Former GeekPlanetOnline Site Editor Dave Probert is a man with an ear to the ground of the geek community. When that ground starts to rumble, our man in East Sussex has something to say...!
Mark Twain once said that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. These days a lie can circumnavigate the globe twice before the truth has even decided to leave the house.
The internet contains a wealth of knowledge but its accuracy is becoming increasingly questionable. While it contains many well researched pieces from reputable sources, it also has a second function as a bullshit refinery. Converting stuff people made up into truths that people believe for no other reason than it's on the internet, Not a day goes past without some entertainment website breaking a story about a film or TV show in development that has a spurious source. It quickly circulates via social media and people get very upset by how terrible it sounds and how they won't have anything to do with the production if that is going to happen. Eventually someone from the studio releases a statement saying that the whole thing was unfounded bullshit and everyone looks uncomfortably at their shoes before muttering an apology and wandering off to look at some cat pictures.
When I assumed my position as Editor of GeekPlanetOnline I made a decision very early on that we wouldn't post news stories. Any news we posted would be second hand at best and we are not a site that people will ever come to first for the latest news stories. There are other sites that don't share my assessment of the situation. The news stories may come from other sites several times removed from the original source but news can generate that most desired of online currency: hits.
I find that website visits are referred to as hits somewhat ironic as there are many sites that treat hits like a crack addict does. They are desperate for any hits they can get and they are willing to do anything to get more. Sites looking to score hits will flat out lie in order to get them. I saw one site (which I won't name because it's the culture as a whole I want to denounce rather than any one site in particular) post a story just before the Doctor Who Proms was about to begin saying that they were going to announce the identity of the new Doctor at the Proms. Anyone familiar with the site could immediately detect the stench of bullshit when the person quoted as the source of this news was also the person who ran the site, but was quoted as though they were an independent source who knew someone in the Albert Hall. Lo and behold the story was posted all over social media, some people got very excited and the whole thing turned out to be completely false. Since then the story has been hastily rewritten to remove the name of the source given and to include an apology blaming the person that the original reported source claimed to have talked to.
The current lightning rod for bullshit stories is Man of Steel 2. This film is something for a gift for bullshit peddlers as the genuine announcements Warner Brothers have made are so odd that anything that bullshitters are making up sounds plausible. I could post a news story saying that the new script will reveal Clark Kent to be Bruce Wayne's real father and chances are people would believe it enough to rack up plenty of hits and outrage before anyone had read the story properly and see it for the bullshit it was.
This is part of the problem. The internet as a collective of people is a very impulsive child who will read and react to an incendiary headline before actually reading the facts within. The sites who know this will use that to gain hits in more insidious ways. One site posted a news story with headline link saying definitively RIP Star Wars Expanded Universe but when you clicked the link the headline of the actual piece was RIP Star Wars Expanded Universe? and was less of a news story as it was speculation on the future of Star Wars in print. Problem is that once you've discovered the con it's too late. You have registered a hit on the site and it doesn't mater what you may think of the actual article you have been lured to with a misleading link or headline. Ultimately it doesn't matter if anybody is actually reading or enjoying the work as all their advertisers care about is how may hits it got.
What frustrates me most is that there are no consequences for sites that do this. Some now have a mild reputation for having to take their news with a block of salt but their news is still regularly circulated even if some people are doing so with caveats. I'm well aware that it was ever thus and not just in the field of geek journalism. The Mail Online is the epitome of trolling for hits but that doesn't mean I don't get frustrated and disappointed in the current system we have, which rewards the sites that get the most attention based on nothing. I have nothing but respect for the sites who have achieved popularity through hard work and good output. Sadly for every site that is genuinely doing good work there seem to be two that are either parroting stories from more reputable sites or just flat out making stuff up and doing just as well for themselves.
I don't pretend to know what the answer is but something has to change and the responsibility lies as much with us as internet users as it does with hit hungry sites. We need to be more discerning. To not just read the headline, instantly react and share but to see where the story is coming from and exercise caution. Hits, like ratings or box office takings, are an imperfect system for judging popularity or quality but at the moment it is the only system we have. The only hope we have to shut down the bullshit refinery is to stop being the flies buzzing around it.