Social Media and the Problem of Plagiarism and Attribution

Many social media platforms are full of stolen or bootlegged content. Finding the source of an original post can be incredibly difficult if not impossible. All it takes is one person who, instead of hitting the share/retweet/reblog button, downloads a picture or video, or copies and pastes written content, and then reposts the content as their own without proper attribution to the original poster. Sadly, this happens all the time. I have seen, first hand, tweets that have been stolen word-for-word, videos that have been bootlegged from Vine and YouTube and later posted on Facebook, and even media sites like Buzzfeed taking content from places like Reddit and Imgur and repackaging it as their own.

My favorite thing that is happening on the internet right now is YouTuber Akilah Hughes leading a charge against the digital media giant Buzzfeed for stealing video ideas and copying shots from other creators without permission or attribution. Hughes posted to her Tumblr, “…BuzzFeed has been caught repeatedly stealing ideas, jokes, bits, gags and therefore money from prominent YouTube creators. And we’ve all had enough. It’s time to #StopBuzzThieves.” In a petition she created to ask advertizers to pull out of Buzzfeed, Hughes outlines a plethora of instances in which Buzzfeed has copied video ideas – sometimes so egregiously that they’ve even made shot-for-shot remakes of someone else’s original video. However, this is not the first time that Buzzfeed has been in hot water over plagiarism claims (see these many examples). Yet, Buzzfeed continues to take pictures, ideas, and sometimes even entire articles from around the internet and repackage them as their own with very little effort put towards properly attributing original sources*.

While Buzzfeed has done a lot of things wrong, they’re not the only ones who participate in the proliferation of stolen content. One of the reasons Buzzfeed and others are able to plagiarize without proper attribution from/on social media is because of the total lack of accountability that exists in this space for these types of wrong-doings. What are the consequences of plagiarizing content that originated on social media? Typically…none. Some sites attempt to do their due diligence and remove posts that have been flagged as plagiarized or bootlegged, but this is merely one solution to a symptom of a much larger disease.

For years now, digital content creators have been overlooked and not taken as seriously as their traditional media counterparts. I still have conversations with people who dismiss creating content online as a serious form of artistic expression. The mindset that “YouTubers can’t be filmmakers” or that “Bloggers can’t be journalists” or that “Instafamous photographers aren’t serious artists,” is still prominent in our society. Yet, we have to remember that stealing the pictures, ideas, videos, shots, or articles of smaller internet/social media creators is directly stealing from their potential earnings. The economy of content creation on social media is different than the traditional art space. While traditionally art is valued based on how well it can sell in the marketplace, content on social media is valued based on the views, likes, shares, retweets, reblogs, and comments associated with the content. Advertisers, sponsors, and brands value content based on the artist’s CPM (cost per thousand impressions). So when companies like Buzzfeed steal ideas or improperly attribute source material and get far more views and shares than a smaller creator who can’t match the astonishingly large amount of content that Buzzfeed is able to manufacture, these companies are directly impeding smaller creators from reaching their market potential. The same goes for unattributed sharing anywhere on social media. By not sharing the original post, you are directly stealing from the potential earnings of the original content creator. If you admire someone’s idea/work enough to share it or to sample from it on social media, be kind enough to properly attribute them instead of steal from them.

We need to build a better infrastructure for/culture of accountability on social media. We need to start caring about the incredible amount of intellectual property theft that is taking place. We need to stop supporting companies who blatantly plagiarize content/ lackadaisically attribute original posters because they are directly stealing from the pockets of smaller creators. We need to do better.

PS: I HIGHLY recommend looking at Akilah Hughes’ post on this issue and following her on Twitter as events of this debacle unfold.

* It should be noted that Buzzfeed does do the bare minimum to attribute some of their sources, but it is inconsistent and doesn't drive traffic back to originators of the content in a way that would be fair of a proper attribution. Their more journalistically inclined pieces have been better at holding themselves accountable for crediting source material, but there are still a lot of issues in their web-based meme-driven content and video content. For instance, I am trying to make a bit of a defense of some of the practices of Buzzfeed, but I'm doing so in the same way that they attempt to attribute sources, in the smallest font possible at the end of an article, without good links.

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