The viral content problem: Many people don’t care whether it’s true


Credit: Sadeugra/iStock

Craig Silverman, the author of a book about journalism and fact-checking called Regret The Error and a column by the same name at the Poynter Institute, has come out with a major report on the problem of online hoaxes and misinformation, a study he did for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. It is an impressive survey of how the desire for pageviews and online “engagement” compels many online media outlets to distribute fake news.

In the pre-amble to his report, Craig (who I should note is a friend) points out that while we usually expect news organizations to disseminate “quality, accurate information” about the world around us, many media companies — and not just digital upstarts but traditional ones — persist in distributing questionable information, even when they suspect it is false:

A human need to share

Recent examples of hoaxes are legion, and many of them have been debunked on a site that Craig started called — an attempt to create a kind of crowdsourced verification engine that can latch onto hoaxes and determine quickly whether they are true or not. From snow on the pyramids in Egypt to a woman who allegedly had three breasts, every month or so seems to spawn a fresh batch of questionable news reports, many of which show up on some of the leading news websites such as CNN and even Reuters.


As Craig notes in his report (which I encourage you to read if you care about this topic), hoaxes and rumors are not new to journalism — there have been outlets that specialize in that for as long as there have been newspapers, whether it’s the British tabloids or the National Enquirer. But a combination of factors have led to the explosion of misinformation we see all around us, including the rise of the social web and the 24-hour news cycle. Silverman uses the example of the disappearance of Malaysian flight 370:

Fake news goes viral

In effect, we are all CNN now: Every website that wants to attract an audience, no matter how large or how small, feels the overwhelming pressure to be first with a news report — regardless of how questionable it might be. And the more salacious or titillating that report is, the more likely an editor is to hit the publish button, and to hide his or her doubts behind a question-mark headline or the phrase “reports say.” And then many of those sites will double down on this strategy by running stories about how their initial reports were false.

newspaper boxes

Occasionally, the tension between wanting to be first with a report that people might click on and wanting to be accurate bursts out into the open. In his report, Silverman mentions a discussion in 2013 between Gawker founder Nick Denton and one of his then-writers, viral specialist Neetzan Zimmerman — who at the time was responsible for posts that drove tens of millions of unique visitors to the site, by reporting on whatever was going viral on dozens of social networks. At one point, Zimmerman says:

Who cares if it’s true?

As part of his report, Silverman talks about the psychology behind why we all participate in distributing hoaxes and rumors and questionable information — and we definitely all do it, even journalists. I freely confess that I have retweeted news stories or headlines or reports that I haven’t verified, even though I am regularly humiliated for doing so. Usually it’s because I am in a hurry, and the report seems so interesting that I don’t bother to check.

In many cases, we re-publish and distribute these reports because on some level we want them to be true. We want to believe that a woman who posed for a photo in Iraq with a rifle is single-handedly leading a battalion against the forces of ISIS. Why? Because it would make a great story. And that’s why the single best advice for journalists — or anyone else, for that matter — when it comes to news is “If it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t.”

This photo posted to Twitter shows the so-called Angel of Kobane, who allegedly killed hundreds of ISIS soldiers -- reports that have since been discredited

This photo shows a female fighter known as the Angel of Kobane, who allegedly killed hundreds of ISIS soldiers

In other cases, however — and I would argue that this is a much larger problem than media companies redistributing false information — the vast majority of people simply don’t care whether a report is true or not. They are going to share it anyway, because it is funny, or touching, or creepy, or disturbing. In other words, it sparks some kind of human emotion. Fusion writer and former Reuters columnist Felix Salmon described this well in a piece he wrote in 2013:

The lines have blurred

This is the one big issue with attempts at crowdsourced verification, whether it’s or Facebook’s recent announcement that it is trying to crack down on hoaxes that get spread via the social network: Facebook’s attempt in particular relies on people to click a button and flag something as a potential hoax — but most people are never going to do this, not just because it takes effort on their part, but because they probably don’t even care whether the report is true or not. They will share it anyway.

In the old days, when media came to us via certain distinct channels — a newspaper, a TV network — it was easy to distinguish fact from entertainment, or gossip from truth. Certain outlets could be trusted, and others couldn’t. But now, the media we consume comes at us from all directions, and the original source isn’t always obvious. And factual news content blurs into entertainment content until everything looks the same.

In effect, we are all trying to figure out whom to trust and when, and the barriers between us and the sausage-making process known as journalism have been removed. That means it’s not just up to media organizations to fix this problem — although they definitely play a major role — it’s up to all of us as news consumers.


Samuel Coffie

very interesting perspective, i guess if it seems too good to be true, then there is a catch to it..


“If it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t.” Is this what you meant? Or did you meant, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” – meaning, if it is too good to be true, then it is too good to be true….?


Nothing is mentioned about the deliberate use of propaganda and disinformation. We are flooded with war propaganda, daily, much of it questionable to false. That’s what my blog has focused on.


Historically the spread of false content, which even prestigious news outlets have repeated without fact checking, has been the special prerogative of governments. (WMD in Iraq? Gulf of Tonkin incident?)

Now that information sharing is increasingly decentralized and there are fewer gatekeepers, more can get in on the act.


“And that’s why the single best advice for journalists…“If it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t.””

How ironic :). The saying actually goes ‘If it seems too good to be true, it probably IS’.

To City News

I started a news checking source that connects to local city news stations around the country. There are so many horrific stories that don’t hit the mainstream that, as a break, I have to look for some three breasted stories to take me away from the reality of it all.


I believe that we are facing a sharing era, but we are unprepared for it as a society. The number of stupid news I read every day on my social profiles is astounding, and it let me to reduce the number of my contacts to an absolute minimum. I rather add pages I consider worthwhile, while constantly monitoring their efforts. Lately, there have been a surge of pages (especially on FB) which focus on the correction of the mistakes. I still hope there will be a better education in the media and internet for our youngest, who are fully integrated to the new era technologically, but still completely unaware of the possible consequences of big media scams and hoaxes. And we also have to take care of the legislation on the drones and other devices, which can be possibly dangerous for our privacy.


It’s true that many viral contents are not true. As long as the contents are interesting, people will share it directly (face-to-face) or by any medium they use in this Internet era. It is reflecting the nature of human being to share everything no matter whether it is true or not.

Swag Valance

Look, posting someone else’s tweets has become a substitute for actual news reporting. It’s just getting worse and worse.


Your photo of the newspaper boxes is seriously out of date. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer print edition, displayed in the middle box, stopped publishing in 2009.

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