BuzzFeed doesn't need 'trust' to win the Internet

   By Aaron Sankin Twitter on October 23, 2014

   On Tuesday, the Pew Research Journalism Project published the results of a
   fascinating study on the ways people consume political news online. 

   The study found that liberals and conservatives live in vastly different
   online media spheres. Those on the left tend to get their news from a
   variety of left-leaning and establishment sources ranging from
   ThinkProgress to NBC News. Conservatives, on the other hand, almost
   exclusively patronize a small network of right-wing sources centered
   around the behemoth that is Fox News.

   Not much of a surprise. But one development did raise a few eyebrows.

   The study asked people of varying political ideologies whether they
   trusted or distrusted three dozen different news sources. The only
   publication to earn universal trust was the Wall Street Journal
   (presumably because it’s easy for most progressives to pretend the
   Journal’s editorial page doesn’t exist). The only publisher to garner
   universal distrust was BuzzFeed.

                                                       Image via Pew Research

   After the results were posted, many of BuzzFeed’s competitors turned the
   discussion into a schadenfreude free-for-all. (Gawker’s response: “No One
   Trusts BuzzFeed :-(.”) The results seemed to imply that the era of quizzes
   and listicles was over, that the average Facebook user was beginning to
   resent BuzzFeed as much as “real journalists” do.

   But the survey results really prove something else, and it isn’t quite as
   bad for BuzzFeed as the site’s critics may like to believe. If the study
   accurately depicts how news readers view BuzzFeed—one of the most
   successful online publishers in the business—these results should be
   absolutely fucking terrifying for BuzzFeed’s competitors, especially the
   establishment news sources, many of which have spent the better part of a
   century building the trust of their readers.

   The first thing that’s important to establish: BuzzFeed is unquestionably
   the reigning champion of distributing content online.

   An analysis conducted by viral marketing firm Fractl earlier this year
   looked at the top 1 million most-shared articles for the first six months
   for 2014, which accounted for over 2.6 billion shares.  These articles
   were put out by 190 different publishers and, in sheer terms of quantity,
   BuzzFeed blew everyone else out of the water. BuzzFeed had over 400
   million shares, the overwhelming majority of which came from Facebook.
   Huffington Post came in a distant second with 250 million shares. The New
   York Times and CNN, approximately tied for third place, barely broke 100

   According to a separate Pew study from last year, 71 percent of adult
   American Internet users regularly use Facebook. For the vast majority
   those people, it stands to reason that they've clicked on, or at the least
   seen, numerous pieces of content bearing the BuzzFeed logo.

   Yet, as Pew researcher Amy Mitchell explained, the number of people who
   had even heard of BuzzFeed wasn’t particularly high. “It’s important first
   to recognize that just 31 percent of respondents had heard of BuzzFeed. So
   it was a relatively unknown quantity,” she said. Many readers on Facebook
   click on those shared quizzes and have no idea what they’re reading.

   Mitchell detailed a multipart process Pew used for determining “trust.”
   First, the researchers asked people if they had head of each of the news
   sources. If the respondents recognized the news outlet, they asked if they
   trusted, distrusted it, or neither.

   “When you then break down those numbers further, the greatest percentage
   of people who had heard of BuzzFeed did not indicate trust or
   distrust—they felt neutral on it,” Mitchell continued. “Then, below that,
   you had the 8 percent of people who said they didn’t trust the site versus
   the 2 percent who said they did.”

   All in all, only 10 percent of all respondents even knew enough about
   BuzzFeed to form an opinion about it. Nevertheless, the overwhelming
   majority of those opinions were negative.

   For their part, BuzzFeed’s brass has insisted that slamming their site for
   being untrustworthy when it comes to hard news isn’t entirely fair. The
   site has invested countless resources into building its international
   BuzzFeed News brand, establishing offices in Europe and India and hiring
   reporters across the globe.

   “Most of the great news organizations have been around for decades, and
   trust is something you earn over time,” BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith
   said in an email to Talking Points Memo. “Our organization is new, our
   news operation is even newer, and it’s early days for us. The more people
   know BuzzFeed News, especially young people who are make up a small share
   of these surveys, the more they trust us.”

   This statement is unquestionably true. BuzzFeed may have been around since
   2006, but the site only hired Smith, a veteran political reporter, to add
   a serious-journalism arm in 2011.

   In the years since, Smith has made good on his mission. In the past few
   days alone, BuzzFeed has published in-depth investigations about much of
   American consumer economy is based on a foundation of political corruption
   and environmental degradation, how the tide of police militarization led
   to an infant being maimed in botched DEA drug raid, and how blackface is
   alive and well in the world of Hollywood stuntmen.

   All of these stories are superb. They could run in The Atlantic or the New
   York Times Magazine and no one would bat an eye. BuzzFeed is doing
   top-tier journalism on a very regular basis. 

   But few people know they’re doing it. BuzzFeed’s serious journalism
   doesn’t get nearly the same amount of social media exposure as viral
   stories like “19 Vines That Perfectly Capture the Little Things Your
   Parents Do.”

   BuzzFeed’s difficulty in getting its serious journalism to resonate with
   the public isn’t surprising, or even all that unique to BuzzFeed. What’s
   more interesting is trying to figure out how BuzzFeed is able to be the
   most widely viewed publisher on the Internet while 90 percent of American
   Internet users don’t know enough about it to form an opinion.

   Facebook has the effect of stripping news from the context of its
   publisher. The Pew study found that, while almost half of respondents get
   news from Facebook, only 30 percent of those people actually signed up to
   received updates from news sites. Most articles flow into their news feeds
   passively, either popping up as a trending topic or as a result of a
   friend sharing it.

   According to Kenny Olmstead, another Pew researcher, prior surveys have
   shown that Facebook has a tendency to cause people to replace in their
   minds whoever actually created a piece of content (let’s say the Daily
   Dot, for example) with how they found that content (Facebook). “People’s
   inability to recall precisely where they read something isn’t unique to
   Facebook; social scientists have been saying this for years,” Olmstead
   explained. “But Facebook is just amplifying that because there’s so much
   more information on the news feed than people have traditionally had
   access to before.”

   Someone can see a news item shared on Facebook and not give a second
   thought to if its source is trustworthy. The story was shared by a friend
   or family member, a person they trust, so the need to have faith in the
   publisher of that content is diminished. Facebook, which has quickly
   become the single largest driver of traffic to news sites across the
   entire Internet, is ushering journalism into the post-trust era—when the
   reputation of a news site is secondary to its ability to get social

   This situation is why faux-news sites like the National Report are able to
   get millions of gullible readers to share thinly veiled satire like
   “Dallas Cancels Halloween Amid Ebola Concerns” or “Monica Lewinsky Forms
   Exploratory Committee for Potential 2016 White House Run” or “Actress
   Betty White, 92, Dyes Peacefully in Her Los Angeles Home” think they’re
   the gospel truth.

   BuzzFeed’s ability to succeed without the explicit trust of its readers
   says more about how social media like Facebook are affecting the way that
   news is distributed and consumed online than it does about BuzzFeed
   itself. Rather than taking the opportunity to gloat, competitors ought to
   think long and hard about an industry where the trust of readers—the
   singular quality on which media empires have depended for hundreds of
   years—doesn’t measure up to a mess of pottage.

   Photo via Daniel Mitchell/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Rob Price