Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content

Silverman, Craig

To track and analyze the way news sites handle online rumors and unverified claims, I and research assistant Jocelyn Jurich identified rumors circulating in online media, and captured and analyzed them using the Emergent database and related public website. I also spoke with journalists, skeptics and others engaged in efforts to debunk online misinformation. This report is the result of our research.

One key conclusion is that journalists are squandering much of the value of rumors and emerging news by moving too quickly and thoughtlessly to propagation. News websites dedicate far more time and resources to propagating questionable and often false claims than they do working to verify and/or debunk viral content and online rumors. The debunking efforts that do exist at news organizations are scattershot and are not rooted in best practices identified in previous research.

Rather than acting as a source of accurate information, online media frequently promote misinformation in an attempt to drive traffic and social engagement. The result is a situation where lies spread much farther than the truth, and news organizations play a powerful role in making this happen.This research has quantified many bad practices of online media. In doing so, it clearly articulates areas for improvement. I also believe it reveals a way forward where news organizations move to occupy the middle ground between mindless propagation and wordless restraint.

Journalists today have an imperative—and an opportunity—to sift through the mass of content being created and shared in order to separate true from false, and to help the truth to spread. This report includes a set of specific and, where possible, data driven recommendations for how this anti-viral viral strategy can be executed.

My hope is that this report helps newsrooms see the bad practices that must be stopped, and to apply better strategies for reporting in our new world of emergent news.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Tow Center for Digital Journalism
Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia University
Tow Center for Digital Journalism Publications
Published Here
September 5, 2017