Captain Sum Ting Wong and fact-checking woes

|| January 14, 2014


You may have seen the photo in the last month - the pyramids in Egypt covered in snow. The photo featured in stories that were published on some reputable news websites.

It was a hoax. But the photo was retweeted more than 10,000 times on the first day as the story went viral.

And here are some other great fakes of 2013: the Chinese man who sued his wife for producing unattractive children; Captain Sum Ting Wong crashes an Asian-based passenger plane; Sarah Palin takes a job at Al Jazeera (the Washington Post fell for that one); and Nelson Mandela's premature death (announced on a fake CNN Twitter account and reported by journalists). 

They sum up the dangers of the race to be first or to be popular in digital journalism. Freelance journalist Luke O'Neill has analysed the trend of viral stories in an excellent piece for Esquire entitled The Year We Broke the Internet.

O'Neill says that the temptation to publish before checking facts is often too great. The rewards of online traffic can outweigh the risk of reputation damage.

But there may come a time when a viral hoax does serious damage for the subjects of the story or the news site. The scepticism of many readers is valuable on these occasions but relatively powerless when reputable sites peddle dodgy stories.

In the meantime, prepare to be sceptical. The revenue pressures strangling some online news sites are so great that popularity is the priority. It's a sad truth regardless of the insistence that "you're never wrong for long online".

- Michael Crutcher