Truth has never been an essential ingredient of viral content on the Internet. But in the stepped-up competition for readers, digital news sites are increasingly blurring the line between fact and fiction, and saying that it is all part of doing business in the rough-and-tumble world of online journalism.
Several recent stories rocketing around the web, picking up millions of views, turned out to be fake or embellished: a Twitter tale of a Thanksgiving feud on a plane, later described by the writer as a short story; a child’s letter to Santa that detailed an Amazon.com link in crayon, but was actually written by a grown-up comedian in 2011; and an essay on poverty that prompted $60,000 in donations until it was revealed by its author to be impressionistic rather than strictly factual.
Their creators describe them essentially as online performance art, never intended to be taken as fact. But to the media outlets that published them, they represented the lightning-in-a-bottle brew of emotion and entertainment that attracts readers and brings in lucrative advertising dollars.