#MuckedUp chat Tuesday: How to avoid the pratfalls of news hoaxes

#MuckedUp chat Tuesday: How to avoid the pratfalls of news hoaxes

As members of the press, we pride ourselves in our skepticism. We tout our tendency toward leeriness as a force of habit. After all, we added skills like meticulous fact-checking and quizzical thinking to our professional tool belts at the earliest stages of learning our trade.

But the rise of viral journalism tested these qualities in all of us, and the results haven’t sparkled. This week’s examples include Andrew Sorkin's exposé that the mysterious Goldman Sachs elevator account holder was never actually in the company elevator when he posted his tweets, nor was he even a GS employee. What’s more, many of the tweets appear to have been plagiarized. That information came too late, however, for reporters who shared and even reported on the content of his posts.

This wasn’t a singular occurrence. Here are some of the other hoaxes that duped us recently: we believed the gay server who said she hadn’t been tipped because of her sexual orientation. We broadcast names in the Asiana tragedy that were not only fake, but blatantly racist. We retweeted the wolf that was lackadaisically on the loose in Sochi Olympic Village and pictures of Sochi’s alleged half-toilets, punctuating both with #SochiFail.

Actually, we believed a lot of things about Sochi, partly because we were already inclined to believe them. A similar observation could be made about a lot of inaccurate reporting on China's pollution.

But worse yet, we shared many of these stories with very little vetting. Sometimes we re-posted the stories on our own platforms, or if we didn’t, we knew and respected a journalist who did. Even if it only involved retweeting someone else’s false words, how much should we be concerned about spreading a myth? What if the content of that unconfirmed tweet was not only untrue, but damaging to someone’s reputation? Call it “twibel,” if you will, as the term was coined in a recent case against Courtney Love.

Stephen Ward is the director of the University of Oregon’s school of journalism and also founder of the Center for Journalism Ethics. Ward pointed out to one news outlet that “[h]oaxes have been with journalism from Day One.” None of this is new to us. So why do we see increased instances of hoaxes unknowingly spread by the media?

Here’s one theory on virality from Annalee Newitz, who suggested in a column, “Before the 21st century, stories became popular because people talked about them in other publications, or shared magazine and newspaper clippings with friends. Today, stories become influential if people share them on social media like Facebook, Reddit, Pinterest, and Twitter. In most cases, nobody is going to read a story if nobody shares it.” And stories that allow for ambiguity or grey areas tend to fall by the wayside, Newitz writes.

So are the nature of audience tastes and the call of clicks partially to blame? What else could be? And how then do we escape falling prey to the vulnerabilities of going viral? Join us on Twitter for another chance to get #muckedup next Tuesday, March 4 at 5 p.m. PST/8 p.m. EST, when we’ll seek to answer these questions and others.

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