The (False) Truth About Viral Content

Quite a few of us saw this picture last week. Tens of thousands shared it, and many used it as inspiration for a blog post or op-ed. Depending on your political affiliation, it was either a perfect embodiment of the “childish” government shutdown or yet another example of “The Media” manipulating the narrative to make a predetermined point.

Or maybe it was neither. But since millions saw it and drew their own conclusions, does that even matter?

Ann Midgette of The Washington Post knows the kid in the picture, but she didn’t recognize him when it went viral—she just saw it, formed a quick opinion and moved on like most readers do. Upon realizing that the little boy often plays with her own son, she can confirm that the photo was not staged but was simply a case of “a father [taking] his son out for a walk in the neighborhood and [sending] a funny snapshot to his wife”. Turns out the kid hadn’t planned to visit the zoo after all, and Midgette writes that “I promise you, he’s laughing”, not crying.

This revelation complements a recent debate, inspired by Gawker mastermind Nick Denton, about the importance of truth in the newest form of advertising: viral content. Pieces like Jimmy Kimmel‘s fake twerking accident clip, the “firefighter saves kitten” ad (spoiler: the kitten died), and the “grandfather chastises his daughter for disowning her gay son” letter are the editorial equivalent of misleading PR stunts: they tricked lots of people and pushed click rates up, but they also left something of a bad taste in our mouths. And because  Gawker writers argue that giving readers the truth about such content will “kill its viral potential”, we will view the next adorable/hilarious video we see on that site with skepticism.

The question arising from this conversation applies to editors, writers, marketers and, increasingly, PR as we focus on content to promote our clients. Of course we want to be ethical, and “ethics” means honesty. But if people choose to interpret a piece in a certain way that might not be 100% accurate, is it our place to correct them?