The Truthiness Of Buzzfeed

Over Thanksgiving, TV producer Elan Gale live-tweeted a lengthy, outrageous confrontation with a fellow airplane passenger. It became a viral sensation, understandably amped up by Buzzfeed’s viral algorithms. Pity the entire thing was a complete hoax, designed, according to Gale, to prove that whether something is, you know, true or not matters little in the era of lucrative viral posts. He got his proof. Buzzfeed got 1.3 million pageviews on the hoax. Which is why I’m relieved that Dave Weigel is happy to take a tiny bit of time to wonder why no one checked the story at Buzzfeed, and when the hoax became obvious, why they simply switched out their previous story with another post praising the “epic” scam. Weigel notes:

This is fairly fucked. Yes, people on the Internet want to believe salacious stories. Reporters want to publish stories that people read. If there’s a great reward, and little downside, to be had in publishing bullshit, the Internet’s going to get more bullshit. As one of my colleagues put it, “‘Too good to check’ used to be a warning to newspaper editors not to jump on bullshit stories. Now it’s a business model.”

It sure is – and, along with advertizing deliberately designed to deceive readers into thinking it’s editorial, it could bring $120 million in revenue next year for the entertainment and public relations site. In due course, it appears Buzzfeed came up with a response to Dave. Money quote from BuzzFeed news director Lisa Tozzi:

We used the word “claiming” to describe Elan’s tweets, and updated our post several times as it appeared to unfold—but we should have make that skepticism clearer. We’re not in the business of publishing hoaxes and we feel an enormous responsibility here to provide our readers with accurate, up-to-date information.

Well that’s a relief, until you think some more about it. By gleefully running unchecked hoaxes, and then insisting that they really do care about truth, Buzzfeed muddies the waters still further.  What’s striking to me about Buzzfeed is that they haven’t really sufficiently thought through what it means to deliberately deceive readers by running advertizing as editorial, or what it means to be both an instant entertainment provider whose success is measured in jumping on viral waves seconds before their competitors, and to claim to be journalism.

In trying to be both under one brand, they are unwittingly doing a lot of damage both to a generation’s core understanding of what journalism actually is – the viral hoax was “reported” by “reporter” Rachel Zarrell – and to any understanding of how journalism is any different from copy-writing.

There are many excellent reporters at Buzzfeed doing their best, which is often very good. I don’t like writing posts like this that may seem to them like personal attacks. They’re really not. All I can say is that I don’t think they have fully grasped how being part of an entertainment/public relations site whose core mission is making money can in any way be compatible with the profession formerly known as journalism. Just because you wish it to be so does not make it so. Only when they put their actual journalism in a clearly separate space than their entertainment, and only when they stop deliberately blurring advertizing with editorial, will they be able to retain a journalistic soul. But that, of course, would end their business model entirely.

Previous Dish on the Buzzfeed model here, here, here and here.