Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content
How News Websites Spread (and Debunk) Online Rumors, Unverified Claims and Misinformation.
At the end of last year, Gawker editor Max Read published a memo outlining the strategy and priorities for the site in 2015.
“Already ankle-deep in smarmy bullshit and fake ‘viral’garbage, we are now standing at the edge of a gurgling swamp of it,”he wrote.
Read’s direction to staff was to avoid being yet another site rushing to post viral stories. The goal, he said, was to be “a trusted guide to the overwhelming new Internet, your escort through and over the bog of Facebook and Twitter, your calibration tool for the cycle of incident and outrage and parody social-media account. What’s actually happening here? Is this story news? Is that photo real?”
This strategy runs counter to the approach many news websites currently take when it comes to viral content, online rumors and unverified claims. They scour the web and social media for anything that might generate traffic, and work to get it up and promoted as a fast as possible. Verification and context are someone else’s job, should they choose to do it.
It’s a vicious-yet-familiar cycle: A claim makes its way to social media or elsewhere online. One or a few news sites choose to repeat it. Some employ headlines that declare the claim to be true to encourage sharing and clicks, while others use hedging language such as “reportedly.”Once given a stamp of credibility by the press, the claim is now primed for other news sites to follow-on and repeat it, pointing back to the earlier sites. Eventually its point of origin is obscured by a mass of interlinked news articles, few (if any) of which add reporting or context for the reader.
The above cycle presented itself time and again during the months I spent tracking and analyzing the way news sites handle online rumors and unverified claims. As detailed in a previous post about this project, I and research assistant Jocelyn Jurich identified rumors circulating in online media, and captured and analyzed them using the Emergent database and related public website. I also spoke with journalists, skeptics and others engaged in efforts to debunk online misinformation.
The result of this research is a Tow Center report published today, “Lies, Damn Lies, and Viral Content: How News Websites Spread (and Debunk) Online Rumors, unverified, Claims, and Misinformation.”
One key conclusion is that journalists are squandering much of the value of rumors and emerging news by moving too quickly and thoughtlessly to propagation. 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. The debunking efforts that do exist at news organizations are scattershot and are not rooted in best practices identified in previous research.
Rather than acting as a source of accurate information, online media frequently promote misinformation in an attempt to drive traffic and social engagement. The result is a situation where lies spread much farther than the truth, and news organizations play a powerful role in making this happen.
Some of the specific bad practices identified in the research include:
- Many news sites apply little or no basic verification to the claims they pass on. Instead, they rely on linking-out to other media reports, which themselves often only cite other media reports as well.
- Among other problems, this lack of verification makes journalists easy marks for hoaxsters and others who seek to gain credibility and traffic by getting the press to cite their claims and content.
- News organizations are inconsistent at best at following up on the rumors and claims they offer initial coverage. This is likely connected to the fact that they pass them on without adding reporting or value. Journalists jump fast, and frequently, to capture traffic. Then they move on.
- News organizations reporting rumors and unverified claims often do so in ways that bias the reader toward thinking the claim is true. The data collected using the Emergent database revealed that many news organizations pair an article about a rumor or unverified claim with a headline that declares it to be true. This is a fundamentally dishonest practice.
- News organizations utilize a range of hedging language and attribution formulations (“reportedly,”“claims,”etc.) to convey that information they are passing on is unverified. They frequently use headlines that express the unverified claim as a question (“Did a woman have a third breast added?”). However, research shows these subtleties result in misinformed audiences.
- News organizations that maintain higher standards for the content they aggregate and publish remain silent and restrained. They don’t jump on viral content and emerging news—but, generally, nor do they make a concerted effort to debunk or correct falsehoods or questionable claims.
This research has quantified many bad practices of online media. In doing so, it clearly articulates areas for improvement. I also believe it reveals a way forward where news organizations move to occupy the middle ground between mindless propagation and wordless restraint.
As evidenced by Read’s memo, there is an a opportunity for news sites and journalists to execute a strategy that involves examining, verifying and adding value to circulating content and claims.
Journalists today have an imperative—and an opportunity—to sift through the mass of content being created and shared in order to separate true from false, and to help the truth to spread. This report includes a set of specific and, where possible, data driven recommendations for how this anti-viral viral strategy can be executed.
My hope is that this report helps newsrooms see the bad practices that must be stopped, and to apply better strategies for reporting in our new world of emergent news.
Craig Silverman is a journalist-enterpreneur, author and media critic based in Montreal, Canada. Aside from his work with the Tow Center, he writes the Regret The Error blog, has edited the Verification Handbook, and launched Emergent.info.