How viral sites work

Recently I was checking what news from Germany is going viral (it’s part of my job) and I noticed that one of the top ten stories involved an elderly man who had found his long-lost wedding ring wrapped around a carrot grown in his garden.

The story appeared on a site called Buzz Flare.

Buzz Flare credits another viral site, UNILAD Tech for the story and the photos.

In fact, UNILAD Tech posted a photo seven months ago on its Facebook site, with only a short text.

It credited the photo to a Reddit user.

Was he the source of all this? No.

What actually happened is that the Reddit user and the viral sites stole an AP story from early November, removed any attribution to AP (because they don’t pay for our service) and tried to pass the image and information off as their own or some third party’s.

Here’s the original story:

Yes, it’s just a story about a ring on a carrot. But this kind of sneaky lifting of stories earns ripoff viral sites like Buzz Flare a few dollars that deserve to go to journalists who actually wrote the story in the first place.

The Chancellor speaks

Ten years ago Angela Merkel discovered podcasts. Not ‘In our Time’ or ‘This American Life.’ No, no, not the joy of listening to podcasts. She discovered podcasts as a means of communicating to the public. You might say, broadcasting.

Now the German government isn’t meant to broadcast. There are independent private and publicly-funded radio and TV stations for that. But video podcasts and YouTube clips are a grey area. Do they technically constitute broadcasting?

Every week Merkel records a short question-and-answer session with a young person. They’re usually likable, often students, who pose fairly soft-ball questions to the chancellor. She is obviously prepared, because she’s never flustered and always provides a neat 20-30 second answer.

I asked her office a few questions about these podcasts recently and I’d like to share the answers:

Q: How many viewers did the podcasts get in 2016?

A: The 42 video podcasts in 2016 was accessed 13.5 million. On average, each episode was accessed about 320,000 times. In addition, previous years’ podcasts were accessed 2.3 million times last year.

Q: How many hours work went into each podcasts.

A: The production of the podcasts is tendered anew each year and the amount of work hours doesn’t influence the price. As such, they aren’t recorded.

Q: How much did Merkel’s weekly podcasts cost in 2016?

A: The costs for each episode were €2,350.25 (incl. VAT)

Dubious Sources

When reading what someone has to say about the state of the world, does it matter who they are? It can. You’d expect a chicken farmer to be skeptical about vegetarianism, and a scientist to take a dim view of homeopathy. A person’s background doesn’t automatically dictate their opinion, but it helps if readers can put their views into context.

So why do some media outlets seemingly go out of their way to obscure who they are interviewing?

Here are two examples from Russia Today, or RT, a broadcaster controlled by the Kremlin:

  1. In an article headlined ‘Germany, not Donald Trump, is biggest threat to the EU,’ Russia Today has an interview with someone they described as “Graham Moore, political commentator,” who believes Merkel is bad and Russia is good. RT doesn’t say which think tank or university Mr. Moore works for, so I had to dig a little. Turns out, there’s a Graham Moore who has appeared on RT in the past and who uses similar phrases on his Twitter feed (e.g. referring to Muslims as “Muhammadans”). And this Graham Moore is a leading figure in a fringe far-right party called English Democrats. He may be commenting on politics, but would “political commentator” be the first way you’d describe him? No, he’s a far-right politician.
  2. In another article headlined ‘Award for Merkel over migration policy during 2015 crisis raises eyebrows on social media,’ Russia Today goes for the online vox pop by citing people on social media who disagree with Merkel getting the award. Both of the people they cite are actually long-time critics of Merkel’s refugee policy. One of them, a former ‘pickup artist’ called Kolja Bonke, seems to spend most of his day on Twitter bashing Merkel and refugees. Yet RT refers to them as “some people” and Bonke simply as “another person” – as if it were a random sample.

Those two articles appeared on RT’s website on the same day. It probably wouldn’t be hard to find similar examples from other days, where the people RT uses to present its arguments are carefully picked from a small pool of vocal but unrepresentative campaigners who are neither experts nor ordinary members of the public.

When reading someone’s opinions, always remember to remember to look them up – especially if the media outlet they appear in doesn’t tell you much about who they are.