Social media and the Internet in general are increasingly dominated by easily digestible news from sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy, according to Katy Waldman of Slate. These headlines are designed to grab the reader’s attention, and for the most part have been highly successful, attracting a large audience and transforming how online news is consumed.
They have the potential to quickly inform a large chunk of the population, but others fear that this news medium is simplifying politics, with negative consequences.
While these viral news sites generally don’t have an official stance, according to Jordan Fraade’s article in Al-Jazeera, they tend to lean left and promote progressive or liberal agendas. Fraade is concerned about the effects that titles like “3 powerful quotes that prove Edward Snowden is a true hero” might have.
“The point is not that Upworthy liberalism’s positions are incorrect,” wrote Fraade. “I happen to share (many of their) opinions myself. It’s that the reasoning behind them is so elementary that it leaves no room for the most fundamental truth about politics and social change: Politics is hard work, and social change happens excruciatingly slowly.”
Viral headlines tend to drastically simplify politics, according to Fraade, and leave no room for discussion, often not even implying that there might be opposing viewpoints. These one-sided arguments, he wrote, might result in “liberals playing an outsize role in shrinking the horizons of liberalism.”
Viral articles not only simplify the news but readers' responses to it as well, wrote Tom Hawking of Flavorwire.
“It tells you what you’re supposed to feel; one of the key elements of the much-imitated/parodied Upworthy headline style is that you’re left in no doubt as to how you’re meant to react to what you watch when you click through,” he wrote. “This means that audiences are engaging with “issues” on only the most superficial of levels — and that means that the way in which you engage with them is open to manipulation.”
Waldman is suspicious of the motive behind viral news, even news that seems to be doing good. This news medium is often “craven, formulaic, and sickly sweet, despoiling the innermost secrets of the Web and human nature and getting rich,” she wrote.
However, she continued, viral news does have benefits. Waldman mentions one viral story that featured the life of a boy who died of cancer at age 19. Due to the large audience it reached, viewers donated over $300,000 to cancer research through a link posted with the article. “Stories like this weaken my cynicism,” Waldman wrote.
Dan Mitchell of Fortune believes that curators of viral websites are being seen in extreme, paranoid terms. “Upworthy’s ‘curators’ create nothing except headlines,” he wrote. “Their job is simply to find content online that fits the site’s mission and is likely to be passed around.”
Whether or not these sites are trusted or liked, Mitchell wrote, they aren’t dangerous. “At best, the site can brighten someone’s day,” he wrote. “At worst, it can be a bit too on-the-nose.”
Bethan Owen is a writer for the Deseret News Moneywise and Opinion sections. Twitter: BethanO2