Truth has never been an essential ingredient of viral content on the Internet. But in the stepped-up competition for readers, digital news sites are increasingly blurring the line between fact and fiction, and saying that it is all part of doing business in the rough-and-tumble world of online journalism.
Several recent stories rocketing around the web, picking up millions of views, turned out to be fake or embellished: a Twitter tale of a Thanksgiving feud on a plane, later described by the writer as a short story; a child’s letter to Santa that detailed an Amazon.com link in crayon, but was actually written by a grown-up comedian in 2011; and an essay on poverty that prompted $60,000 in donations until it was revealed by its author to be impressionistic rather than strictly 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.”
The difference seems to be that the news organizations that published the recent pieces — Gawker, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and Mashable among them — do not see invented viral tales as being completely at odds with the serious new content they publish alongside them. The Huffington Post won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012, Gawker was among the first to report the cocaine use by Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford, and BuzzFeed is building teams of investigative and foreign correspondents. Of course, websites like these are not the only news organizations to be seduced by stories that are too good to be true. In just the last month, CBS’s venerable “60 Minutes” had to apologize for taking too credulously the claims of a security agent about the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.