in the stepped-up competition for readers, digital news sites are increasingly blurring the line between fact and fiction, and saying that it is all part of doing business in the rough-and-tumble world of online journalism.
Several recent stories rocketing around the Web, picking up millions of views, turned out to be fake or embellished: a Twitter tale of a Thanksgiving feud on a plane, later described by the writer as a short story; a child’s letter to Santa that detailed an Amazon.com link in crayon, but was actually written by an adult comedian in 2011; and an essay on poverty that prompted US$60,000 in donations until it was revealed by its author to be impressionistic rather than strictly factual.
Their creators describe them essentially as online performance art, never intended to be taken as fact.
However, to the media outlets that published them, they represented the lightning-in-a-bottle brew of emotion and entertainment that attracts readers and brings in lucrative advertising dollars.
When the tales turned out to be phony, the modest hand-wringing that ensued was accompanied by an admission that viral trumps verified — and that little will be done about it as long as the clicks keep coming.
“You are seeing news organizations say: ‘If it is happening on the Internet that’s our beat,’” Harvard Nieman Journalism Lab director Joshua Benton said. “The next step of figuring out whether it happened in real life is up to someone else.”
The difference seems to be that the news organizations that published the recent pieces — Gawker, BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post and Mashable among them — do not see invented viral tales as being completely at odds with the serious news content they publish alongside them.
The Huffington Post won a Pulitzer Prize last year, Gawker was among the first to report the cocaine use by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and BuzzFeed is building teams of investigative and foreign correspondents.
Of course, Web sites like these are not the only news organizations to be seduced by stories that are too good to be true.
In just the past month, CBS’ venerable 60 Minutes had to apologize for taking too credulously the claims of a security agent about last year’s attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
TRADE-OFF IN STANDARDS
Instead, editors of these sites acknowledge frankly that there are trade-offs in balancing authenticity with the need to act quickly in a hyperconnected age.
“We are dealing with a volume of information that it is impossible to have the strict standards of accuracy that other institutions have,” said John Cook, editor of Gawker, which highlighted the essay on poverty, by a woman named Linda Tirado.
“The faster metabolism puts people who fact-check at a disadvantage,” said Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief for the Huffington Post, which reposted the fictional airplane tweets, the letter to Santa and the poverty essay.
“If you throw something up without fact-checking it, and you’re the first one to put it up, and you get millions and millions of views, and later it’s proved false, you still got those views. That’s a problem. The incentives are all wrong,” he said.
However, Cook said he thinks that readers can tell which content is serious and which is taken from the Web without vetting.