Even though the world wide web has made it easier than ever to disprove rumors and urban legends, there's still a lot of disinformation that goes viral thanks to the legions of people who will click "share" before checking to see if something is true.
November's feel-good viral hit of the month was "Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts," a blog post on Gawker's Kinja platform that attempts to explain the thought processes of people trapped in life-crushing poverty. It's a rambling, yet moving essay that touches on aspects of being poor that are not often considered while painting the portrait of a life in which every decision is tinged by exhaustion and lack of money:
"We will never feel hopeful. We will never get a vacation. Ever. We know that the very act of being poor guarantees that we will never not be poor. It doesn't give us much reason to improve ourselves. We don't apply for jobs because we know we can't afford to look nice enough to hold them."
The author, Linda Walther Tirado, set up a crowdfunding page after her post blew up. She's collected more than $60,000—enough to quit one of her jobs, get surgery to fix her fucked-up teeth (which she says have prevented her from getting desirable work), write a book, or build a nonprofit that would help people in poverty.
Except Linda, as tough as her life might be, isn't trapped in a hopeless mire of destitution stretching back decades, as you might infer from the essay. She attended private school as a kid (partly on scholarship), worked in politics, and "spent some time bouncing in and out of [college]." Her post now has a disclaimer at the bottom that says, "Not all of this piece is about me. That is why I said that they were observations. And this piece is not all of me: that is why I said that they were random observations rather than complete ones." She also claims on her GoFundMe page that we should understand that her piece "was taken out of context, that I never meant to say that all of these things were happening to me right now, or that I was still quite so abject." It's not clear what she means or what elements of her essay were actually about her, but the weirdness of the postscript disclaimer and the omitted facts (dude, maybe it's a problem when people reading your work are confused about what has happened to you and what hasn't?) has led to at least one writer accusing Linda of producing "poverty fan-fiction."
No matter what percentage of Linda's essay was true, the Facebook-friendly summary ("Woman in Dire Poverty Writes Beautifully About Her Personal Hell!") falls apart when you look at it closely, which isn't all that uncommon among stories that go viral. Most of the time, the things people are excited to share with their friends and "friends" on social networks are outright lies.
A story about people being assholes on airplanes that generated a lot of traffic for BuzzFeed before the guy behind it revealed it was a prank.
Look through your Facebook feed and chances are you'll find a bunch of half-truths, conspiracies, and chain letter–quality hoaxes sharing space with links to reputable news stories. In the past month, I've come across links to an article about Chinese people eating soup made of human fetus (a retread of an old racist rumor), a story about how former Liberian president Charles Taylor was a CIA agent (this one was actually reported by the Boston Globe, but later pretty much completely retracted), and a tale of a lesbian ex-Marine waitress who got stiffed on a tip by a homophobic couple (the couple now claims they gave her an ample tip; it's not clear who is lying or what is going on).
With the exception of that last story, it would have been pretty easy for the sharers to do a quick Google search and determine that the OMG or WTF item they were about to post was outdated or untrue. The whole point of the internet is that you have pretty much the sum total of human knowledge sitting at your fingertips! It takes TWO SECONDS to research the thing you are thinking about sharing and find out that the Daily Currant is a shitty satire site, or that there is no "Abortionplex," or that those "legal notices" your friends are posting on Facebook don't do anything—yet even journalists and others who should know better fall for this crap.
The problem is, you can look at the internet as a collection of random odds and ends that it is your job to curate—some of these things may be "truer" than others, but what's really important is whether you love or hate them enough to post them to the social website of your choice. Objective truth is a myth anyway, right? There's no reason to independently verify anything, and you don't have time for that, since all you're doing is clicking the "like" button and sending it into the internet. Voila, stuff like that viral fake MLK quote from two years ago is born.
Unwittingly posting some false information is forgivable, but when it happens over and over again on a large scale, it populates the internet with myths and rumors and makes it more difficult to wade through the murk in search of, for instance, what MLK actually said. And people's inclination toward blindly sharing whatever moves them at the moment has led to viral content being created, packaged, and spread without anyone ever questioning whether that content is full of lies.
You've likely come across one or more of ViralNova's posts—the site, created and run by an entrepreneur who's made a career of building traffic-magnet websites, republishes photos and stories from all over the web and gives them Facebook-friendly headlines like, "Half Way Through These Photos, I Could Barely Handle It. But I'm Glad I Made It to the End… Amazing." As with similar viral sites like BuzzFeed or Upworthy, everything ViralNova puts out is mind-blowing or heartbreaking or jaw-dropping. "A constant barrage of emotional highs," is how the Guardian's Oliver Burkeman describes it. Burkeman also notes that a bunch of the site is basically just hoaxes adapted from chain letters, like this letter about a dog whose owner had to give him up before he was shipped to Iraq.
ViralNova explicitly does not give a shit about truth. "We aren't a news source, we aren't professional journalists, and we don't care," says the site's about section. The people who share ViralNova's content don't care either. And when you're trying to build some traffic for your website by making some viral hits of your own, you have to cater to the internet's appetite for outrage and emotion—take the time to check something out and determine if it is BS and you'll lose valuable clicks. As the Wall Street Journal wrote in an article about Neetzan Zimmerman, Gawker's resident traffic machine, "When he can, Mr. Zimmerman tries to note when a story looks fishy and might harbor some ulterior motive. But telling the truth kills virality, reducing traffic." You might say it's the other way round: Virality kills truth.
Here's one more example: A few months ago, a couple people on my Facebook feed got alarmed by some news stories about Gilberton, Pennsylvania, a small town that was being "held hostage" by its chief of police, who was also the head of a right-wing militia. There was a "media blackout," which explained why the major networks weren't covering it, but nevertheless, residents were "asking the feds to intervene in fear of an armed revolt."
None of that was true. The town's only cop, Mark Kessler, had made some videos of him ranting about Obama and whatnot, the Gilberton city council suspended him for his inappropriate behavior, and Kessler's supporters responded with a pro–gun rights rally. But that version of small-town drama wasn't dramatic enough for the internet, so it was repackaged, with the details pulled from a conspiracy-minded website and laundered through enough semi-reputable blogs to fool some smart, but slightly credulous, people. All those articles about the phony siege of Gilberton are still online with no retraction notices—you can easily imagine them being stumbled upon again and revived by people who haven't read the pieces that contradict the original rumors.
There's no easy fix to the continual waves of disinformation flooding social media. Facebook could add a "flag as untrue" or "flag as rumor" button next to things posted by users, but that would likely get abused like the old "flag as inappropriate" button was. Bloggers and editors could spend more time verifying their information—but even some books by big-time journalists aren't properly fact-checked, so it's a little too much to ask StrugglingWebsite.org to make sure everything it runs is 100 percent accurate. We all have to get a little more skeptical about the links we come across on a day-to-day basis, which means assuming everything is a lie unless it's confirmed by multiple reputable sources. When something seems so outrageous and surprising that it couldn't be real, it's probably not.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.