In 2013, news-item virality advanced from art to science. Business models are constructed on the sharing of stories irresistible for the hilarity, or inspiration, or shock, or outrage they engender. Truth, though, turns out to be optional. Bob speaks to blogger and journalist Luke O’Neil who took a look at this new internet information economy in an Esquire.com piece titled “The Year We Broke the Internet: An Explanation. An Apology. A Plea.”
BOB GARFIELD: With the emergence of such sites as BuzzFeed, Upworthy and ViralNova, in 2013 news item virality advanced from art to science. Business models are constructed on the sharing of stories irresistible for the hilarity or inspiration or shock or outrage they engender. Truth, however, turns out to be optional.
The year was chock-full of false, from the Reddit misidentification of Boston bombing suspects, to the scoop about Sarah Palin taking a job at Al Jazeera. That one was an Internet joke passed on, with no due diligence, by the Washington Post. Then there was the epic Twitter feud, apparently, between comedian Kyle Kinane and the Pace salsa company, a media-fueled tale of horrendous customer relations management and fired employees that transfixed the Internet.
That same Internet is self-correcting – the facts in every case were sorted out – but not before a lot of online journalists passed on a lot of bad information, not only without checking it but with an absolute incentive not to check it. Luke O’Neill is a freelance blogger and journalist who confronted the baloney economy in an esquire.com piece titled, “The Year We Broke the Internet: An Explanation, an Apology, a Plea.”
LUKE O’NEILL: What it really is, is a model that values clicks over anything else, page views, eyeballs. They just want to get you to look at the Post, whether or not there’s any sort of information whatsoever that you actually want to know.
BOB GARFIELD: And they want those clicks because a click equals cash.
LUKE O’NEILL: Right. In the media model we have now, for every unique visitor, for every click, that’s the way you monetize those with advertisements.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, understood. But if you look at the categories that sites like BuzzFeed have identified as the most clickable, you see funny, inspiring, cute –
LUKE O’NEILL: Mm-hmm –
BOB GARFIELD: - infuriating, and so on, more or less the same list that, let’s say, print tabloids have used forever to amuse their readers. So what's different now?
LUKE O’NEILL: The difference is, is that this model has infected what you might call the more serious news media. Traditional publications have had their struggles trying to figure out the Internet, and now we’re seeing sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy who have sort of cracked the code. And the sad fact is that the things that get shared the most tend to be things that are rather frivolous, and oftentimes many of them don't even end up being true. But that doesn't even really seem to matter anymore.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, dude, you are not merely a dismayed observer here. Your article in esquire.com was also a confession. You, yourself, admit to greedily passing along whatever item you think will be share-worthy without doing much fact checking more any fact checking at all.
LUKE O’NEILL: My hands are certainly not completely clean in this matter. There was a story a couple of weeks ago about Lars von Triers’ Nymphomaniac trailer being shown before a showing of Disney's Frozen to a theater of children. [LAUGHS] And I thought, well, this is gonna be a hit.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Great story, too good to check.
LUKE O’NEILL: Exactly! I didn’t call the movie theater to double check if it actually happened. I haven’t done anything that I know to be false, but there have been a few things that were too good to check.
BOB GARFIELD: So what you’re describing, Luke, is the quintessential perfect storm. The writers need to post a crazy lot just to make a living. The publications need to generate clicks. That's where its revenue comes from. You throw in plain journalistic laziness and human nature, an undiscriminating audience that just wants to be titillated or whatever. The convergence of these elements, clearly, if your story is right, overwhelms any commitment to truth.
LUKE O’NEILL: I think that's exactly what happens. And as someone who's written for newspapers for many years, I know that if you make a small mistake in a printed newspaper, like the Boston Globe, where I’ve contributed for a long time, they are not happy about that, even if it's something that doesn't matter.
And I think that these big viral sites, they don't have that sort of standards in place. Like consider the headline stylethat has become so prevalent this year, like this one cat that will restore your faith in humanity or, you know, these 10 ice cream cones that’ll make you want to believe in God. It’s all based on hyperbole and exaggeration. The entire interaction is starting off on a falsehood.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, whether a salsa feud is real isn’t exactly a high-stakes proposition. But looking at that environment, you kind of extrapolate. And you see a real catastrophe on the horizon.
LUKE O’NEILL: These stores, they’re sort of body blows to our skepticism immune system, and eventually we’re going to lose our ability to tell what’s real or not, and it’s going to have some real-world consequences. For example, there was the recent story about the elementary school in California that was getting flooded with threats because of a satirical news story about a child being suspended for saying Merry Christmas to an atheist teacher. That’s one example of the ways this sort of model can have real-world consequences.
People see something online and they get fired up about it because it was designed to make you fired up, so you would share it. Something like that, one of these days, is going to actually spill over into real-world violence.
BOB GARFIELD: In your piece, I think you kind of buried the lead. About halfway through, there is the following passage. I’m quoting you. “This is not a glitch in the system. It is the system. Readers are gullible. The media is feckless. Garbage is circulated around. And everyone goes to bed happy and fed.”
You know, putting aside the future of BuzzFeed, for a second, what does this tell us about the future of arm's length journalism?
LUKE O’NEILL: That’s obviously clearly the biggest problem because we are literally rewarded for sharing things that people want to read, which I think is the opposite of the job of a journalist. I think a journalist’s job is to write about things that people don't want to read or that someone doesn't want you to read. Everything else, as the old saying goes, “is just advertising.” Instead of telling a story that needs to be told, we’re thinking about how to tell something that people are going to want to read and going to want to share.
What’s worse is that every time we do it successfully, a lot of people who produce content like this, they’re rewarded with page views bonuses, and so it encourages the young media producer to seek out things that are going to go viral, as opposed to things that are true or need to be told.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you one more thing before I jump out the window.
LUKE O’NEILL: Oh – [CHUCKLES]
BOB GARFIELD: Can I take any heart in the fact that your piece bemoaning big viral went – viral big? Does that offer any hope? Please say yes, please?
LUKE O’NEILL: [LAUGHS] It does seem to have gone viral, but it’s still a small drop in the bucket compared to how many people are gonna share one of these stupid viral stupid viral stories. I think it is heartening that it struck such a chord with so many members of the media, and it seems like it's really something that everyone seems to be able to agree is a problem. I don't know necessarily what the solution is. Maybe wait five minutes before you press Publish, even something as small as that seems like it could have a positive effect.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Luke, thanks so much.
LUKE O’NEILL: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Luke O’Neill is a freelance journalist and blogger who contributes to the Boston Globe, Esquire, Slate and many others. And most of it is - probably true.