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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Report first, ask questions later: The trouble with viral stories

“It has to be true.  I read it on the Internet.”

How many times have you heard someone say that, or said it yourself?  Most always, this phrase is used in jest as a satirical or sarcastic was of casting doubt on something with dubious credibility.  Yet  stories go viral with great speed and little apparent fact-checking on sites that otherwise present themselves as credible news organizations.

Ravi Somaiya and Leslie Kaufman, writing for The New York Times, take a look at how the race to be first (and thus gain the most traffic) often comes at the expense of being factual.

Their creators describe them essentially as online performance art, never intended to be taken as fact. But to the media outlets that published them, they represented the lightning-in-a-bottle brew of emotion and entertainment that attracts readers and brings in lucrative advertising dollars.

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. “You are seeing news organizations say, ‘If it is happening on the Internet that’s our beat,’ ” said Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard. “The next step of figuring out whether it happened in real life is up to someone else.”

Read the entire article here.

Updated at 2pm 12.10.2013 to include…

Read a different take from Matthew Ingram at GigaOm here.

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