The Internet Is Monetizing Lies and I Am Mostly Out of Outrage

Tuesday, December 03, 2013 - 12:14 PM

So that Diane story, about a guy proudly live tweeting his bullying of an upset airline passenger, has turned out to be a fraud. 

Likewise, this week's story of a showdown between an out-of-control Twitter account for salsa company Pace Picante and comedian Kyle Kinane is also fake. 

I have to say, as a person happily condemned to read the internet all day and follow most of these stories, my feelings are ambivalent.

Two of the sites I read most, Buzzfeed and Gawker, are a strange hybrid of incredibly smart, skeptical reporting paired with very credulous broadcasts of viral stories. Gawker, for instance, pairs John Cook's smart, angry political exposes alongside too-good-to-fact-check heartstring-tuggers by Neetzan Zimmerman. The Zimmerman posts bring in the traffic, and if they periodically turn out to be untrue, well, correct them with an "Update" and trust people to forgive you. After all, we're all adults and we all know viral stories should be taken with a shaker of salt. 

And Buzzfeed's similar.  They reap monstrous traffic from stories like the Diane Twitter hoax (and, ironically, from their story exposing it as a hoax), but their Bureau of Credulous Viral Reporting underwrites a ton of stellar tech and politics and internet culture reporting

If you don't mind all this too much, you can make the historical argument: light fare has always supported serious stuff in journalism. You can't have front page investigative reporting without the funny pages. But there's difference between running some Dilbert cartoons and intermixing real, reported stories with fake soap operas cooked up by people who are bored on Twitter.

Or maybe there isn't! Maybe we just need to become comfortable allocating trust in individual writers rather than across entire outlets, which I suspect is what a lot of readers are already doing. 

The other facet of this is that, frankly, I have outrage fatigue. I could spend every week being mad about a new viral fiction I've been told and half-believed, or I can just accept that these stories are the modern equivalent of folklore. I can choose to treat these hoaxes as pieces of culture rather than pieces of reporting, as vessels by which we transmit values and fend off boredom. 

If that's true, then they're still worth paying attention to, and it's still ok to selectively get mad at them. As with any piece of culture, we're allowed to like some manipulations and dislike others. I can loathe that Diane story, not so much because it's fake, but because it asks us to celebrate a guy who tells a woman to "eat his dick" on an airplane. 

All this to say, we're working on a new podcast episode that we hope to have for you tonight or tomorrow. We spoke to one of these perpetrators of a viral hoax that we actually enjoyed being fooled by, that aforementioned Pace Picante story. We talked to him both to get the particulars of what happened, but also to keep picking away at this bigger question: why we like some lies and loathe others. 

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Comments [3]

Nicky

While we're at it, don't forget about the recent Dayna Morales saga: http://www.today.com/news/couple-claims-they-tipped-gay-waitress-did-not-leave-note-2D11657476

Dec. 03 2013 09:21 PM
Alex from San Diego

I'd argue that the phenomenon long predates the internet. 19th C newspapers were full of the same kind of "viral stories" and "fake soap operas" that were slim on verifiable details. It's the mass media itself, in all its varieties, that monetizes lies -- the need to attract bigger and bigger audiences, to get eyeballs on the page, or on the screen.

"Objective journalism" became popular in the early 20th C. Though in a way it's adoption was part of a market strategy led by a select few papers to differentiate themselves from the majority of the papers that relied heavily on the viral (often hoax) stories.

But the objective journalism model doesn't seem to work too well on the internet. At least, not if you want to make money. So we've seen a return to the 19th C "don't ask too many questions if the story is interesting" model of journalism.

Dec. 03 2013 05:06 PM
Robert DeStefano from Swansea, Wales, UK

Part of the problem is that we have, as a culture, lost the ability to reflect. We no longer consider process or take time to ponder and consider. I did not know about any of the hoaxes that you mentioned simply because I simply do not care what someone says on Twitter. If it is worthy of report, it will get reported by the myriad alternative news sites to which I subscribe. I'll gladly wait the three days until someone properly investigates and reports. I lose nothing from doing that. Besides, my life is too full to be wasting time on Twitter all day long.

I so enjoy your writing and appreciate your commentary. But don't despair, my friend. As a shrink, I work with ordinary people in some degree of crisis every day and I can assure you that none of them are concerned about the spate of hoaxes on Twitter.

Dec. 03 2013 04:00 PM

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. You can subscribe to our podcast here. You can follow our blog here. We’re also on Twitter, and we play Team Fortress 2 more or less constantly, so find us there if you like to communicate via computer games from six years ago.

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