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Chinese Smog, Gullible Readers, and the Perils of Viral News
What our liking and clicking habits tell us about how we see the world.

Call me naïve, but it took an embarrassing encounter with a giant python to make me aware of the dangers of viral news. About six months ago, one of my Facebook friends posted a story about a comatose drunk who had been eaten alive by a python in the south Indian state of Kerala. The accompanying photograph was the stuff of nightmares. I duly clicked the button that said “share.” Well, there’s a sucker born every minute.

Over the next couple of days the rebuttals began to trickle in. The whole thing was a hoax. It turned out that this same picture had been published innumerable times over the past couple of years, placing the gruesome event variously in Thailand, Indonesia, South Africa, and Brazil. In some places the drunk was a baby; in South America, the snake was an anaconda. But no matter. The story had gone viral because it had what Stephen Colbert famously called “truthiness.” Fact-based or not, the python story fooled me because it resonated with my preconceived assumptions. I’ve spent enough time in India to know that it’s a place where bizarre and awful things happen with some frequency.

Later I tracked down the origin of the post I’d shared. It was a blog called lordsofthedrinks.com. When a reader challenged the editor on the authenticity of the story, he said he had no idea where it had come from. “What’s your problem dude?” he wrote. “If it’s a hoax, it’s one we didn’t create … Your life must be pretty pathetic if you take the time to hunt hoaxes.”

Okay, so there’s an online hoax about a python swallowing a drunk. Who cares? Well actually, I do, because we’re awash in such things (yesterday’s example: cannibal rat ghost ship), and often they concern matters that are much more significant. Take the gruesome tale of Kim Jong-Un executing his traitorous uncle by having him fed to a pack of dogs (except that he didn’t). Or the heartbreaking photograph of the Syrian orphan sleeping between the graves of his parents (except that they weren’t graves, his parents weren’t dead, and he wasn’t Syrian). There wasn’t a grain of truth in either story, but both of them went massively viral, because we are predisposed to believe any lunacy from North Korea and primed for images that trigger our horror at the slaughter in Syria.

The other day I fell into the trap again. Fool me twice, shame on me. Like many others, I was shocked to read that on a recent morning in Beijing air pollution levels had risen so high that visitors to Tiananmen Square were shown a panoramic video of the sunrise, the real thing being invisible behind the curtain of smog.

The clickers included some very smart environmental and science writers, Asia specialists, and journalism professors. To all of us, it had the shocking ring of truth. Or maybe I mean truthiness.

Again, I saw no particular reason to doubt the story. It echoed everything I knew about China’s crippling air pollution, and I had an ingrained skepticism about Chinese government propagandists and their efforts to manipulate reality. After all, the Communist Party had already classified data about airborne pollutants and the contamination of farmland with heavy metals as “state secrets.” Furthermore, the sunrise story was twin to one that had been reported in OnEarth.org several months ago (and was clearly grounded in fact)—about people in Hong Kong taking pictures of one another against a sunlit photographic backdrop of the city’s famous skyline, which was barely visible in the background against the smoggy haze.

The problem is that the Beijing sunrise was not some sinister attempt by the government to create an alternate reality. It was simply a frame from a video loop depicting the tourist attractions of Shandong province, which happened to be playing on the big screen on a smoggy morning. My antennae should have gone up right away, because the original source of the story was the London Daily Mail, and as a Brit, I knew perfectly well that the Mail is a scurrilous right-wing tabloid with a long history of publishing stories that have only the most tenuous relationship to fact. Like the Murdoch-owned Sun, and like Fox News in this country, its stock-in-trade is to pump out spurious stories that reinforce the reader’s existing ideological prejudices. (Think of Fox’s “War on Christmas.”)

What troubles me is that those of us who rail against this kind of manipulation may be vulnerable to the same thing ourselves. Airpocalypse Now! stories from China play well because they resonate with what we think we already know, and I was far from alone in falling for this one. As one Facebook friend after another re-posted the story, I watched the horrified comments and the likes and the shares roll in, and the clickers included some very smart environmental and science writers, Asia specialists, and journalism professors. To all of us, it had the shocking ring of truth. Or maybe I mean truthiness.

It was the online magazine Quartz that debunked the sunrise story. I trust Quartz, which is owned by the publishers of the Atlantic Monthly. Their global news editor is a veteran of the Economist. These are not right-wing hacks or sloppy merchants of uncurated click-bait. This isn’t lordsofthedrinks.com. The folks at Quartz are members of what Sara Critchfield, the editorial director of Upworthy, the hugely successful purveyor of viral content, derides as the “media elite.” By that, I think Critchfield means actual journalists who report actual facts that are vetted by actual editors—and it’s sad to see a self-proclaimed liberal organization (remember that Upworthy was founded by the people who gave us MoveOn.org) resorting to the same epithets thrown around by the likes of Sarah Palin.

My trust in my own judgment was so jarred by this episode that I went back and looked at some other environmentally themed stories I’d posted recently on Facebook. How about the amazing photographs of Michigan lighthouses encased in monstrous icicles, which ran during the week of the polar vortex? Or the jaw-dropping images of farm fields in Australia blanketed in a layer of snowy white—the result of a mass invasion of web-spinning spiders in the wake of a freak flood. More terrifying evidence of what I knew to be true—that extreme weather is playing havoc with the planet. But what were the sources for these images, I suddenly wondered. Well, the spiders were from viralnova.com, whose tagline is “trending stories on the web.” But I’d never heard of viralnova.com. What was it, and why should I trust it? As for the lighthouses… oh, dear… those came from the Daily Mail.  So was any of this stuff true? Or was it all photoshopped? Was it all a hoax? I felt as if I’d slipped down the rabbit hole.

Sure, there’s nothing new about hoaxes, but the speed with which they hit us is increasing exponentially, and more and more they’re being swallowed hook, line, and sinker by what we still like to think of as professional news organizations. The stories about Kim Jong-Un’s uncle, the Syrian orphan, and the Tiananmen sunrise all happened in the past month and reverberated through the echo chamber of the mainstream media, from NBC and CBS News to USA Today and Time magazine.

There’s something of a backlash, I’m glad to report, against the way in which our information is ever more gawkerized and buzzfed and judged upworthy, its value gauged by how much it is clicked and tweeted and liked and shared. A good starting point for this critique is Luke O’Neil’s brilliant blog post for Esquire last month, “The Year We Broke the Internet.” But I wonder if we’re fighting on a level playing field, or whether we’re condemned to suffocate in the vast smoggy spider’s web of unchecked, unedited viral content. Three of my Facebook friends have now posted Quartz’s demolition of the Beijing sunrise story. So far, these have picked up a total of 14 likes and five comments. And the Daily Mail story that started the whole viral ball rolling? Last time I checked, it had been shared 218,574 times.

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exploration of Yellowstone. MORE STORIES ➔
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"Scurrilous right-wing tabloid"? "Right-wing hacks"? It's good to know that, at least, you are not pretending to be objective in your reporting.