Social Media and the Press

Assistant professor of journalism Devin Harner writes: “Social media has changed the news-gathering landscape. There are now citizen journalists “reporting” news as it is breaking in many cases replacing traditional news organizations as the first source of the story. Thanks to YouTube, we are now able to see and understand what is happening around the world like never before, and viewers and news organizations alike are eating it up. Amy Mitchell, director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), explains, “There’s a new form of video journalism on [YouTube]. It’s a form in which the relationship between news organizations and citizens is more dynamic and more multiverse than we’ve seen in most other platforms before.”

 YouTube has launched the channel Citizen Tube to keep track of what’s happening in YouTube News and Politics. In addition, CNN’s citizen journalism initiative, iReport, has grown to epic proportions, with over 1 million iReporters around the globe submitting stories. YouTube videos have become commonplace on broadcast news reports.

 With each major event that occurs around the globe, the number of YouTube videos uploaded by those who were there grows, and the power of the online video site becomes more apparent. Everyone has an entry into the public sphere either through Twitter or Facebook or other digital means. Organizations can no longer manage their reputations solely through traditional mainstream media.

 While placement in mainstream media such as The New York TimesWall Street JournalThe Guardian, CNN, or BBC is still important, non-traditional media outlets such as The Huffington PostThe Daily BeastSlate, and The Atlantic are equally important. The venerated American weekly, Newsweek, discontinued their print version and is now an online only publication.

 The traditional media does not own the news today, says Richard Sambrook, professor of journalism and director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University and former BBC director of news. Traditional media isn’t the gatekeeper it once was. While it can facilitate, verify, and/or host discussions around news, traditional media is no longer the arbitrator of news it once was.

 Sambrook says that the era of the news media saying to the public “If you want to know what is happening in the world, then you must sit down at 6 o’clock and listen to what we think you need to know” is gone forever.

Despite the fact that the news media is no longer in the driver’s seat, social media has been positive for journalism. It allows for more access to sources and information.

 Journalists have always interviewed and used eyewitness accounts to tell stories. Social media has greatly expanded the opportunities to connect with sources. In many ways, social media allows the media to bypass organizational public relations. The media is no longer reliant on press briefings and on organizations providing them with vetted individuals.

 Social media has made it easier to seek out sources and content experts and to cast a wider net for witnesses. Chris Hamilton, BBC News social media editor, shares that in 2000, people would come to BBC News regarding stories via the website. Now, with social media, BBC News can go out and identify people who tweeted or published videos, photos, or eyewitness accounts. Social media makes it easier to track down sources. It has lowered the barrier of publication.

 Before social media, news organizations were dependent on either having a photographer on site or an agency providing the photo or video. While using “amateur” content was once looked down upon, it has become more acceptable in recent times. Think about the 2009 elections in Iran. Most global news organizations were banned from broadcasting out of Iran during that time. Those organizations couldn’t rely on their own staff to get the stories. In the past, news organizations would have had to resort to using agencies or local journalists, which might provide them with only a narrow view of the situation.

 According to Hamilton, social media has given news organizations the ability to tell a wider story more quickly. For example, says Hamilton, it took two weeks for news to be shared from the Crimean War in the 1850s, and now a bomb blast in Kabul is publicized within minutes. Hamilton says that whole stories can be harvested directly from social media, based on trending topics and what people are saying on the various platforms.

 But, he says, there is a danger to basing stories solely on social media. The attitude still exists that if it is typed up on the Internet, then it must be true. He says that, in theory, social media gives journalists a much wider news-gathering capability, but we may not be getting the full picture. People on all sides of a conflict or situation are using social media to get their views out. And there could be biases at play. While this isn’t new—biases have always been out there—due to the speed of social media, the vetting process is often either shortened or circumvented.

 Verifying content is a massive issue facing news organizations today. Before social media, checks and balances would have been used to verify stories before they were reported to the public. Today, content is bypassing traditional media and entering the public sphere without those pre-checks. It is being openly discussed and analyzed in real-time. [Even more important is context and completeness which requires subject expertise and a responsibility to tell the whole story. That used to be the journalist’s job.]

