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The veracity of viral

“To a large degree, this is a discussion which only journalists, and maybe the occasional underemployed philosopher, could ever care about.”

2014 is going to be the year of a big debate about what news is — and especially about whether and how news organizations can ethically report on activity in the virtual world.

felix-salmonThe first time I saw this debate take place in public was in October, on Nick Denton’s Kinja commenting platform, where a fascinating conversation broke out between Denton, the founder of Gawker Media; John Cook, the editor of Gawker; and Neetzan Zimmerman, the viral wunderkind who singlehandedly generates most of Gawker’s traffic. Zimmerman had put up yet another of his dozen posts a day, all of which feature (which is to say, recycle) various pieces of content found on the internet. This post was headlined “Grandpa Writes Letter Disowning Daughter After She Disowns Gay Son,” and featured a letter which Zimmerman found on a gay-friendly t-shirt site named FCKH8.

Denton quickly jumped into the comments, saying there was something fishy about the way in which FCKH8 kept on finding such heartwarming letters; he also pointed out that the company’s founder, Luke Montgomery, has a long history of “stunts.”

Cook replied to Denton:

Part of our job is to make sure we’re writing about things that people are talking about on the internet, and the incentive structure of this company is organized to make sure that we are on top of things that are going viral. Neetzan is explicitly tasked with doing so. Unfortunately, that involves covering charlatans and bullshit artists, whether it’s Montgomery or Jimmy Kimmel

I’d rather be calling bullshit on stuff like this than calling attention to it…But we are tasked both with extending the legacy of what Gawker has always been — ruthless honesty — and be reliably and speedily on top of internet culture all while getting a shit-ton of traffic. Those goals are sometimes in tension.

Zimmerman, who’s surely one of the world’s greatest experts on viral content, then replied to them both, pointing out that the tension was even bigger than that:

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.

In other words, there’s things which are true on the internet — like that letter from a disappointed grandpa, or a video of a failed twerk. The Internet is getting increasingly good at generating such content — so good, indeed, that the bar is getting raised, and the chances of successfully viral content simply emerging naturally from the world are getting ever slimmer. There’s now so much fake content out there, much of it expertly engineered to go viral, that the probability of any given piece of viral content being fake has now become pretty high.

The result is stories like this one, in The New York Times, headlined “If a Story Is Viral, Truth May Be Taking a Beating,” which says that “digital news sites are increasingly blurring the line between fact and fiction”:

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…

…Gawker, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and Mashable among them — do not see invented viral tales as being completely at odds with the serious new content they publish alongside them.

The Times story even quotes Elan Gale, who hoaxed the internet with his Thanksgiving plane-ride tweets, saying that the people who embedded and Storified his tweets were “deceiving their audience” by doing so. The appeal of the moral high horse appears to be irresistible: Look at Dave Weigel, for instance, tearing into BuzzFeed for their rebroadcast of the Gale tweets, calling it “the sort of shoddy reporting that would get a reporter at a small newspaper fired.”

What Weigel misses — and even Gale too, it would seem — is that the BuzzFeed story is not a journalist reporting about happenings on a plane. “Someone is rude on a plane” is not a news story. The BuzzFeed story is rather a journalist reporting about happenings on the Internet — specifically, on Twitter. Here’s how BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti sees his publication:

I think of BuzzFeed as this platform that enables us to understand how people are sharing and distributing things like entertainment content, journalism, branded content, all these various types of content that we distribute on this platform that we built…

What we’ve found is that content spreads on different networks for different reasons. There are underlying human dynamics for social content. There are reasons why people share.

This is where the tensions come in: 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. That’s not a problem if you’re ViralNova, whose About page says “We aren’t a news source, we aren’t professional journalists, and we don’t care.” But it becomes a problem if you put yourself forward as practitioners of responsible journalism, as BuzzFeed does.

It has become abundantly clear over the course of 2013 that if you want to keep up in the traffic wars, you need to have viral content. News organizations want to keep up in the traffic wars, and so it behooves them to create viral content — Know More is a really good example. But the easiest and most infectious way to get enormous amounts of traffic is to simply share the stuff which is going to get shared anyway by other sites. Some of that content will bear close relation to real facts in the world; other posts won’t. And there are going to be strong financial pressures not to let that fact bother you very much.

Indeed, that fact doesn’t bother me very much. I very much love Analee Newitz’s “valley of ambiguity“:


It seems to me that if a site has a bunch of viral content, and some of it is on the left-hand side of the valley and some of it is on the right-hand side of the valley, then it’s entirely reasonable to apply journalistic strictures to the right-hand side but not to the left-hand side.

It’s also possible, if Facebook really does start cracking down on the left-hand side of this valley, that the incentive to create fake viral memes will naturally dissipate. But that’s not going to happen in 2014. So expect, over the course of the coming year, a large quantity of debate about questions like whether it even makes sense to fact-check a twerking video.

My undergraduate philosophy thesis was about the semantics of belief ascription, and the way in which “Lois Lane believes Superman can fly” is true, and “Lois Lane believes Clark Kent can fly” is false, even though Superman is Clark Kent. I think this debate is similar: When you point to a twerking video, are you pointing to the video, or are you pointing to the actions which take place in the video? BuzzFeed says it’s doing the first kind of pointing, which means that it’s true, while the likes of Dave Weigel see instead the second kind of pointing, which means that it’s false. To a large degree, this is a discussion which only journalists, and maybe the occasional underemployed philosopher, could ever care about. But it’s going to be hard to avoid in 2014.

Update: In fact, you can fact-check a twerking video.

Felix Salmon is the finance blogger at Reuters, where this piece also appears.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20