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Dec. 16, 2013, 2:19 p.m.
LINK: www.cbc.ca  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   December 16, 2013

CBC Radio’s Day 6 had a 14-minute story this weekend on the recent hubbub around hoaxes and viral media. (You may have seen the Times story on similar ground.) The hook here is the Elan Gale jerks-on-a-plane hoax.

cbc-logoI show up near the end of the piece, but the reason I’m linking is that it features an extended exchange with BuzzFeed’s Lisa Tozzi which is an interesting window into how the site thinks about its obligations toward verification. The show’s host, Brent Bambury, also has on a CBC staffer since the network (like the Times!) aggregated the story itself.

I think this is such a fascinating area; it really gets at how the game-of-telephone credibility chain works online. Something happens on social media; that gets aggregated on a BuzzFeed/Mashable/etc.; that then gets linked by the Times and CBC and other “respectable” media. Those outlets probably wouldn’t grab that sort of stuff from social media directly, but the viral-media middlemen do the job of packaging that makes it worth a link from the older guard. Media outlets have picked up stories from other media outlets for ages, in part because the fact that The Other Guy wrote about it lends it some credibility; it’s unclear how that standard should change when The Other Guy can have different ideas about verification.

It’s also interesting to think about what we really mean by “verification” here. In the radio piece, host Bambury slaps Tozzi and the CBC guy on the wrist for not doing more to “verify” Gale’s story. Talking to him on the phone or by email are thrown out as possible ways to do that. But how would that have helped? Gale was committed to lying in public here. It was a hoax! Much of what we talk about as “verification” of online media is really more like “increasing our estimation of the chances this is correct by 15 percent or so.” Again, that’s not completely new — much old-fashioned reporting isn’t really true “verification” either — but that phrasing encourages a very black/white view of online media.

One final point: Hoaxes are really hard to prevent. (Go read Joey Skaggs’ Wikipedia page for evidence.) If people are willing to fake documents and lie about facts — and it’s a story that isn’t of major importance — fake stories are going to get through. And if anything, a lot of hoaxes can get outed more quickly when millions more people have the ability to publish their skepticism online. Hoaxes are interesting to think about, but they’re also a bit of an edge case. When it comes to truth and knowledge and the Internet, there are bigger issues at play than Elan Gale’s Twitter performance art.

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