 Large news organizations do have ways to authenticate content. They review previous history of a poster of a video on YouTube, for example. The experts evaluate how the video compares with other sources. Details matter, such as the vehicle license plates, weather forecasts, clothing, languages of the speakers, and so on. The experts look at the quality of the sound and editing of the video. They seek out the creator/poster to question them. The verification process takes time and resources.

 News organizations must determine how much to report on any given content. The fact that people are talking about posted content and are sharing it makes it part of the story. The race to break news first has led many news organizations to be conflicted. Consider, for example, the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. The Internet was alight with this news story. On Twitter, there were 306,000 tweets per minute during U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech, announcing the death of Osama bin Laden.

 News organizations ran a graphic photograph of Osama bin Laden that surfaced just after his death. Many quickly pointed out that the photo was a fake, woven together from other photographs widely circulated on the Internet previously. Those who ran the photo qualified it with the statement that they didn’t know if the photograph was real, but it made it into the news story, which gave it weight. If a news organization runs an unverified photograph or video, it gives the content weight that it may not deserve. Being committed to truthful and impartial reporting has become more important with the lower barrier of publication created from YouTube, blogs, and other platforms.”

 The new Internet “reporters” have learned their craft and technique from the main-stream press and media. Truth and context have not been essential parts of traditional reporting for almost all of these “new journalists’” lives. They have never been exposed to a traditional “free” press – one free to report unbiased news. Since they are not familiar with it, they do not respect it – how could they. Any criticism that the mainstream press/media have about their new competition can be aimed right back at the critics. It is the world they created. Their chickens (to quote the Reverend Wright) have come home to roost.

 “At one time, there were divisions with the media: Print was print, radio was radio [newsreels were newsreels] and TV was TV. There was rarely crossover between print and broadcast. Now those lines have been blurred due to the Internet and the advent of news-organization-websites. [Up and coming] journalists today have to be multimedia journalists. Not only do journalists have to know how to write but they need to know how to take compelling photographs and shoot and edit video. And the reverse is true of photojournalists.

 Digital media has allowed news organizations to blend disciplines to provide readers with a rich online experience. Traditional media has been transformed from, for example, just print newspapers, to an interactive website where video is incorporated into the story and discussion boards that allow readers to weigh in. Journalists having their own blogs within a news organization’s website, allowing for more in-depth analysis and discussion with readers. Radio and TV stations are streaming live content via their websites.

 Social media is allowing news organizations to get news out faster. For example, when breaking news is happening, a newspaper can start publishing on its website instead of waiting to go to print on paper. During a disaster, the power of social media and websites becomes apparent. During Superstorm Sandy, which ravaged the mid-Atlantic states in the fall of 2012, social media was a driving force in getting the news out to the public. Many were without electricity and cable TV, but mobile networks were still working. Journalists (as well as their citizen counterparts) were getting news out to the public via Twitter and Facebook. With production and distribution routes disrupted, news websites became the sources of breaking news and important updates. News organizations tweeted news updates to drive users to their websites.”

 But, hurricane Sandy provides a cautionary tale.

  Marisol Bello of USA Today wrote: Social media during Sandy led some websites and news organizations to publish false information and photos.

The story of Hurricane Sandy unfolded quickly on social media: postings such as a poignant photo of soldiers standing guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, a picture of a giant wave slamming into the Statue of Liberty and a TV report that 3 feet of water flooded the New York Stock Exchange. None of it was true.

Social media served as a useful tool for family and friends to keep tabs on each other during the storm, but Hurricane Sandy exposed a dangerous underbelly of social media: False information can go viral.

“There were a lot of rumors going around,” said Emily Rahimi, the social media strategist for the New York City Fire Department, who writes and monitors its Twitter feed. She said even though rumors spread on the fire department’s social media, it was just as easy to use the site to debunk rumors. At one point, she posted a message that read, “There is much misinformation being spread about #Sandy’s impact on #NYC,” and pointed people to official city Twitter feeds for accurate information.

