When Internet hoaxes go viral (and the dupes get rewarded)

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Dave Weigel expresses some righteous indignation today over an internet hoax that went viral. If you’re not familiar with the story, over the Thanksgiving holiday, Elan Gale, a producer for “The Bachelor,” live-tweeted a feud with a woman who complained about a flight delay. As Weigel notes, “The Internet loved it, especially Buzzfeed, whose Rachel Zarrell aggregated Gale’s tweets and photos. Her post, on one of the year’s slowest news cycles, got nearly 1.4 million reads.”

The problem? It was a hoax.

BuzzFeed subsequently posted an update — but it was at the bottom of the page — and it linked to another BuzzFeed post (even more clicks!) about the revelation they had been duped. “It’s not quite Lara Logan nodding like a parrot as her Benghazi source lies to her,” Weigel writes, “but it’s the sort of shoddy reporting that would get a reporter at a small newspaper fired.”

I’m sympathetic to journalists who are misled. We all make mistakes, and it is especially understandable when someone who is ostensibly credentialed is willingly misleading you. Along those lines, Weigel is more angry with Gale than he is with the reporter. But I think this is bigger than either of them. This is really an indictment on much of what passes for modern journalism. (Confession: Viral content subsidizes my salary. Don’t hate the playa, yada yada yada…)

And so, I’m left with two thoughts: 1). Even assuming BuzzFeed had somehow known this story was a hoax, wouldn’t the smart business move have still been to run with the story? The pros (1.4 million reads) certainly outweigh the cons (feelings of embarrassment or loss of credibility.) There really is no downside to this. No law says “page views must be returned in the event a story is debunked.” BuzzFeed would have been smart to run this story even in the event they knew it was bogus (and I’m not suggesting they did.)

2). Again, even assuming this feud really happened, is this really what journalism is now about? What good does it do consumers of information to know about this story? My only hope is that this sort of thing subsidizes the more serious journalism (time will tell if that model is sustainable.) Look, not everything I write is important or even worthwhile, but does this reporter really want her career to be about aggregating someone else’s tweets at an airport? Why not just make widgets?

Matt K. Lewis