Depending on how closely one follows gaming news, you might have heard mutterings about a new ‘X-Surface’ coming from Microsoft, the still mythological XBox 720. About a week ago, someone revealed the entire thing to be half scam, half experiment. The entire thing was fabricated, from his credentials to all the information he ‘leaked.’ By this time, the ‘news’ had already spread pretty far. You can read the his account and commentary here.
He has his own commentary about exactly what it means about games journalism, but I think a lot of it holds true for all online journalism. Anyone who spends a lot of time on the net knows the pattern. You see something on Buzzfeed/Reddit/4chan/9gag/etc, later the same day, or maybe the next day, a friend is linking you to it from somewhere else, generally something else from the list above. Soon it’s on your Facebook wall. Then ‘legitimate’ news picks it up. Maybe it’s just the weird, nebulous ‘online news’ outlets, maybe it’s actually the State Paper’s Website, or perhaps the local news station’s website. If something really blows up, it might even make it to CNN.com.
Why does this happen, though? What makes ‘hot stories’ spread this way? I mentioned it in passing previously, but the only real way to make money online without charging for a product is advertising. Advertising is the bread and butter of just about every website you’ve ever found. It’s why you can’t go anywhere without finding about this amazing tooth whitening secret, or a 50 year old woman who looks 20, or what have you. It’s why Hulu has commercials, and why Youtube has sponsored content. Now, it varies, but websites tend to get paid in one of two ways. One, they get paid when the link is clicked, which is how Facebook operates. The other way is they get paid when an ad is seen. This is why smaller websites beg their users to not use Adblock, that small reduction of hassel for you actually costs them money.
How does this link in to the way content spreads, or the X-surface story above? Simple. Being the first to break some big story can be a big deal. I’ve seen links on Reddit get a few thousand upvotes, which, presumably, means that a few thousand people clicked and saw the link or, more importantly, the ads. I’ve seen the sheer swarm of redirected traffic from such link-aggregating sites crash a server for days. That can mean big money from ads. In the X-surface story, the first site that regurgitated the faulty and made up info was probably doing it for just such a reason. They wanted the ad revenue that all that traffic would bring. In their haste to break the story before someone else did, they didn’t do the proper source checking. This, admittedly, is more an issue with Games Journalism, where speculation tends to run so high and spreads like wildfire, but it happens more often than you’d think.
What about the relinking? Why does something that started on Deviantart and made it’s way to reddit end up on Buzzfeed? Simple. It is in a site supported by ad revenue’s best interest to keep you on it’s servers, viewing the ads for which it gets credit. It varies, some will link to an outside source, others will copy it to their own servers, or, in the case of an article, copy it. Not word for word, obviously, as that’d be plagiarism, and get them in big trouble, but, as in the X-surface story, changing a word here and there, repeating the same basic facts in their own words. It keeps you on their server, gets the ad revenue, and gets a piece of the original site’s pie in the process. This is why content spreads the way it does, making tracking down the original story rather difficult, and is also why it’s almost impossible to figure out exactly where all those funny pictures on the internet truly got their start.
Now, what this all means for online journalism in general is that there are a lot of sites with a lot of employees that will bend over backwards to get 10 more people to view a link, or to get you browsing their website. Personally, I generally take the time to get my facts straight, which is why you’ll often see me post a few days after something happens, unless the first source I have is a reputable one, such as in this article, where the news was broken by a first party source where it undeniably was a legitimate employee of the first party. However, for every good, reputable and trustworthy news source online, there’s a dozen content mills that exist only to get as many page views as they can manage, and these often have rather low standards for verification, no better than the sites that regurgitated someone else’s (false) X-Surface story.
Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot that can be done about it, as it’s just kind of part of how the internet works, and, until there’s a better way to make money on the internet, ad revenue is continue to be the metric which makes or breaks a website financially. So my advice to you, Columbia readers, is don’t believe everything you read online, or, at least, do some vetting.