Several photos went viral. The photo of the soldiers at Arlington Cemetery was taken in September, not Monday. Others that showed ominous clouds over the New York City skyline were photo-shopped, or were screen grabs from a movie, or were stock photos.

A post that the 109-year-old building that is home to the stock exchange was flooded with water became the subject of debate Tuesday after CNN reported it.

In an e-mail, CNN spokeswoman Bridget Leininger said the station’s weather correspondent Chad Myers “referenced a National Weather Service report that turned out to be incorrect. We quickly made an on-air correction. We regret the error.”

The National Weather Service spokesman Chris Vaccaro said the news came from several local New York City media outlets who had posted it on Twitter, though he didn’t know which specifically. “We conveyed information we would have deemed credible,” but he said as soon they realized the reports were false, they corrected the report.

The digital news website BuzzFeed identified the original source of the tweet as Twitter user @comfortablysmug, who identifies himself as a Mitt Romney supporter interested in finance and politics. His Twitter feed included other erroneous tweets, including one that all subways would be closed for the rest of the week and that major lines were flooded and another that Con Edison was shutting off all power to New York City. Con Edison corrected the tweet, saying it may shut down service in low-lying areas. The Twitter account late Tuesday apologized, saying, “I made a series of irresponsible and inaccurate tweets.”

Debra Jasper, a co-founder of the social media consulting company Mindset Digital, says fact-checking is as quick on Twitter as the spreading of misinformation. Indeed, posters immediately began asking the source of the information on the flooding at the stock exchange. “People can correct misinformation in real time, too,” Jasper says.

Her Mindset Digital partner, Betsy Hubbard, said the other phenomenon occurring more often after a big event is “newsjacking,” when someone or a company try to use an event for their gain.

It happened with Hurricane Sandy, too, when American Apparel sent out an e-mail blast for a 20% off sale for people living in the affected states, with a tagline that read, “In case you’re bored during the storm.” An immediate backlash followed on Twitter. “I don’t care if it’s ‘relevant,’ social media ‘newsjacking’ is gross and opportunistic,” wrote one poster. Another wrote, “American Apparel showing how not to do it with a Hurricane Sandy sale.” “It’s not a good idea to try to use these tragic events to your advantage,” Hubbard says.

Rahimi, who monitored the department’s Twitter account all day Monday and through the night and early morning Tuesday, said more good came out of using social media despite the bad information that circulated. At one point, she said, a rumor spread that the Fire Department headquarters was evacuated. So, she set the record straight, sending messages directly to people who had posted the erroneous information.

What this event demonstrated is that social media can and will be used for nefarious purposes – large and small – and these instances can and will eventually cause unnecessary deaths or damages. Astute monitoring of the “twitterverse” by the professionals mentioned above prevented further disaster during Superstorm Sandy but that will not always be the case.

Only the return of truth and context to the essence of the news, even on the Internet, can counter the “wild-west” character of this 21st Century dilemma.

 “There is no such thing as just a “hometown” newspaper or station any more. With a website, any news outlet becomes a national or international one. And this is all searchable on the Internet. In addition, citizen journalism increases our ability to share news. Public relations professionals need to come to terms with this reality.

 [Experts] agree that social media, despite challenges, is [a net] positive for news organizations [no pun intended]. Like other types of organizations, new organizations are coming to terms with how they fit in the social media sphere. There will be missteps along the way. News organizations, like corporations, are still working out how to use social media tools [but, in the meantime, there are dangers in the unfiltered production of online content of purported what can loosely be described as “news”.]

 Influence has always existed. People have always looked to others to get information, opinions, guidance, validation, and so on. This is nothing new. People have always sought to identify and cultivate relationships with those they believe are influential in order to advance themselves [press/media social-climbers]. Organizations behave the same way. They want to be connected with those who are beneficial to them in reaching their organizational objectives.

