Who Cares If It’s True: It’s About the Money

I did not intend to write this blog when I sat down at my computer this morning, but a story in today’s New York Times caught my attention.  Ravi Somaiya and Leslie Kaufman have an interesting piece, “If A Story Is Viral, Truth May Be Taking A Beating,” that details several recent instances of stories going viral on the internet that weren’t true, but were published anyway.

A story about a Thanksgiving feud on a plane, a child’s letter to Santa, and an essay on poverty went ballistic on the internet.  However, none was true.  Nonetheless, the clicks kept on coming.  Editors at The Huffington Post, Gawker, BuzzFeed and elsewhere freely acknowledge that fact checking is not their top priority – if it stirs interest and generates traffic, publish it and worry about the consequences only if necessary.

Why does this bother me?  With a cadre of followers numbering in the tens (and grateful for those, I might add) why not go with the flow and do some embellishment around the edges to perk my posts and increase readership?  I suppose I could, but this is not a venue to tell stories.  I guess this could be a place to tell a few whoppers, if they are labeled as such, but for now, I think not.

As of yet I have not been able to monetize my writings on this blog, and if the past is a predictor of the future… well you get the picture.  Given my penchant for asking questions that don’t have simple answers and relying on data to support my contentions, I have accepted a standard unlikely to produce viral recognition, such as the classic UTube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJQM5xBaRXI) of four Welsh corgis barking “Happy Birthday” for the Queen.

Internet news outlets are faced with a daunting task, balancing what is culturally current and trendy with stories that are well documented and fact checked. In this battle, too often quick and dirty wins. Why?  It is about the money.  Clicks on a website are a direct measure of a web site’s visibility and that is what marketing is all about.  Although extremely annoying, the ads pay the bills.  It makes no difference if the content of the website is real or imagined, a click is a click.  The rule of thumb has become when in doubt publish and worry about a retraction later.  No matter if correct or not, you have still scored the hits.

Actually, the odds are that most of the marginal information will be sorted out in the end, but the corrections and retractions take time and rarely register on the average internet visitor’s radar.  So long as the benefits of being sloppy and loose with the truth outweigh the costs of retraction and loss of reputation, it is virtually certain that more fantasy will be passed off as reality.

What would reduce the tendency to publish now and retract later, and then only if challenged?  If a story was proven incorrect or overstated, a mechanism could deduct those hits from the website’s scorecard.  Actually, to make it fair, a penalty of 10 times of the number of hits on false stories would impose a cost that might make fact checking more viable.  Alas, that is not the case, so there is every incentive to push out titillating, sensational junk and reap the rewards ASAP.

I am an anthropologist by training and find humans to be immensely interesting and a constant source of wonder.  In this blog I want to address topics that are timely, anthropologically interesting, and occasionally, humorous.  It is important to remind readers about the rules of publishing on the internet, and their marked contrast to true journalism.  I am not a journalist, but I do appreciate good journalism.  I hope that those who read this do as well.

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EO Smith

Interests include biological anthropology, evolution, social behavior, and human behavior. Conducted field research in the Tana River National Primate Reserve, Kenya and on Angaur, Palau, Micronesia, as well as research with captive nonhuman primates at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and the Institute for Primate Research, National Museums of Kenya.
EO Smith
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