Sarah Hanson: It's Our Fault We Fall For Digital Media Hoaxes


The Sarah Hanson startup auction went viral last week, perhaps due to its seamless blend of hot topics: youth, creativity, and ambition. A 19-year-old college student auctions off 10% of her future earnings for an angel investment in her internet startup. Yet, it turns out the optimistic Hanson doesn’t exist. Hanson’s narrative was all a magnificent hoax – fed bit by bit to journalists as they anxiously shrugged off the story’s red flags in the hope of a traffic boom. As major publishers scramble to retain credibility with readers in the days following the disappointing reveal, it turns out the culprit is Steinar Skipsnes – a strange man with a penchant for internet deception.

Skipsnes seems to have a knack for tweaking the technology-startup press to gain massive publicity for his outlandish pranks, and though he maintains his entrepreneurial identity is legitimate, his attitude is likely to bring out the cynic in even the most idealistic. It’s difficult to discern Steinar’s genuine motives – as is the case with most notorious liars – but in actuality Skipsnes’ honesty is irrelevant: It is Skipsnes’ audience who fuel such deceit. The resentment aimed at Skipsnes and the media who bought and sold his scam is misplaced, for we are the ones inherently responsible for the content produced.

The digital-media industry quickly trades traffic for revenue and traffic is driven by content. But not just any content – it’s consumer-driven content. Vintage journalists often lament the death of newspapers for this very reason. The methods once relied on to ensure a story’s integrity are forced into a state of constant degradation as media outlets seek to push stories to readers faster and faster. If too much time passes on a trending story – even by just a few days or hours – a digital publisher likely won’t recoup the money spent on producing the story. Why? Because the audience will take its profit-providing page views and unique visitor value to a source that does rapidly update.

The digital media industry simply isn’t profitable without traffic, and consumption patterns frequently show that readers want to consume content now. Instant gratification balloons and technology startups are launched to meet the demand. Legendary news outlets must modernize alongside the latest “innovative” publishing sites. Everyone competes against the loud tick of a clock that seems to whisper, "Each minute lost is forfeited cash."

This is not to say that digital publishers just produce garbage stories. Quite the opposite, many publishers have well-deserved reputations for outstanding reporting and stellar contributors. However, tabloid strategies are increasingly acceptable – and are implemented to varying degrees – because to refrain from such characteristics ultimately leaves stories without readers and publishers without traffic, as the audience takes its business elsewhere.

If readers begin to demand precise reporting over quick updates, the market will surely accommodate. For now journalists and publishers remain stretched between two opposing avenues, and missteps or failures are likely given the intense balancing act.

If you truly want to see better content, support those outlets that aim to provide it and forget those that don’t.