Viral News: A Virus With Shoes
Viral news stories are a modern phenomenon. The rise of social media has allowed every one of us to pick up on interesting titbits (or “tidbits” if you’re American) and share them with our connections. We become more informed and well-rounded as human beings as a result. But there is a dark side.
We don’t check if they’re true.
Back in 2012, filmmaker Jason Russell released a film via the Invisible Children Inc. film company entitled Kony 2012, an investigation into Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his use of child soldiers. The stated aim of the film was to bring Kony into the international limelight and increase pressure on governments and the international community to find, arrest and punish him for his crimes. The video has had over 100 million views on YouTube and Time magazine labelled it “the most viral video ever”.
Kony 2012 also had its detractors, however. Many saw it as an over-simplification of the political realities, some classed it as a call for ‘slacktivism’ (the pejorative term for ‘”feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little physical or practical effect’, according to Wikipedia). The subsequent development of the story combined with director Jason Russell’s very public meltdown led to the Kony 2012 movement losing steam and eventually vanishing from the public consciousness well before the end of the year. Many people who had originally reposted the video felt that they had been tricked or taken advantage of, especially when it became clear that Invisible Children, Inc. were much more interested in producing flashy, expensive videos than engaging in any direct activism.
But did we learn?
No. Of course we didn’t. Last week, Twitter (at least in the UK) lit up with the news that beloved children’s TV presenter Tony Hart had died. The host of Vision On, Take Hart and Hartbeat was a regular feature on the BBC when I was growing up, so I was saddened to hear of his death. Last week, however, I wasn’t saddened so much as confused, as Hart actually died six years ago. This example of viral spreading can be traced to one person, who tweeted the message before realising his mistake and deleting it. By then, however, it was too late. Other well-wishers had picked up on the story and spread it all over social media.
We are, by and large, an incredulous society. We are deeply cynical about media outlets and public spokespeople. We often automatically distrust politicians, especially those from parties to which we have no loyalty, and tend to get our news and information from a few, carefully chosen sources.
Or rather, that’s how we like to see ourselves. In reality, any snippet of ‘news’ that confirms our biases, or makes us feel better about ourselves, or gives us an uncomplicated target to pour scorn on, all trigger the reward centres of our brains like ice cream and crack cocaine, leading us to share that story like it’s the biggest thing of the year. In addition, we like others to think well of us, so we share ‘human interest’ stories, links to charities, petitions that reflect our political ideals and videos of tiny hamsters eating tiny burritos. All because it makes us feel good.
Part of the problem is the way in which traditional media interacts with social media. Traditional media is the elder statesman to social media’s crack reporter. Social media is out there, uncovering new and interesting things, while traditional media is sat in the studio trying to make sense out of these things for the simple folk at home (that’s us in this analogy. Are you keeping up?) So, social media finds some articles about how the “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts (that were popular for half an hour at the tail-end of 2014) were made in sweatshops in Mauritius by women earning just 62p an hour. Traditional media (in this case, The Daily Mail) picked up on the story and used it to attack the celebrities and politicians who were wearing them, calling them hypocrites. To suggest that The Daily Mail has an ideological crusade against women would perhaps be going too far, but they certainly didn’t bother to do any fact-checking on this story. Other media outlets did, however, and it turns out that workers at the factory are paid higher than minimum wage, get overtime and have a union.
So why does this happen? Well, it goes back to what I was saying about getting information from trusted sources. If one of our friends shares a post that we find interesting, we assign the ‘trusted source’ label to them, even though they’re probably no more thorough in their fact-checking than you or The Daily Mail. We then share that post among our friends, some of whom will undoubtedly do the same as you. And there we are, a viral news story taking social media by storm, even if it is complete rubbish.
We can use this to our advantage though, can’t we? If we can find a way to tap into the part of the brain that makes people want to share things, we can get our message or our brand out there, and in unprecedented numbers. Well, yes. We can. And we do. But we must always remember what happens when a viral video goes wrong. It becomes toxic, actively poisoning our audience against us. In 2011, American Apparel decided to reach out to its audience to find their new ‘XL’ range model, asking for ‘bootylicious’ photos of size 12-14 (US sizes) women to be judged by public vote. Blogger Nancy Upton (a size 12, as you no doubt wanted to know) took a series of tongue-in-cheek shots of her eating stereotypically high calorie food in order to satirise the contest.
Can you guess what happened next?
Yes, she won. And American Apparel, in their wisdom, declined to offer her the prize, saying:
“It’s a shame that your project attempts to discredit the positive intentions of our challenge based on your personal distaste for our use of light-hearted language, and that “bootylicious” was too much for you to handle…
“While you were clearly the popular choice, we have decided to award the prizes to other contestants that we feel truly exemplify the idea of beauty inside and out, and whom we will be proud to have representing our company.”
Ouch. The backlash from this misstep helped lead to the eventual ousting of American apparel CEO and founder Dov Charney in December 2014.
So be careful. The viral nature of social media is a double edged sword at best. Is there a way to minimise the spreading of misinformation? Do we have the time to verify every article that we want to share? No, of course not. But there are sources out there that do the heavy lifting for us. Snopes.com was set up way back in the dark ages of 1995 as a way to explore and verify (or debunk) the vast tides of urban legends that swamp the internet. It has a solid reputation, even to the point of causing some hoax stories to add “verified by Snopes” to appear more trustworthy. More recently, a Columbia University project called Emergent has been set up to “[focus] on how unverified information and rumour are reported in the media. It aims to develop best practices for debunking misinformation”. It tracks rumours and viral stories on social media in real time, attempting to verify or debunk each one as quickly as possible. Check it out here.
What is the answer then? We need to be more discerning about what we share and believe, or maybe we just need to acknowledge that we don’t have the time to fact-check everything. I share maybe a dozen articles and links on social media every day and I certainly don’t check each and every one of them to ensure that they are true, nor do I want to. I want to be able to trust my sources until it is shown that they are untrustworthy. I, like everyone else, prefer sources that reflect my own biases and views, but that shouldn’t mean I am blind to their flaws. Let’s be a little more careful, shall we?