If you don’t mind all this too much, you can make the historical argument: light fare has always supported serious stuff in journalism. You can’t have front page investigative reporting without the funny pages. But there’s difference between running some Dilbert cartoons and intermixing real, reported stories with fake soap operas cooked up by people who are bored on Twitter.
Or maybe there isn’t! Maybe we just need to become comfortable allocating trust in individual writers rather than across entire outlets, which I suspect is what a lot of readers are already doing.
The other facet of this is that, frankly, I have outrage fatigue. I could spend every week being mad about a new viral fiction I’ve been told and half-believed, or I can just accept that these stories are the modern equivalent of folklore. I can choose to treat these hoaxes as pieces of culture rather than pieces of reporting, as vessels by which we transmit values and fend off boredom.
This is mostly what I think but I am beginning to have my doubts. John Herrman’s right that a lot of the stuff you find on UpWorthy or other buzzy sites right now (“This Recently Married Man Just Realized Marriage Is Not For Him. You Have To Read What He Wrote.”) is just a new way of distributing the content you used to find in e-mail chain letters. But maybe the form of distribution matters. If the “Diane in 7A” hoax is a piece of culture, it’s a piece of corporate culture, produced by an entertainment industry professional (the hoaxer is a reality TV producer) and then distributed by BuzzFeed, a massive media company. When chain letters come to you through your relatives or co-workers, their intent is to amuse you and maybe strengthen your relationship. (Or annoy you, depending on your family.) When they come to you through a media company, the intent is to make money. Culture that serves a social function is judged by different standards than culture with a profit motive.
I don’t care if an e-mail story my Grandma sends me is true because she just wants to virtually hang out with me. You wouldn’t fact-check a story you got told at a bar. I care if a story a media company sells me is true because verifying information is one of their two jobs. We don’t need a media company to repackage tweets for us because this is the internet and we can all just read the stupid tweets ourselves. There’s no value added by distributing content on the internet because you’re just pointing to something everyone else can see. Like I said about horse_ebooks, on the internet, our reception of a piece of culture has a lot to do with how we perceive its intentionality. The intentionality of my Grandma forwarding me something fake is to say hi. The intentionality of media companies, I assume, is to tell me things that are true. I don’t need them to access culture online, because I can do that on my own; I need them to tell me what’s true. For a media company to be reporting a hoax as if it’s true feels like I got duped at the airport into hiring a tour guide who’s bringing me to sights I could see perfectly fine on my own—and then telling me inaccurate stories on top of it. I feel like an understanding has been violated.