 In social media terms, usually an influencer is someone who has a large following on a particular platform (usually Twitter), an early adopter of the medium, and/or a specialist in a field where people want to hear what they have to say. Influencers can play varied roles. Their influence can be positive, negative, or neutral. Influencers can be used to share information as an independent third party. They typically produce and share relevant content, appealing to the interests of a community, which can result in stimulating discussions and interactions that might sway behaviors.

 Danny Brown, co-author of Influence Marketing, drills down and takes it a step further. He believes a true influencer is someone who can make you have a physical reaction—someone who is able to change your mind and, with a call to action, get you to buy something or donate to a charity, for example. An influencer gets you to take real measurable action. Brown likens it to shopping: You find an item that costs $50, but when you start talking with a salesperson or even another knowledgeable customer, you find out about the $100 option of the same product type. A retweet could be considered an impulse buy and may not be worth anything of value. An influencer will get you to forgo the $50 buy and get you to purchase the $100 similar item because it is deemed better.

 Most of the influence on social media isn’t real. The current models are based on numbers of followers [quantity], not the quality of relationships with followers. Influence is perceived. Studies are showing that high follower count doesn’t equate to high influence. Retweets and mentions measure the audience responsiveness to a user’s tweet and are used as [better] metrics in measuring influence. People may have a million followers and be mentioned and retweeted widely, but this does not correlate strongly with having more influence. A user with a lower follower count may have more influence. It comes down to the value [perhaps the truth?] in the information and interactions that person brings.

 Those with large follower counts most likely are not making people change their habits or [causing them to] take action. That said, social media influencers can create [or encourage] a lot of noise, and the noise [can be]  amplified. Social media influence becomes real when it crosses platforms and channels.

 When Southwest Airlines removed American filmmaker Kevin Smith from a flight because of his weight in 2010, his complaint online spread quickly because of his more than 1.5 million Twitter followers at the time. Mainstream media outlets picked up the story. Having a large follower count played a huge role in the [resulting discussion and is probably] what made the situation expand to different channels [because] it struck a nerve in many. Why? It was an outrageous experience of a person who represents the two-thirds of the U.S. population that is considered overweight or obese. It resonated, and it caused community outrage.

 Outrage is outrage, regardless of where it starts. It could start online or offline and then move to social media and spread. It doesn’t matter. It is real either way. There is a human being behind that angry tweet, Facebook post, or blog comment, says Dr. Peter Sandman, who is an author, a risk management consultant, and an outrage expert.

Social media is a perfect tool for outrage exasperation. It is a better tool than any other channels for spreading outrage. People are more linked. The cost of access is very low.

 Before social media, people who were angry at an organization or a situation had limited options. They could just shrug it off and throw up their hands. They could tell their friends about their experience. They could conduct a one-on-one battle with the organization via letters or phone calls. Or they could try to get people outside their sphere of influence interested by writing a letter to the editor that might or might not be printed. There was really no way of knowing who agreed with these people or of connecting with these outraged folks, even if they lived in the same location. It was very difficult to start a movement.

 Social media isn’t a level playing field when it comes to outrage [either]. It favors those who want to spread outrage, not those trying to mitigate it. According to Sandman, we’ve created an institution that makes it easier to spread the outrage than to suppress it. It doesn’t matter if the outrage is justified; that’s irrelevant. Organizations must deal with outrage immediately. Before social media, it was hard for outraged people to organize, and it was easy for organizations to ignore them. Social media has changed that. Organizations are slowly getting more sensitive to outrage and are putting a higher priority on dealing with it. Social media is teaching organizations to take outrage seriously. Social media is giving activists a powerful channel to express outrage [even through unjustified, fictional or orchestrated outrage.]

 Activists are good at nurturing and mobilizing the public’s fear around a situation. They excel at creating and spreading outrage. Outrage is based on emotions, not on facts. And [through the manipulation of emotions] activists are good at garnering media attention for their cause. The media tends to focus more attention on emotion than on the technical aspects or facts of a situation [which especially suits the PLDC and its “fellow-travelers” who thrive on feelings].

