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

By Ravi Somaiya and Leslie Kaufman  /  NY Times News Service

Sat, Dec 14, 2013 - Page 9

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.

“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.

“The real hoax,” he said, is that some journalistic Web sites can be lazy.

“No one called me,” he said. “They waited for the facts to come to them to correct.”