The viral content problem: Many people don’t care whether it’s true or not

Craig Silverman, the author of a book about journalism and fact-checking called Regret The Error and a column by the same name at the Poynter Institute, has come out with a major report on the problem of online hoaxes and misinformation, a study he did for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. It is an impressive survey of how the desire for pageviews and online “engagement” compels many online media outlets and even individual journalists to distribute untrue or dubious content.

In the pre-amble to his report, Craig (who I should note is a friend) points out that while we usually expect news organizations to disseminate “quality, accurate information” about the world around us, many media companies — and not just digital upstarts but traditional ones as well — persist in distributing questionable information, even when they likely know it is false:

“News websites dedicate far more time and resources to propagating questionable and often false claims than they do working to verify and/or debunk viral content and online rumors. Rather than acting as a source of accurate information, online media frequently promote misinformation in an attempt to drive traffic and social engagement.”

A human need to share

Recent examples of hoaxes are legion, and many of them have been debunked on a site that Craig started called Emergent.info — an attempt to create a kind of crowdsourced verification engine that can latch onto hoaxes and determine quickly whether they are true or not. From snow on the pyramids in Egypt to a woman who allegedly had three breasts, every month or so seems to spawn a fresh batch of questionable news reports, many of which show up on some of the leading news websites such as CNN and even Reuters.

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As Craig notes in his report (which I encourage you to read if you care about this topic), hoaxes and rumors are not new to journalism — there have been outlets that specialize in that for as long as there have been newspapers, whether it’s the British tabloids or the National Enquirer. But a combination of factors have led to an explosion of misinformation, including the rise of the social web and the 24-hour news cycle. Silverman uses the example of the disappearance of Malaysian flight 370:

“The drive to fill the empty space with something — particularly on cable news — was partly human nature, and also partly dependent on the need to meet the public’s insatiable demand for information. All of us — journalists and the public — sought to understand what had happened. But facts were sparse. So we engaged in collective sensemaking and rumor propagation to fill the void.”

Fake news goes viral

In effect, we are all CNN now: Every website that wants to attract an audience, no matter how large or how small, feels the overwhelming pressure to be first with a news report — regardless of how questionable it might be. And the more salacious or titillating that report is, the more likely an editor is to hit the publish button, and to hide his or her doubts behind a question-mark headline or the phrase “reports say.”

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Occasionally, the tension between wanting to be first with a report that people might click on and wanting to be accurate bursts out into the open, as it did in 2013 during a conversation between Gawker founder Nick Denton and one of his then-writers, viral specialist Neetzan Zimmerman — who at the time was responsible for posts that drove tens of millions of unique visitors to the site, by reporting on whatever was going viral on dozens of social networks. At one point, Zimmerman says:

“Most viral content demands from its audience a certain suspension of disbelief. The fact is that viral content warehouses like BuzzFeed trade in unverifiable schmaltz exactly because that is the kind of content that goes viral. People don’t look to these stories for hard facts and shoe-leather reporting. They look to them for fleeting instances of joy or comfort. That is the part they play in the Internet news hole.”

Who cares if it’s true?

As part of his report, Silverman talks about the psychology behind why we all participate in distributing hoaxes and rumors and questionable information — and we definitely all do it, even journalists. I freely confess that I have retweeted news stories or headlines or reports that I haven’t verified, even though I am regularly humiliated for having done so when they turn out not to be true. Usually it’s because I am in a hurry, and the report seems so interesting or believable that I don’t bother to check.

In many cases, we re-publish and distribute these reports because on some level we want them to be true. We want to believe that a woman who posed for a photo in Iraq with a rifle is single-handedly leading a battalion against the forces of ISIS. Why? Because it would make a great story. And that’s why the single best advice for journalists or anyone else is “If it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t.”

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In other cases, however — and I would argue that this is a much larger problem than media companies redistributing false information or questionable reports — the vast majority of people simply don’t care whether a report is true or not. They are going to share it anyway, because it is funny, or touching, or creepy, or disturbing. In other words, it sparks some kind of human emotion. Fusion writer and former Reuters columnist Felix Salmon described this well in a piece he wrote in 2013:

“The reasons that people share basically have nothing to do with whether or not the thing being shared is true. If your company was built from day one to produce stuff which people want to share, then that will always end up including certain things which aren’t true.”

The lines have blurred

This is the one big issue with attempts at crowdsourced verification, whether it’s Emergent.info or Facebook’s recent announcement that it is trying to crack down on hoaxes that get spread via the social network: Facebook’s attempt in particular relies on people to click a button and flag something as a potential hoax — but most people are never going to do this, not just because it takes effort on their part, but because they may not even care whether the report is true or not. They will share it anyway.

In the old days, when media came to us via certain distinct channels — a newspaper, a TV network, a magazine, etc. — it was easy to distinguish fact from entertainment, or gossip and rumor from the truth. Certain outlets could be trusted, and others couldn’t. But now, the media we consume comes at us from all directions, after being shared and re-shared, and the original source isn’t always obvious. And factual news content blurs into entertainment content until everything looks the same.

In effect, we are all engaged in trying to figure out whom to trust and when, and the barriers between us and the sausage-making process known as journalism have been largely removed. That means it’s not just up to media organizations to fix this problem, although they definitely play a major role — it’s up to all of us as news consumers.

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