old-typewriter

By RYAN BOLTON

“Whoa, Banksy just got arrested!” my co-worker, Eugene, yells out, astonished. Two minutes later, the story popped up on my Facebook feed.

We couldn’t believe it. The elusive street artist wasn’t so elusive anymore. But we didn’t need to believe it.

It was a hoax. That didn’t stop the thousands of shares, though.

With a little research (a 15 second Google search) it becomes pretty clear that Bansky himself likely released the misinformation. On the same day, he posted a new piece, “Girl with a Pierced Eardrum” in his hometown of Bristol, England. We were all had. Again.

With the advent of the Internet, the way we produce and consume journalism has dramatically shifted. When news about Ebola breaks, it goes—for a lack of a better word—viral. When a new iPhone is launched, the fact that it may or may not bend is omnipresent. For instance, Apple says that there was only nine complaints of the larger iPhone 6 Plus bending. Nine. But that story, the so-called Bendgate, dominated social feeds for a good week.

With the unparalleled speed and quantity of news bombarding life with the growing influence of technology in our lives, a couple key elements have shifted.

For one, the publicity platform provided by social media sites like Facebook and Twitter spread information faster than ever before, not limited by circulation. The democracy of the platform has allowed for a larger discussion, but with it also the rise of bloggers and micro bloggers who put their own spin on current events and continuously stretch the subjectivity of truth.

But arguably the most important shift in journalism is that fact checkers are now an almost-extinct species.

When newspapers and print media started to get hit hard by the shifting medium a little over six years ago with plummeting ad sales (among other things), fact checkers were the first to feel the axe. The situation wasn’t ideal in the eyes of investors, but fact checkers are not the ones writing the copy, selling the ad space, shooting the photos, or laying out the final copy. They were more expendable, for lack of a better word.

Or so they thought.

But as time would reveal, fact checkers were the filter sifting information from disinformation ensuring news was reliable and thus reportable.

Roughly a month ago, some of the most reputable news organizations, like the Washington Post and the Toronto Star, were duped.

You’ll recall when users on 4Chan were threatening to release nude photos of Emma Watson following her speech at the United Nations. There was even a website http://www.emmayouarenext.com that had a countdown clock until they would release the photos.

Then news sources started to report on this other site run by the so-called company Rantic Marketing. Their message was #shutdown4chan. “We have been hired by celebrity publicists to bring this disgusting issue to attention,” the website wrote in an open letter directed towards Barack Obama (as if he’s the Internet police).

But here’s the thing: It was a hoax within a hoax. And it spread widely. 4chan users were behind both the websites. There were no photos. There is no Rantic Marketing or Fox Weekly website that all these journalists were quoting.

The Toronto Star reported on the story on the front-page of their website. They still haven’t made the correction.

This happens all the time, unsurprisingly.

As news is distributed at unprecedented rates, more than ever we need fact checkers to avoid swallowing toxic information. Information controls your thought. Your thoughts control your actions.

**Correction: My coworker’s name is not Eugene.

A version of this article orginally was published in The Plaid Zebra.

Written by Ryan Bolton

Ryan is a Toronto-based writer and photographer that likes to break the rules. His work has taken him around the world to do what he truly loves—storytelling. And drinking cold beer.

5 comments

  1. Fact-checkers were a luxury we’ve never had in UK media. Instead, we relied on journalists applying basic journalistic tools suppotred by the rigour of a sceptical newsdesk, a sceptical bankbench, a sceptical editor and sceptical legal. That was print. Print as gatekeepers of information is flawed as we know but it it is right more times than it is wrong.
    As we transition from print to digital, let’s hope we can keep the bean-counters at bay and bring back rigour to online. Sadly, though, I don’t think we will.

  2. Reblogged this on reverseferret and commented:
    Fact-checkers were a luxury we’ve never had in UK media. Instead, we relied on journalists applying basic journalistic tools suppotred by the rigour of a sceptical newsdesk, a sceptical bankbench, a sceptical editor and sceptical legal. That was print. Print as gatekeepers of information is flawed as we know but it it is right more times than it is wrong.
    As we transition from print to digital, let’s hope we can keep the bean-counters at bay and bring back rigour to online. Sadly, though, I don’t think we will.

  3. I am a journalist and have seen this happen. It’s a bit scary. Not just the loss of fact checkers but how anyone now can pose as a journalist and then throw anything up on the web as fact. There is freedom and a voice we never had before but also a lot more misinformation. I just hope we don’t lose the real thing completely.

Thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s