If you think the most interesting media story in the U.K. is the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal, think again. It's actually the controversy in, around and about Twitter's role in the riots that have taken place throughout major English cities this week.
In case you've been living in a black hole, many are blaming Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger for helping fuel the riots - just as social platforms were used to foment the revolution in Egypt. When it comes to using Twitter to incite criminality, British Prime Minister David Cameron is even advocating blocking access for riot-inducing tweeters. It's yet more proof that no matter what the communications platform, it can be used for good or ill. While the telephone can be used to deliver crucial news in a timely fashion, you don't have to watch many old thrillers to know it can also be used for harassment.
This trend also comes dangerously close to shooting, or at least blaming, the messenger. In the case of Twitter, it can be used to move people in bad ways or good, to report news accurately, and to distort. Which is one thing when it comes to Twitter death hoaxes, but is quite another when things in the world are actually precarious. At those times, too often, Twitter's ability to break news means it's breaking news that isn't real. As Martin Bryant reported on Monday at TheNextWeb: "As you'd expect, last night Twitter was busy with reports of incidents taking place around the city. It was hard to tell what was accurate, what was exaggerated and what was plain false."
Again, Twitter's ability to spread fake news is one thing if it's a rumor that Eminem just died. (That is not a comment about Eminem's importance to contemporary culture, but he ain't Hosni Mubarak.) It's another if there are reports out there that rioters are headed to your neighborhood. Not only is that dangerous, but it also makes Twitter a less-than-reliable news source when we most need it to be accurate. How do you keep Twitter the free-flowing communications platform it is while at the same time keeping it the go-to platform when something important is happening?
Bryant suggests that journalists and curators of real news have accounts that are "accredited" -- similar to many celebrity accounts. While that's so obvious that I wonder why it hasn't already happened, it only partly solves the problem. Bryant's post also addresses the time-lag problem: if reporters are obligated to verify things, they won't be as on top of the news cycle, be it real, distorted, or just plain fake, as Twitter is. The Twitter amplification and distortion engine will continue to run no matter what the facts are. Maybe having accredited accounts won't make a damn bit of difference.
Still, it seems to me that it's time for Twitter to take the news bull by the horns and decide how it needs to operate when it comes to big news events. None of us needs reminding that we live in precarious times, even if you're not among the millions of us who see reminders every day that we are approaching the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Crises will continue to happen, here and elsewhere, and Twitter, which is effectively the CNN of its day, will be where people turn.
But when it comes to credibility, all tweets are not created equal, and Twitter needs to put the tools in place to ensure that verified news is treated as such. Bryant goes so far as to suggest that not only should news accounts be accredited, they should get priority in the tweet stream; in a time of national or global crisis, he may be right. An alternative is to employ existing tools like Twitter's lists in such a way that people who want an official news feed can pick that stream over often-shakily reported citizen journalism.
I'm sure some of you won't like that idea, but, at least in this country, we haven't put Twitter to the veracity test at a time when people are in danger. Then you might think differently. If and when we need to do that, there will be bigger things than Twitter's image at stake, but being able to separate real news from fake at Twitter will also go a long way toward ensuring Twitter remains a vital service in times of need. Otherwise, it's just too easy to shoot the messenger, when we need it most.
Although I can feel the emotional sense behind wanting to somehow disable SMS during a riot, rationally it makes little sense. How do you decide when to "switch it off?" ANd then when to "switch it back on?" And WHO decides when to switch it off and on? What is a riot? 300 kids being watched by millions on TV live seems like a riot, but what about 3 guys seen by one person trying to break into a store? Do you shut down social media?
No, it's all a little too gray around the edges. By all means use the law to subpoena records AFTER the event to confirm the identity of law-breakers, but tools such as "banning" are far too broad and indiscriminate a response. Perhaps we should ban pencils and paper too?
An article I posted on my personal site:
The state of the news media and what it means for public affairs.
I was listening to TWIG (This Week in Google) hosted by Leo Laporte and featuring Gina Trapani (a web designer) and Jeff Jarvis (a professor of journalism). For those of you who listen to Leo’s shows, you know he represents the best in entertaining video and audio podcasts on technology (see http://twit.tv/twig). I spend more waking hours with Leo than I do with my wife.
The discussion turned to the role of social media and the emergencies in Japan and the Middle East. They gushed about the role of Twitter and Facebook as to providing information.
No one can deny the role of social media in providing video, audio and tweets from the ground. It’s a game-changer; there’s no doubt about it. This is especially true when journalists are barred from the scene.
But as someone who has 30 years of experience in talking to the media, and as someone who has lead government public affairs emergency response teams dozens of times, the explosion of social media brings me to one question; how accurate is the information we’re getting?
Long before there was social media, we inserted rumor control teams into every emergency response. I learned that a lot of the “user-generated” reports from average citizens was not only inaccurate, but sometimes dangerously so.
The Quality of News Reporting
I have witnessed a decrease in the quality of news reporting. Early in my career, you had hard-bitten journalists who believed no one (including government representatives). Reports from citizens in the field were looked upon with even more skepticism. As far as veteran reporters were concerned, everyone had a motive and sometimes those motives interfered with the truth.
A report from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism provides the best possible overview of the state of the news media over the course of years and it isn’t pretty.
The bottom-line? Professional journalists have greatly decreased in number. Consumers are turning away from many traditional news sources. Internet popularity as a source for news is increasing.
How accurate is the information we’re getting?
But my question stands; how accurate is the information we’re getting from non-traditional sources?
If you accept the premise that a lot of content is self-serving, then who decides the truth? Do we have enough old-school journalists who doubt everything and verify endlessly?
Don’t get me wrong, the explosion of social media and citizen generated content is wonderful. There’s no turning back. This is a great time to be alive.
But I will gladly return to the days when there were sufficient journalists who doubted their own mothers and asked endless hard questions and made the lives of government spokespeople hell.
That’s democracy, but today’s economic models are tearing away at the fabric of excellence in journalism.
The Pew report below is wonderfully detailed but sad.
So Leo, Jeff and Gina, I love the show, but I’ll trust the journalistic gate-keepers more than an anonymous tweet. We need good reporters in sufficient numbers more than ever before.
I like the idea of accreditation but where do we then draw the line. Many of the most insightful and informative commentary comes from bloggers who, despite having no traditionally accepted or official accreditation as such, have demonstrated themselves to proven, reliable sources.
All I keep thinking is the old saying "guns don't kill people, people kill people". (not taking any stance on guns here) It definitely says a lot about how deep the traction for social media is in society now. This is of course a terribly sad example of it. I am extremely curious to see how much follow up there will be with identity tracking, facial recongnition etc to try and hold individuals accountable for their actions. Hoping for a quick recovery for the victims of this unfortunate crime spree.