Going Viral at all Costs

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2013 has been the year of viral. Memes go viral, ideas go viral, sharing goes viral, and even well thought out, introspective journalism goes viral on occasion. But more often than not, what spreads like wildfire across the internet are a slew of half-truths, misreported stories, and even outright lies. According to Esquire contributor Luke O’Neil, this focus is damaging to journalism, and we’re all guilty of making things the way they are.

Many of us will have seen the photos of a snow covered Egypt and immediately shared them. Amateur climate scientists all across social media spoke about the effects of global climate change, of how man’s impact on the planet could put snow on the Pyramids. The problem is, the snow that happened in Egypt was rather paltry, and it didn’t coat any of the landmarks in the photos.

There was a nugget of truth in the hysteria, but it was blown entirely out of proportion. O’Neil writes “the photos were just another thoughtlessly processed and soon-forgotten item that represented our now-instinctual response to the unrelenting stream of information we’re subjected to every waking hour: Share first, ask questions later.”

This attitude goes a long way to explaining the popularity of Buzzfeed, Huffington Post and especially UpWorthy. They have a combined Facebook interaction count of almost 64 million likes and shares, in November of this year alone. The share rate on these articles is astronomical, considering that UpWorthy only released 225 articles in November, but they gained 16.77 million Facebook interactions.

O’Neil attributes these issues to the death of fact checking. Too many articles are being published, at too low a cost to have every one of them correctly fact checked. If the story takes too long to produce, everyone else already has it, and they published it during the buzz, not days (or weeks) later.

“Fact-checking has been outsourced to the readers,” writes O’Neil. “Not surprisingly—as we saw with the erroneous Reddit-spawned witch-hunt around the Boston Marathon bombing—readers are terrible at fact-checking.” When the story is happening right now, few check sources, or go after the truth, because UpWorthy and Buzzfeed package it so well, that it looks legitimate.

It’s not that this is a mistake. Viral is exactly that – it takes hold, and grows and morphs. The virality gets out ahead of the facts and then it’s not about facts anymore, it’s about the freight-train of shares and likes. While O’Neil isn’t despairing at the state of the internet, or users overall, he recognizes the core problem: “This is not a glitch in the system. It is the system.”

Image credit: Philip Taylor PT

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