Think Upworthy is Just About Sharing Great Stories on Facebook? You'd Be Wrong.

Upworthy is a website designed to get a lot of traffic from people sharing stories on Facebook. According to the company, 78 percent of all Americans on Facebook have “liked” an Upworthy story.

Nearly all of Upworthy’s stories are based on a graphic or a video clip and many of those clips are already pretty old when Upworthy finds them. What Upworthy really does is sift the internet for stories which have some kind of emotional resonance and then add an earnest headline, a picture and a description, usually just a few sentences long.

A lengthy piece on Upworthy recently published by New York magazine makes clear that idealism really is the source of their success, but not just any idealism. The founders of the site are both progressives looking to share their outlook on the world.

Eli Pariser, one of the site’s founders got his start at MoveOn.org. One of his first jobs there was a video competition called “Bush in 30 Seconds” which invited submissions to define the Bush administration from a far-left point of view. The competition created headlines after two submissions compared President Bush to Hitler. You can see one of the ads here.

Peter Koechley, the other founder of Upworthy, worked at the Onion and then joined MoveOn.org with Pariser. According to the New York story, “they made a video that got 23 million views.” The video in question was produced for MoveOn by a company called Phear Creative. It was a funny last minute appeal to Obama voters not to stay home because they assumed he would win without their vote. You can watch it right here on PhearCreative’s website.

In short, Upworthy’s founders are progressives and most of their content promotes their political viewpoint. In the past day or so they’ve featured a video produced by Planned Parenthood to promote covered birth control (the Supreme Court will weigh in on this soon), a story about Upworthy’s contribution to a film about the Equal Rights Amendment (cue the Democrats “war on women” narrative) and a Mother Jones produced map of the US showing which companies “buy elections” in which states.

The key to getting so many people to share this deeply partisan content is emphasizing emotion and downplaying the source of the material. In fact, one of Upworthy’s star employees told the New York Times last October the keys was “Don’t take a strong stance in a headline that will make people
uncomfortable when they pass it — you don’t want people afraid to tell
their conservative uncle.” Upworthy launders the partisanship from progressive material so it can have more impact.

One of the company’s founders tells New York magazine “You don’t want to be that guy in your Facebook feed going, ‘These ReTHUGlicans out there.'” Upworthy is all about concealing that kind of partisanship, stuff like the Hitler videos submitted to the MoveOn.org video contest, to prevent it from turning ordinary people off. And it seems to be working. In two years, Upworthy has gone from
start-up to one of the most heavily trafficked news sites on the
internet with over 50 million views a month.

New York compares Upworthy to a cross between 60 Minutes and Readers Digest but another apt comparison is to NPR. You only need to listen to NPR to know the people working there are progressives, but the soothing tone–the NPR stage whisper–helps the content sound more detached, more neutral than it really is.

Given the founders previous involvement in campaigning against Bush and for Obama, don’t be surprised if you see Democrats, even the DNC itself, producing emotive videos designed specifically for distribution on Upworthy. It seems inevitable, not that anyone sharing the story will know that’s what is going on from reading the Upworthy headline.

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