The tenuous line between newsworthiness and virality
Good morning, everyone; welcome back. Today, I want us to consider what makes something noteworthy.
A few weeks back, a lot of reporting outlined how Osama bin Laden’s early 2000s “Letter to America” was “going viral” on TikTok. A quick Google News search surfaces hundreds of articles and think pieces breaking down the letter and what it means that today’s youth have found and are interacting with the letter’s content for the first time in the context of the current conflict in the Middle East. However, all may not be what it seems. Reporting from the Washington Post breaks down how, while the post did gain traction on the platform, most of the traction was triggered by the reporting on the “trending” nature of the videos. Essentially, the articles and online discussion created by the initial reporting on the trending videos caused the letter to “trend” more than the original videos had.
All of this raises the question: How do we determine something is noteworthy? Of course, the fact that the original videos had been viewed a couple of million times at the initial reporting seems worth noting. If I had a video or piece of content viewed a couple of million times, I would be jumping up and down. But in absolute terms, 2 million views on a TikTok video is not uncommon. As we see now, the attention brought to the “trend” by the reporting seems to have escalated the situation far more than it would have otherwise.
In our age of fragmented media, it’s harder to know when something has truly gone “viral” or is “trending.” Gone are the days when Facebook and Twitter were the only games in town, letting us get a quick pulse on what captured most of the online culture’s attention. Today, to say something is “trending” or “viral” is a conjecture at best and should often be qualified as trending in this particular network or viral on this platform. As the audiences of these platforms are so fragmented, it becomes easier to look at something happening over in one network and tell people something is “trending” with little contextual evidence. In this case, the outrage cycle begins as an audience is primed to believe what they are hearing. As news of the outrage from the “other side” spreads, it inspires “rubberneckers” to see what all the fuss is about. And the cycle continues.
This predicament brings us to the point: Should something’s “trending” or “viral” status make it worthy of our time? What should our standard be for when something becomes noteworthy? There is no clear-cut answer for this, but as moral panics like this continue to happen, we have to consider the best way to promote the spread of ideas we find helpful. If reporting things like this spreads the message further, what’s the right course of action to take? These are hard questions to grapple with, but I hope we sincerely consider them next time we are tempted to hit the share button on a news article.
With that, thanks for reading, and see you again next time.