How You Spread News Online

How news spreads online
Do you check the accuracy of the information you receive and share? Or are you trading speed for accuracy?

When I was researching case studies last week, I came across dozens of posts that had reposted information without linking to sources. In some cases, the accuracy of the data looked questionable. When we're talking about positive results, although the pat on the back may be unwarranted, it's not a huge deal.

Now that every person and company can get in the news, and
make the news itself, we're faced with two challenges:

  1. standing out in the
    sheer tide of bits being shared as news in real time
  2. being unable to stop or correct inaccurate information once it starts spreading

Online news seems to spread regardless of its accuracy — we've seen it with sloppy research data, in times of crisis when businesses are the most vulnerable, and because of the sheer desire to look good among your peers.

From source to publication

You have a source that either leaks or releases information via press release or interview, which then appear on publications that have had a direct contact with the source. The news is then picked up by online portals and some of the bigger online sites.

Today, traditional news organizations are not always the first to release news. And with the budget cuts and the pressure to hit the trigger on a story, there may not be enough vetting or fact checking. I've been misquoted enough times to know that even when there is a direct contact, there can still be a disconnect.

The farther the news from its initial source(s), the more difficult the vetting due to lack of attribution during dissemination.

Social consumption

This is where the news is welcome and colored by opinion, secondary stories, and debate. Who doesn't remember the story of the boy in the balloon last October? Run a search and you come up with more than 5MM results. It turned out that the boy was never in the balloon.

It was a hoax, you wouldn't have known that on Twitter.

Feedback loops

There is a second mechanism in how news spreads online and that is the feedback loop originating from social networks and feeding back into news organizations.

The idea is for news outlets to attract readership and part of that is writing about what people are interested in reading — because they're talking about it.


Some of the questions I ask myself when I read news online are:

  • can I trust this source?
  • does the information include links to facts and data?
  • is the site reputable for due diligence?
  • what if I write about this and it turns out it's not true?

Do you check your sources, or do you just go ahead and report what you read adding your opinion? Have you ever had to retract or modify a post? Do you worry that something you published may cost someone his job or damage a company's reputation?

If you enjoyed
this post from Conversation Agent, consider subscribing
and sharing it.

0 responses to “How You Spread News Online”

  1. As an engineer with degrees in Electrical Engineering that had focus in control systems (aka, “feedback loops”) it’s always nice to see another example of my philosophy that everything interesting in life can be explained using control theory concepts.
    The solution to this problem of driving the system of information flow on the internet to a desired state of precision and accuracy is a class of control systems problems that is well understood.
    The FB “like” button is the first, rudimentary, cross-internet example of what in control theory we call “state-space feedback”.
    The first step to designing controllable systems that can be driven dynamically to an desired level of accuracy is accurate observation of the states of the system.
    As the “like” button evolves into a richer “How accurate is this?” button that allows people to rate the accuracy of information we’ll quickly be able to see what information is accurate and automatically make that more visible and also see which information is inaccurate and drive the visibility of that false information down into the noise.
    Math is cool and there are uses of math for mining the internet information ocean that have yet to be tried. When we get around to using these techniques it will make our society a better and more stable place to live. We’re almost there.

  2. Reliability of information sources is a very common problem in all sort of media.
    I can provide the example of Italy where information is amplified by major press agencies most of the time without any sort of confirmation or assurance of its truth, leading to very embarrassing situations.
    On a minor note, as well, I can’t remember two newspapers or news programs agreeing on a single piece of information, for example ages of people involved, jobs, even course of events, etc.
    So yeah, the problem is much more generalized and hard to overcome.

  3. Information over load gives way to moving information forward without checking its validity … is it right … no, but it is what happens.

  4. @Roger – I confess that I’m totally in awe of your observation. I love the ideas on the Facebook “like” button transformation. You lost me a little when you talked about math. Are you proposing we apply an algorithm to the “votes” stories get for accuracy, etc.?
    @Gabriele – indeed, everyone has an agenda and for news media it seems to be staying alive these days. They say history was written by the winners, lots of truth to that, too. Could the problem be solved or improved with facts and data available in a common source/repository?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *