Photo by Justin Langille.
In black and white footage, English musician Tom Fletcher and his newly pregnant wife, Giovanna Falcone, stand facing each other in their bedroom. Fletcher begins strumming a guitar, serenading his wife with his low-fi ballad “Something New,” while her belly grows in stop-motion. At the end, she waves goodbye, disappears out of the frame, and returns holding their newborn child, Buzz Michaelango Fletcher.
With just under 8 million hits on YouTube and thousands of supportive comments, “From Bump to Buzz” seems like a typical viral video. However, many of those hits came from a new Upworthy-style content aggregator called ViralVita—a project of LifeSiteNews, which bills itself as the “the world’s leading online pro-life and pro-family news agency.”
The site approximates the buoyant, sanitized headlines perfected by Upworthy, meant to draw clicks with missing information, schmaltz, and hyperbole.
In ViralVita parlance, “From Bump to Buzz” becomes “Couple Takes Photo Every Day of 9 Months Pregnancy. The Result is Beyond Beautiful.” Viewers are prompted for their email addresses with the question, “Want more life-affirming awesomeness?”
According to Steve Jalsevac of LifeSiteNews, ViralVita cost $8,000 plus countless hours of staff labour, and was viewed 120,000 times over its opening weekend at the end of March. The original repost of “Bump Becomes Buzz,” just days earlier on Jalsevic’s LifeSite blog, drew 3 million hits. It is LifeSiteNews’ most-viewed post of all time. Its popularity suggests that shareable, easily digested videos might be a better strategy than anti-abortion polemics.
The media long ago turned to advocacy journalism and partisan reporting to retain viewers and readers in an increasingly polarized political environment. Jalsevac encourages his readers to support LifeSite, for example, because “they no longer trust what is being reported in the mainstream media,” and must “come to LifeSiteNews … in search of the truth.”
This sentiment is echoed by outlets on the right and the left, from Adbusters to Glenn Beck. Nothing is non-partisan anymore. One Million Moms are coming for your Honey Maid graham crackers, Cheerios and JC Penney casual separates; if you’re on the side of marriage justice, you better not be seen using Firefox or shoving a Chick-fil-A sandwich into your face.
In this climate, part of why Upworthy and its imitators have exploded in popularity is our collective exhaustion with political antagonism and doomsaying. The no-good-news cliche of old media’s 6 pm and 11 pm broadcasts is only magnified in the round-the-clock news cycle of the internet. Just as we needed the closing human interest stories then, we need our Cute Emergency now.
LifeSiteNews has struggled, in the past, to fold uplifting, “life-affirming” victories into the relentless onslaught of their abortion and “family values” coverage. As recently as February, they resorted to big-upping Russia’s repressive censorship as “choosing life” and “protecting its children.”
ViralVita does double-duty. It demonstrates the ubiquity and success of these rhetorical clickbait strategies, as well as the increasing fragmentation of the internet. Even our cutesy, heartwarming videos have been co-opted to shape values and political biases, with or without the creators’ consent.
In another example, ViralVita reframes a Thai lingerie ad as “The Most Pro-Life Thing You’ll See All Week.” The ad, originally part of a campaign called “My Beautiful Woman,” follows a pregnant couple after the wife finds out she has cancer. “I will do it for you, baby,” she says at the turning point, constructing the crib instead of going for chemotherapy.
What could be an individual story about a personal choice becomes a moral tale in the context of ViralVita, and an admonition to anyone who might choose differently. The ad echoes a recent LifeSiteNews article about Elizabeth Joyce, a New York mother who died of cancer a few months after the birth of her first child. Like the woman in the ad, Joyce chose childbearing over chemo. LifeSite lauded her for her “ultimate sacrifice.” Of course, an affecting commercial with high production values is far more shareable than hastily written newspieces.
When aggregators have an explicit political purpose, even innocuous videos—children reciting Shakespeare or the cast of the Lion King singing “The Circle of Life”—can become tacit pro-life arguments.
And ultimately, this is the problem with content aggregation: a third party reframes work without the consent of its creators or participants. ViralVita may seem like an extreme example, as it’s centered around an emotional, hot-button issue, but it’s representative of the general state of the internet. No one’s image or story is immune from becoming fodder in someone else’s fight.