Sat, Dec 14, 2013 - Page 9 News List

If a story is viral on the Web, truth might be taking a beating

By Ravi Somaiya and Leslie Kaufman  /  NY Times News Service

“We assume a certain level of sophistication and skepticism of our readers,” he said.

Elan Gale, 30, a television producer and the author of the invented article on the feud on the plane, is not convinced.

His fictitious Twitter tale of exchanging increasingly hostile notes with a fellow passenger spread rapidly — a compilation of his posts got 5.6 million views.

BuzzFeed sensed the tremor on the Web and posted it, attracting nearly 1.5 million views to its site. (The New York Times travel section blog also linked to their story, but labeled it as imaginary when it was discovered to be untrue.)

Finally, Gale revealed that the entire exchange was fake, and BuzzFeed posted an update describing the story as a lie and a hoax.

“I really have an issue with the word hoax,” said Gale, who said nobody called him to verify his story. “I was broadcasting to my followers who know what I do. It’s the people who reported it who are deceiving their audience.”

BuzzFeed counters that Gale stoked the flames when his posts came to wider notice, instead of debunking the reports, and that a BuzzFeed reporter had tried to contact him on Twitter.

BuzzFeed, like some other sites, relied on updates and news stories to correct its previous reporting on Gale’s story. (Its follow-up story drew more than 400,000 views.)

AN ACT OF POINTING

However, the site must continue to cover the frantic conversation of social media, said Lisa Tozzi, the news director at BuzzFeed and a former Times editor.

This is because it “is where our readers are living,” she said. “Our readers are seeing all of this stuff and I feel like there’s an expectation that we are reporting on the culture they’re living in.”

Benton put it another way: “This is journalism as an act of pointing — ‘Look over here, this is interesting,’” he said.

He said uncertainty about a story’s veracity is unlikely, in most cases, to keep an editor from posting it.

“I think BuzzFeed is probably a little bummed they are being called out, but they are not going to start asking for three sources,” he said.

It is unclear how much readers care whether a fascinating story is true or not, at least in terms of clicking on it.

Melanie Green, a social psychologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, said that while people told her they cared deeply, their emotional responses remain the same either way.

“It’s the same as movies or books,” she said. “We want to see something new, maybe escape our lives.”

Most embellished stories have little real-world consequence, but not all.

People donated US$60,000 to Tirado, based on her vivid description of a life of poverty, until she closed off donations (Gawker also suggested people stop giving her money.)

In an e-mail conversation last week, Tirado directed a reporter to seek her public assistance records and said that she thought people were “using this as an opportunity to avoid talking about the issues.”

She expressed no intention to return the money.

Zach Poitras, a Brooklyn comedy writer who wrote the Santa letter two years ago, said he felt he had been unfairly labeled as a hoaxer.

“I am not into pranking people,” he said.

He and friends began calling some of the Web sites that carried the Santa letter as soon as they saw it online.

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