This June, a man named Jeremy Meeks bewitched the world. You may know him better by his media-dubbed nickname the Hot Felon. Meeks is attractive enough that his prominent cheekbones and alluring mug-shot stare went viral, bringing the previously unknown criminal instant fame. Days later, outlets from Gawker and BuzzFeed to The Washington Post, the Daily Mail, New York magazine and others reported he’d landed a $30,000 modeling contract. Delighted millions shared the incongruous turn of events on social media.
I called his manager (yes, Meeks now has a manager) to confirm—something no other journalist at that point had bothered to do. There was no $30,000 contract. Modeling agencies had never heard of him. Meeks’s mug shot had merely gone viral and caused rampant speculation. Recently, reputable news organizations told us that Orange Is the New Black faced cancelation the day after it racked up nine Emmy nominations, that an “extreme stalker” called her ex-boyfriend 77,000 times and that a giant pregnant tarantula was on the loose in Brooklyn. Outlets from Fox News to USA Today told us a Chinese man was stuck in a South Korean airport after his son had doodled on his passport. Like the other stories, it was untrue; this one had been sourced from the Chinese equivalent of a Twitter post.
Why do websites of otherwise trustworthy news organizations stoop to such lows? Because journalism’s digital business model, which forces outlets to compete for the same ad space with the most irresponsible websites on the internet, has created a new reality. Journalists, without the time or wherewithal to carry out a bare minimum of investigation under an unprecedentedly short news cycle, are forced to chase viral clicks and the pennies they bring, posting stories engineered toward “virality” to court their new social-media kingmakers. Once, credibility was the linchpin of journalism. Today, as dubiously sourced stories multiply, it’s an afterthought.
“Companies focus on page views because they’re quantifiable,” says Jonah Berger, author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. “So journalists optimize for share numbers, and audiences share juicy headlines without reading the story.” NPR proved as much this past April Fool’s Day with the story WHY DOESN’T AMERICA READ ANYMORE? It had a clickable, debatable headline engineered to go viral, but the article began, “Congratulations, genuine readers!” and continued, “We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories they haven’t actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let’s see what people have to say about this ‘story.’ ” A witless frenzy of “answers” materialized on NPR’s Facebook page, from “because we are fat & stupid” to “people don’t have the attention span.” Then a July headline on Time magazine’s revamped website—whose posting strategy is designed to replicate BuzzFeed’s success—proclaimed that SCIENTISTS SAY SMELLING FARTS MIGHT PREVENT CANCER. The story garnered thousands of shares and was passed along via CNET, the New York Daily News and others, even as angry scientists pointed out that the study said no such thing.
There are psychological reasons we don’t care if these stories are true. Boston University marketing professor Carey Morewedge says social psychologists who study praise and blame have found that “people take more responsibility for outcomes that turn out well and see others as responsible for those that don’t.” We’re lauded for sharing interesting stories on Facebook but face no fallout if they turn out to be bogus, because online interactions differ from those that take place in the flesh. “If you tell a lie in person, you’re more likely to receive the blame,” says Morewedge. “On social media, the third party is responsible. You’re just saying, ‘This is interesting.’ ”
The high-speed viral-sharing system itself is the reason we don’t lose trust in those who share fake stories: Not only does news spread faster than it can be scrutinized, it’s gone before readers realize it’s fake. Most people never discover that something they shared is fallacious, Berger says—“or by the time they do, they don’t remember where they heard it.”
“Truth is not a major driver of why stories are shared,” he continues. “Think about urban legends. People pass on all sorts of things that aren’t true—they care more about whether something is interesting. No one wants to be thought of as a liar, but by the time something is found false, we’ve often moved on to the next hot information nugget of the day.”
The societal costs are significant. In a prior era, journalists responsible for reporting falsehoods faced immediate dismissal. The deceptions of disgraced journalists, including Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass, and the uproars that ensued when their misdeeds were uncovered, stand as charming reminders of a time of higher standards. Online media have less incentive to adopt such strict principles. When no one is held accountable and hoaxes are chalked up to the nature of the new business, untruths spread like wildfire, with no end in sight. The consequences—a generation of journalists lacking ethics training, a public that accepts lower standards and a gaping hole in the media’s organizational practices that the unscrupulous exploit—are as far-reaching for the industry’s role in society as they are for the business of news itself.
If this economic equation isn’t solved, the real threat we face is a world in which parody, such as found in The Onion and Weekly World News, becomes indistinguishable from reality. “Free online journalism today is a loser’s battle,” says Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy. “With something like the Hot Felon, the public may want to ask, Is this really what we want journalists to be doing?”
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Playboy Magazine.