A man singing while combining random fruits with the word pen, John Oliver ranting about Donald Trump and James Corden and Adele jamming out through the streets of England, these were a few of the most viral videos of 2016 according to Time Magazine. Though they are only one form or way media may “go viral,” their various and somewhat random topics are perfect examples of how different type of media stories may become internet sensations.
It seems these days a video, tweet, or Facebook post could go viral at any given moment. Many have tried to understand what makes something go viral and have gone to great lengths of defining different kinds of “virality” to help others determine how they can take advantage of media to promote their products and brands. Yet even with these tips and guidelines, some of the videos or posts that go viral may boggle the minds of journalists or consumers of traditional hard news. However, when you break down viral news in terms of how it relates to the basic values of journalism, it might make sense as to why a tweet from a random person with a small following might go viral.
So let’s review, what are the six news values of journalism? The six values of journalism, are proximity, prominence, timeliness, impact, conflict, and novelty. As a journalist student these values have been drilled repeatedly into my mind until they are something I subconsciously think about when I pitch a story or an idea for an article to determine my pitch’s “newsworthiness.” Each value in itself provides a different aspect to a story that might make it interesting or make people want to read it. A story could have all six of these values or perhaps only two or three of them and still be consider newsworthy. So if these are the six values that most journalists always consider when producing a story then how does a story about a Cheeto shaped like a Gorilla go viral than say North Korea’s latest ballistic missile launch? Why would a random tweet or Facebook post go viral when the person producing them likely doesn’t even consider or know what the values of news are?
Looking at a recent tweet that was debunked as fake news by the New York Times. If you read my last blog post, then you know I’m referring to Eric Turner, a self-proclaimed “business man” who tweeted a picture of a line of buses he said contained paid protestors in retaliation to President Trump’s election in 2016. Though as the Times had explained Turner had a small Twitter following, his tweet went viral despite his claim of that there were buses full of paid protestors being false. This tweet easily went viral in terms of the conflict it creates, its prevalence and timeliness. With the election just over and Trump’s win creating a lot of division in the country, a tweet that suggested that the other side of the political spectrum was paying people to protest the election easily attracted people’s attention just as a real story reported by a credible new source likely would have, if the story had been true.
There’s also a bit of novelty in the idea of the “citizen journalist.” Sure we know someone like Mr. Turner may not necessarily be credible, but in an age of fake news and distrust for the media, his story may be more interesting and original than news from traditional news outlets like CNN or the Washington Post.
But wait, sure this tweet shows how random media might become viral because it fits into specific journalistic values, however that doesn’t explain how so many people saw the tweet before it disappeared into an endless stream of millions of tweets per second? This could primarily be due to Twitter’s algorithms, as it would be the same for any other social media’s algorithms if Turner had instead posted the pictures on the buses on another platform. I won’t dive deep into algorithms because I think the six journalistic principles play a larger role in determining a post’s virality, but when and how your tweets or posts are seen also play a role in who sees it and picks it up and passes it on. As an individual user its sometimes easier to have your information reach a broader audience than an actual news organization, who tosses content hoping the Facebook algorithms are playing in their favor that day.