I love this opening line in a story in the New York Times earlier this week...
"Truth has never been an essential ingredient of viral content on the Internet."
The article by Ravi Somaya and Leslie Kaufman takes a look at several recent stories that have gone viral in a big way, shooting around the web, propelled even faster by pickup in news aggregator sites like The Huffington Post, Gawker, BuzzFeed and Mashable. These stories, all turning out to be either total fiction or major embellishments of truth, included one about a Thanksgiving feud on a recent airline flight, a letter supposedly from a child to Santa, and an essay on poverty that drew $60,000 in donations before the author admitted it was not exactly true. (The writer of the poverty story reportedly said she has no intention of returning any of the donations she received.)
How can these false stories get such widespread play online, each garnering views in the millions? The Times story gives some interesting insights into how and why this can happen again and again.
Many of the online sites don't have fact checkers. Those that do have people stretched too thin to fact check every item the site reposts. Even legitimate and respected news organizations like the broadcast networks and CNN fell victim to a clever prank pulled by Jimmy Kimmel a few months ago, where he reported on a YouTube clip of a woman twerking and accidentally setting herself on fire. It turned out to be a gag by Kimmel's people, but after it went viral and was reported by major media, it ended up with more than 10 million views.
And that's part of the problem. Lots of views. The supposed importance of sites is based on how many views they get, which impacts the rates they can charge advertisers. The battle for numbers of views too often overrides the authenticity of the content they carry.
The editor of Gawker acknowledges in The Times story that there are trade-offs in balancing authenticity with the need to move quickly in this highly-interconnected society where everyone wants to be first with information. And an editor at The Huffington Post told The Times, "If you throw something up without fact-checking and you're the first 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."
Yes, the incentives are all wrong. I suppose it's not unlike some media that feed on gruesome murder stories. Even if the info is off, the media still get the viewers or sell copies of the paper.
I've referred in the past to the internet as the wild, wild west, where there are few rules. So the caveat remains... Don't believe everything you see online.