A short story that makes this abundantly clear. When I sold my first book, I put out a fake press announcement that said I'd received a $500,000 advance. A bunch of blogs wrote about it. Then I sent an anonymous tip to Gawker saying that it was "a celebrity tell-all." Ten minutes later they had a story up about it. (A couple weeks later I printed the article out to skip a credit check for an apartment I was renting.)
One of the few times in history that "I'm a big deal on the Internet" has ever worked out.
That's how it works ... and I'm a nobody. When a juicy tip about some liberal politician comes into Drudge, how vigorously do you think he checks it out? (We have some idea: Before Drudge broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he wrongly reported that a Clinton advisor named Sidney Blumenthal was beating his wife. Even though Drudge admitted later that he'd been "had" by an anonymous Republican source, he refused to even apologize to the dude despite a $30 million libel lawsuit.) Or when TMZ gets a celebrity scoop they know will be big? Who is going to look a gift horse in the mouth by fact-checking it?
Sure, sometimes the media get lucky and the anonymous or unverified tip they get turns out to be a massive (and true) story. Take the Manti Te'o story. That fell into Deadspin's lap, and it worked out. Good for them.
But more often when they pull things from social media, from online news wires, from Twitter buzz, from random emails or sources whose agendas they don't check, it blows up in their faces. Like the multiple times Steve Jobs was wrongly reported as dead (before he actually did die). Or the reports that Banksy had been arrested. Or reports of a newly discovered photo of JFK on a yacht with a bunch naked chicks. Or because everyone loves being wrong about Apple, when blogs misreported about an iPhone delay and it cost Apple $4 billion in market cap. Or when the media wrongly named the shooter at Sandy Hook ... and then turned around and wrongly named the suspects in the Boston bombings. Or, like total idiots, thought that the names of the pilots of the Asiana crash were Holee Fuck and Captain Sum Ting Wong on the word of a "summer intern."
Why does this happen? Well, as our friend Michael Arrington once put it, "Getting it first is cheap, getting it right is expensive."
Because the media is basically under direct financial motivation to shoot first and ask questions later, corrections are pretty important.
Blogs often excuse their mistakes by saying, "Oh, we're not newspapers so it's really easy to correct ourselves." In fact, after four years of dragging-his-heels-like-a-dickbag through legal proceedings, that's what Matt Drudge finally said when he "corrected" his defamatory post about the guy beating his wife: "The great thing about this medium I'm working in is that you can fix things fast."
It's amazing that the weight of the bullshit in that sentence didn't immediately crash his servers.
Except that doesn't matter at all.
A study done by Brendan Nyhan at Dartmouth College basically finds that corrections to news stories don't work at all. In fact, there's a little thing they call the "Backfire Effect," where corrections actually increase misperceptions and make people believe the incorrect story even more than they did previously. So, we're basically fucked. (Ironically, the WSJ's corrections section is called "Corrections and Amplifications.")
As Mark Twain said, "A lie can make it halfway around the world before the truth can put its pants on" (or at least I heard he said that).
I do know that the guy who created the site Is Twitter Wrong, who is an editor over at MSN, described the process of correcting false tweets as "putting toothpaste back in the tube except the toothpaste is alive and didn't like the tube." So yeah, fixing mistakes in online media is pretty much impossible.
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
Neil Postman, maybe our greatest media critic, noticed in the 1980s that the world's events were starting to look a lot more like TV shows. Because television was at that time our main cultural stage, everyone -- generals, politicians, artists -- performed in a way that was most conducive to getting on television.
Well, now the web is that medium. We're basically incapable of thinking bigger than three-minute YouTube clips and 140 characters. Online culture drives offline culture. I mean, the bestselling book of last year was adapted out of online Twilight fan fiction for Christ sakes.
A few years ago, a writer named Noreen Malone noticed something about all those super viral slideshows of "abandoned" Detroit: There were never any people in them. The problem is that Detroit has one of the largest homeless populations in the United States (not to mention feral dogs and cats). It turns out, those real photos aren't as fun to gawk at because they're sad. They don't spread as well. So we get an altered version of reality that's selected because it does better online. Now, the city is bankrupt, so good for us.
Those facts are not entirely unrelated. Think about it. We're a country where government and policy are functions of public opinion. Well, today, what influences public opinion? The fucking Internet.
As one of President Obama's aides put it to Michael Lewis, the problem is that the "controversy machine is bigger than the reality machine." So now the rest of us live in the reality that the controversy machine dictates for us. There's a word for it: unreality.
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and the upcoming Growth Hacker Marketing. He recommends a lot of books every month via email.