Twitter is so popular because people can publish quick musings and observations in real time. The issue with journalism via Twitter is that people assume often assume a level of scrupulousness from those they choose to follow. The age-old lesson of “you can’t believe everything you read” especially rings true when literally anyone can post their unsolicited opinions on the internet.
Ever since news became digitized, the speed at which articles were published became even more paramount because when the internet moves at the speed of light, every second counts. Unfortunately for online news distributors, credibility is the casualty of instant information. In an era where clicks translate into potential revenue and viral online content is published to attract more traffic, fact checking has fallen by the wayside.
- GREAT STORIES ARE SOMETIMES THAT – JUST STORIES
Twitter’s “favorite” and “retweet” functions serve as a reward system to Twitter users for their interesting and funny tweets. Tweeters trying to milk an extra favorite or two might be incentivized to stretch the accuracy of their tweets, especially because there is frequently no one around to confirm a tweet’s accuracy.
One example of fictitious tweets being portrayed as fact was when TV producer Elan Gale “live-tweeted” a supposed passive-aggressive altercation between him and “Diane,” a very obnoxious woman on his flight to Phoenix this past Thanksgiving. The narrative gave his 160,000+ followers a look at Diane, her antics, her mouth-breathing, and the notes they exchanged between each other during the flight. Gale’s story was eventually picked up by popular online news sites like the Huffington Post, among others, who applauded Gale standing up to obnoxious travelers who ruin the experiences of others.
“Our flight is delayed. A woman on here is very upset because she has Thanksgiving plans. She is the only one obviously. Praying for her” – @theyearofelan, 28 Nov 2013
“She’s telling the flight attendants that it is Thanksgiving. She wants them to know she wants to have dinner with her family” – @theyearofelan, 28 Nov 2013
“She has a connecting flight. Why doesn’t anyone understand she has a connecting flight? Why do people not understand her needs?” – @theyearofelan, 28 Nov 2013
Three days after the HuffPost article caught fire, Gale came clean and admitted that “Diana” (yes, note the change of spelling) was merely a figment of his imagination. He was not sued by someone who swore they thought his story was real – he was not liable for anything since he was not violating any of the Twitter rules. One cannot make any threats or impersonations, but users are allowed to write short stories about themselves. The Huffington Post similarly was not liable for presenting Gale’s story as fact and all they had to do was place an update at the top of their original article that linked to Gale’s tweet revealing the jig was up.
- BUZZFEED GETTING ITS ACT TOGETHER
BuzzFeed, the extremely popular purveyor of viral content was one of the biggest culprits of promoting viral web content that was not fact checked. The result was a tarnished reputation in journalism, especially in the eyes of old school journalists who operate outside of cyberspace. As BuzzFeed grew from ambitious startup into an internet heavyweight, its management knew that the truthfulness of its content needed to improve. While the business needs more writers for its popular lists and compilations of pet .gifs, BuzzFeed is also hiring copy editors for the first time, so as to cement the BuzzFeed name in the forefront of modern journalism.
- WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Even with websites that greatly profit from spreading viral content (like BuzzFeed) taking new strides to improve the quality of their articles, there is still little control of quality (ask critics of viral news sources) on the online community. In an increasingly competitive market for the short attention spans of most internet users, speed trumps a thorough fact check. A division emerges between real and online communities, as plagiarism and unscrupulous behavior is still rampant on the web, thanks to the inherent anonymity and the convenience of a computer’s copy/paste functions. Web users do not sign an Honor Code like at Davidson, so the validity of viral news content must be taken with a grain of salt.
Elan Gale @theyearofelan on Twitter. Twitter.com/theyearofelan
“Elan Gale’s Viral Airplane Twitter Fight Might Have Been a Hoax.” Huffington Post. Accessed January 25 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/03/elan-gale-hoax-twitter-airplane-fight-diane_n_4378149.html?1386091071.
Fisher, Marc. “Who Cares if it’s True? Modern day newsrooms reconsider their values.” Columbia Journalism Review. Accessed January 25, 2015. http://www.cjr.org/cover_story/who_cares_if_its_true.php?page=all
Somyia, Ravi, “If a Story is Viral, the Truth May Take a Beating.” New York Times. Accessed January 25, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/10/business/media/if-a-story-is-viral-truth-may-be-taking-a-beating.html?adxnnl=1&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1422234007-0stP0HNLbDmHuj9BF5vWsg