Will Facebook be torn apart by a pack of wild dogs? On our viral news fever

The Globe and Mail

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sits for audience questions in an onstage interview for the Atlantic Magazine in Washington, in this file photo from Sept. 18, 2013. (JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)

If you’ve spent any time perusing science and tech headlines recently, you may have been surprised to learn these amazing things: that cancer will soon be cured; that men and women’s brains are wired differently; and that Facebook is doomed.

There’s only one problem: none of that is true – or not exactly, anyway. Cancer is hundreds of different diseases, and each of them will require its own “cure.” Men and women’s brains aren’t that different, especially when you factor in social conditioning. And Facebook’s demographics and usage may be changing, but it is by no means doomed.

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Yet what these and similar headlines share is that they oversimplify academic research, taking a complex set of ideas and distilling them into something that, at best, is lacking nuance, and at worst, is downright misleading.

It’s an old problem. But in the age of virality, when the more sensational the headline, the more it gets shared online through social media, truth and accuracy seem to suffer more. It seems like every other day we go through a cycle of hyperbolic claim, debunking and then a debunking of the debunking – which all works out great if you read everything, but not so great if you have other things to do.

What we really need is for both journalists and academics to take on the responsibility for how their work will spread. Unfortunately, the economics of news and the pressures on attention spans will make that a thing far easier said than done, a situation that could have dire consequences for an informed public.

The rise of mainstream news and the scientific revolution occurred roughly hand-in-hand, and as a result, it has for some time now been journalism’s job to act as a translator or interlocutor for the academy. Ideally, when done well, it’s a process that keeps the public abreast of happenings in the world of science and the humanities, connecting people to the ebb and flow of today’s ideas.

The Web, however, presents a variety of challenges for that trickle-down ideal of information. The viral culture of the internet, which rewards quick sharing with likes, retweets, and favs, provides an incentive to pass on the sensational and controversial. Which are you more likely to send to your friend: a story that highlights the incremental, slow nature of scientific discovery, or one that says the men and women in white coats are close to “The Cure?”

It’s a problem compounded by the economics of social media-driven web traffic. Because web sites rely heavily on readership stats to collect income, there’s an incentive to use those hyperbolic headlines because it gets people to click, turning the entire sensationalist online traffic race into a vicious cycle.

Part of the response, then, has to come from the people doing the research, and those who speak for them. In the past, journalists could balance an attention-grabbing headline by fleshing out some subtlety in the story. But virality often relies on the headline alone, with people less concerned about informing others than they are about displaying who they are (and how smart they are). The dynamics of how journalism conveys academic work have thus changed because misinformation and misleading claims can spread so much more easily.

The trouble, however, is that many potential solutions bump up against seemingly insurmountable tensions. Obviously, journalists have to account for their actions in the digital age, recognizing that skimming is common online, and acknowledging that headlines get read more than the body of the story. But with pressure to generate more views, and less time and money to research, doing so is difficult for even the most dedicated scribe.

Similarly, solutions that might come from the academy have their own constraints. Ideally, researchers could write an additional, plain-language summary for journalists and casual readers, if only they had the time to take on additional work with burgeoning class sizes and the relentless push to publish. If university departments had more money available, they could perhaps have press liaisons to act as “interpreters” who might translate complex data – an idea that sounds good until you start to look at just how stretched university finances have become.

Put it all together, and you have a catch-22 that has become a serious problem with the Internet: a medium that promised to democratize information and foster the exchange of ideas is degraded by the combined pressures of economics and the battle for attention.

Nuance and complexity are what separate useful perspective from knee-jerk opinion, sound policy from populist pandering. What that means is that when academics and writers put information out there into the world, they must keep the new “logic of the network” in mind. We not only very rapidly share the attention-grabbing and exciting, but also those things that confirm what we believe, or what we want to believe is true.

It might be nice to think that an awful disease will soon be eradicated, or that a social network we dislike might disappear. But in the meantime, we need our journalism to reflect how complicated ideas, science and life really are.

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Companies & investments Mentioned In This Article (2)

Company Price Change Volume
Facebook, Inc.
FB-Q
71.94 -0.977 % 24,157,334
Twitter, Inc.
TWTR-N
44.12 -2.368 % 18,408,359