The main goal of digital news websites is not actually to report news in a responsible manner, but to attract eyeballs and web traffic. Over the past decade, there has been a shift to prioritizing speed and clickable content as the Internet has become a main source of news and information. A new report by Craig Silverman of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University describes in clear detail how questionable and outrageous claims, rumors, and emotion grabbing stories are proven attention getters.
Lies, Damn Lies, and Viral Content: How news websites spread (and debunk) online rumors, unverified claims and misinformation was just published online and, since this is right up our alley here at Doubtful News, I read and digested what the report had to say. It even included a mention of my good self and this site based on an interview I had with Craig several months ago.
Words spread faster than at any time in the past, ever. We have “push button” propagation of news. Sadly, people don’t seem to share DN stories as much as those about a three-breasted woman. (It was a hoax, folks.) but skeptically addressing such claims plays a vital role. Other sites mentioned include whatstheharm.net and skepdic.com but the king of debunking sites is clearly snopes.com. Snopes has been around since I first discovered visual web browsers. To be “snoped” means that the appropriate Snopes page has been cited on a comment thread.
When facts are sparse, we fill it with speculation and rumor. Some news stories are ripe for exploitation. These “rumor bombs” contain strategic catchphrases (like “death panels”) that are vague and outrageous. They get widely circulated but are near impossible to debunk with facts. Even though they are confusing and unverified, they get propagated. Reporting the rumor bomb detonates it, Silverman says. The damage is done, regardless of the context in which you use it.
The value of viral stories is typically that they are funny, shocking, and grab your curiosity. Amazingly weird news is entertainment, providing a laugh or a moment of shared outrage. Falsehoods are, unfortunately more attractive to share. They meet more of our emotional needs and often are catching because they reinforce our beliefs (and don’t have to worry about pesky reality).
The worst offender noted by Silverman was NationalReport.net (on our NO GO TO list) He explains that this fake site, which contains no clear disclaimer that it is false, was an experiment by the originator to see how easy it was to manufacture news and have it take on a life of its own. It’s worked too well. Several stories that originated there were widely accepted as true then repeated by other sources with no checking that the source was completely bogus. See our No Go To list for other sources that often push dubiously-sourced news.
People build up their information in a cumulative fashion and far less often do a wholesale replacement of an idea with a corrected view. The original idea is so very hard to delete especially if it serves a personal purpose. That’s why denials or debunkings are often not effective. There is no incentive for sites to wait to get the real story when the initial rollout is the important attention-grabbing time. The “golden hour” of propagation is when there still remains the possibility that the outrageous tale is true. The public may even willfully pass on the unverified story in an effort to find out if it is true – what does everyone else think, how do they react. That simply reinforces the belief that it’s true, even if it turns out to be bogus. That’s the Backfire effect that is so hard to counteract. “Too good to check” used to be a red flag for a bullshit story, now, Silverman quoted a colleague, “It’s a business model”. Don’t kill the buzz.
Silverman demonstrates that the media banks on the viral stories sharp delivery. Overthinking and explanations will kill the viral potential, so say the web traffic experts. So, what results is a saturation of shallow “upworthy” and “buzzfeed” stories, while the smart, thoughtful look at the same subjects are ignored. It’s difficult to make corrections go viral like the original sensational story. Believe me, we KNOW. We will never be a Buzzfeed or Upworthy. I’m not too upset about that, actually.
Many sites resort to repeating a claim they find with no added evidence, actual reporting or informational value. The worst is simply screen-capped Twitter posts, which is getting more common even on major news sites. Just last week, several reputable news sites simply repeated the incredibly dumb story about a group of Bigfoots seen in Yellowstone. It was clearly people in the frame, nothing mysterious, and there was no reason to think otherwise. But for some unknown reason, this appeared in The Telegraph, National Geographic, and the Chicago Sun Times! None of these stories contained valuable content. The story was SO ridiculous, we even refused to cover it on DN. Why did they cover it? Because it was going viral and they wished to capitalize on the buzz. $imple.
The best future media scenario is for more reputable sites to follow up and clarify questionable claims. But they also should be very clear about unverified claims if they chose to touch them at all. A single source that originates a viral story can do massive damage. Just by touching the story, in whatever context, the media outlet increases the story’s value, adding undue credibility. Yes, even we do this. It’s a hard line to walk. We are choosing to NOT address many stories these days – from tabloids, about Bigfoot, silly ghosts and UFO sightings and exploitative bizarre reports. They don’t deserve our time and effort or your attention.
Discouragingly, misinformation continues to persist and propagate even after the explanation reveals it as false. IF it’s revealed as false, that is. There is a clear lack of updating and followup to these stories by the media outlets. The audience for the initial rumor is NOT the same as that of the correction and this disjointedness allows for those who originally digested and passed on the story to never hear what happened next. That’s why we see known hoaxes re-emerge every few months or years. They never die.
From the Debunking Handbook, referenced several times in this report, I learned a few techniques to make DN pieces more impactful. The number one debunking rule is to present an alternate theory. Maybe that will be the one that sticks for those who are still on the fence or open-minded. Presenting facts to combat the misinformation most often doesn’t work. It’s human nature to reject info that goes against our beliefs.
On the upside, there has been an uptick in the response to debunking. As mentioned in the report, this really caught on during Hurricane Sandy coverage when fake photos were rampant and widely believed. The Atlantic took to actively debunking the pictures and that became a HUGE story.
Of course, DN had been doing that sort of thing a while before that.
What we can and will try to do differently
Headlines are incredibly important. People read and retain the headline (and maybe nothing else). There is a very good chance they won’t read the article to see if the content explains or contradicts the message delivered in the headline. Often the content IS in conflict with the headline, which Silverman calls a “dishonest” practice. We will try not to make the headlines disingenuous and keep in mind that the headline is typically the only thing retained by the casual reader.
We will not use “UPDATE” in the headline. Instead, we will change the title of the piece if necessary and acknowledge the changed information in the text so not to propagate the incorrect version of the story.
We will attempt to be clearer about what is UNVERIFIED. In this, we plan to use Silverman’s online tool Emergent.info when appropriate.
We will try to follow up as many stories as possible. For this, we need your help. We greatly appreciate links to updates in the comments. This is so valuable! Now, you can play a huge part in exposing doubtful news.
In conclusion, this stuff is hard and we have made mistakes. It’s like pushing a rock up the hill every day and the next day, there are five more big rocks to push. There are only two of us doing this part-time the best we can. It clearly COULD be a full time job. We aren’t journalists, never claimed to be. We want to provide the extra evidence you won’t get in the standard media. We do not get revenue from web traffic so money is not a motive. Our goals are transparent – to educate and be a “smart filter in a world of questionable information” (p. 142, Lies). Is it worth it? We hope so. The good news is: smart people are catching on.