Aimlessly wandering through my Facebook feed on the day after Thanksgiving, my interest, like that of 1 million others, was piqued by the headline "This Epic Note-Passing War On A Delayed Flight Won Thanksgiving."
To BuzzFeed I went to read the tweets of serial Internet hoaxster and The Bachelor producer Elan Gale describing a purported confrontation with a rude passenger on a delayed flight. Except it was all a hoax, posted by Gale perhaps for his own amusement.
As Slate's Dave Weigel noted on his personal blog:
"Elan Gale successfully hoaxed the Internet with a dumb, mean story. Buzzfeed fell for the hoax, with [BuzzFeed reporter Rachel] Zarrell tweeting at Gale to ask for an interview but never confirming anything about the flight. Any news organization should consider this a screw-up."
"It's not quite Lara Logan nodding like a parrot as her Benghazi source lies to her, but it's the sort of shoddy reporting that would get a reporter at a small newspaper fired. Imagine you worked at the Pleasantville News-Leader and you ran an A-1 story about a fight that never happened. It goes viral; it gets debunked. You think you're able to just walk away from that by mocking the haters?"
This incident highlights how the fundamental problem with the age of viral journalism is, for lack of a better phrase, the bulls#!t premium -- the perverse incentive to prioritize virality over truth.
Virality equals traffic, and traffic equals dollars and relevance. In the case of Gale's Thanksgiving hoax, everybody won -- the prankster got a laugh, BuzzFeed attracted 1.4 million visitors (1 percent of its monthly total), Zarrell earned her keep by driving traffic to the site, and visitors like me received a bit of entertainment.
But virality is driven by strong emotional resonance, black-and-white presentations of good and bad, and the "curiosity gap." (Not to mention pictures of cute animals doing funny things.) Meanwhile, the world operates in shades of gray, with a multiplicity of causes behind even the simplest of events. In short, the truth can be longwinded, boring, and often contains no pictures of cats. In that way, "virality and buzz" can be the enemy of truth.
Even worse, factually challenged articles can be a boon to news outlets. Newsweek's publication of an error-ridden cover story by Niall Ferguson on Barack Obama's economic policies drew attention not based on its content but, rather, on the intense criticism it received for its errors and omissions. A factual takedown by a principled conservative probably would have received little attention, but an article riddled with errors attracted valuable Web traffic.
Tina Brown, the magazine's editor at the time, justified Ferguson's article and other factually challenged covers by saying, "I have always felt that the covers are about a conversation. The covers become a conversation starter." It must have been a successful strategy because the publication repeated it in an essay on gun control by playwright David Mamet.
This is not a new trend. In 2006, after Talking Points Memo repeatedly dismantled flawed pieces by then-Associated Press reporter John Solomon that alleged corruption on the part of Harry Reid*, the AP gave the reporter a $500 award for "ownership of this high-profile story."
The bulls#!t premium is real and profitable. As Weigel concluded:
"[P]eople on the Internet want to believe salacious stories. Reporters want to publish stories that people read. If there's a great reward, and little downside, to be had in publishing bullshit, the Internet's going to get more bullshit. As one of my colleagues put it, "'Too good to check' used to be a warning to newspaper editors not to jump on bullshit stories. Now it's a business model."
* Disclosure: During this time, I worked for Reid and played a role in the pushback against these stories.