The Internet viral content factory needs better gatekeepers


You shouldnt believe everything you read on the Internet, and yet somehow we always do. Web hoaxes frequently mirror the old adage about getting halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on.

Most are harmless, like the KFC deep-fried rator someone caught watching porn during a college class, but busting these myths often gets left to subreddits and Twitter users. However, a video that went viral this week illustrates the need for need for strong, editorial gatekeepers to sort out truth from fact. The issue is that we simply can’t trust places like Reddit to do the work that the press should be doing. As we saw in the aftermath of the Malaysia Flight MH370 crashwhen Twitter scoured the ocean for clues as to the planes whereaboutscrowdsourcing the search for truth simply doesn’t work.

This week saw the spread of a made-for-meme video showing school-aged children hurling profanities at Donald Trump, presumably over his controversial immigration stance and racist remarks concerning Mexicans. The group behind the video, Deport Racism PAC, has also offered $5,000 to any audience member who calls Trump a racist at this weeks Saturday Night Live broadcast, which Trump will be hosting.

Slates Daniel Engber called Kimmels videos ironic acid that corrodes our sense of wonder, but maybe theres a more valuable point to learn from Internet debunkers. While Engber and others might criticize the kind of person who spends their free time accusing average Web users of enabling fraud, the skeptic provides an inherent value to digital culture. The Redditors who dug into the genesis of Deport Racism did more work than any other media outlet that posted the video.

A supreme lack of skepticism among new media outlets means viral content gets posted online all of the time without getting properly vetted by Internet gatekeepers.

This is a shame, because Redditors arent very good at playing detective, as accusations following the 2013 Boston Bombings proved. Redditors alleged that Sunil Tripathi was behind the attack, even though the 22-year-old had been missing for a month. He was later found dead.

On the Reddit discussion thread about Deport Racism, users are accusing the group of trying to paint Sanders campaign as made up of crazy, fringe supporters and of peddling black propaganda. Those accusations rely on a misunderstanding of political fundraising (anyone can start their own PAC, as Stephen Colbert famously proved, and these groups are legally required to not have contact with candidates), as well as a deep-seated paranoia about the political process.

The editorial foresight that could investigate and raise the right questions about either Clinton or Deport Racism, however, are lacking. We dont know whether the $5,000 bounty really exists or where that money will come from, and its only because a few Redditors that we even know the PAC was founded by a Clinton supporter. Publicly shouting insults at someone is not the best tone for political discourse, and Clintons campaignas well as the mediashould be concerned if any supporter is offering a cash prize for doing so.

We need a robust and skeptical press that cares to be a gatekeeper between the constant stream of content the Internet provides and what we accept as fact. Deport Racism is not part of a conspiracy, as these Redditors claim. But a responsible media should fill the vacuum of information before the nutjobs do it for them.

Ben Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. His work has appeared in theWashington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. He attended Pennsylvania State University.

Photo via brizzle born and bred/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

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