 Before social media, people had very few tools to help them organize. Organizing was difficult, and it was localized. Word got out through literal word of mouth and printed pieces such as posters and letters. Activists would send letters to the editor or pitch stories to journalists, with no guarantee that they would be picked up. There was very little interaction among groups. Social media has allowed people to organize more easily. Activists now have a channel for spreading their message and creating outrage about a situation.

 The Internet has been described as a “virus” to organizations. The Internet and social media are contagious. Information on the Internet and social media can spread quickly. It spreads regardless of whether it is the right or wrong information. The playing field isn’t level but is tilted toward people rather than organizations [which is not a bad thing]. And once a digital footprint is made, it never truly disappears.

 The arrows for the flow of communications were once linear, pointing only between public relations departments and the media. The arrows are now curved, creating a circle among public relations, journalists, and the public.

 Organizations need to be very aware of their environment and their digital footprint. Organizations need to listen to conversations. They need to be willing to join in those conversations. Social media gives us the ability to share our voice publicly and anonymously. Social media circumvents the traditional gatekeepers of information—the news media and public relations departments—and it opens up a new channel of communications that doesn’t have filters or rules [which is not always a good thing].

[Public distrust] also comes from [news organization’s] trust in a sort of reporting by committee, or faith in a “hive” narrative, where readers and reporters expect the “collective” Twitter feed, and the corresponding blog posts, to sort the story out for them. As a consequence, [news organizations] are no [longer] inclined to take an assertive stance as far as determining what the news is, or where the story should focus.

When there’s breaking news that’s not particularly urgent, or great in scope, it’s often difficult to get well-organized information, even with the help ofGoogle News. We have news 24/7, but it’s like the same episode of the “Twilight Zone” is on every channel, because the news-gathering apparatus hasn’t yet caught up with the content delivery systems, and likely won’t, given the economics of reporting in today’s world.

Despite all of this, social media is very useful when reporting straightforward breaking news. Did the gay-marriage bill pass in Albany, N.Y.? Yes, according to a Facebook post via iPhone. When the nuclear crisis happened in Japan, citizen journalists were able to report details through the social media that mainstream reporters couldn’t get for numerous reasons. The same goes for the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.

But when it comes to everyday, mundane news or when things get even a little complicated and when what’s important isn’t immediately obvious, thenews risks getting lost in the noise.

This gossipy “hive” narrative yields little new information, despite that it has the look and feel of news (stock file videos and stills of the “Jackass” guys being Jackasses and a lame movie of the “crime scene” two hours after the fact designed, cynically, to draw hits).

As journalists increasingly use social media, they’ll need to develop strategies aside from just redundantly “breaking” snippets of narrative that are already known to anyone following the source’s tweets. They need to function as human Twitter aggregators, and to extract the news from slivers of narrative — both literally from Twitter, and figuratively from their [education], their lives and their others sources.”

“There have been so many conversations on the impact of fake news on the recent US elections. An already polarized public is pushed further apart by stories that affirm beliefs or attack the other side. Fake news is a serious problem that should be addressed. But by focusing solely on that issue, we are missing the larger, more harmful phenomenon of misleading, biased propaganda [masquerading as real news].

 [Unfortunately,] it’s not only [found in] fringe publications. Think for a moment about the recent “Hamilton-Pence” showdown. What actually happened there? How disrespectful was the cast towards Mike Pence? Was he truly being “Booed Like Crazy” as the Huffington Post suggests? The short video embedded in that piece makes it seem like it. But video on ABC News suggests otherwise. “There were some cheers and some boos,” says Pence himself.

 In an era of “post-truth politics [the truth is still there, it’s just hidden from the People by the main-stream media], driven by the 24-hour news cycle, diminishing trust in institutions, rich visual media, and the ubiquity and velocity of social networked spaces, how do we identify information that is tainted — information that is incomplete, that may help affirm our existing beliefs or support someone’s agenda, or that may be manipulative — effectively driving a form of propaganda?

 Biased information — misleading in nature, typically used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view — is a much more prevalent problem than fake news. It’s a problem that doesn’t exist only within [Twitter and] Facebook but across social networks and other information-rich services (Google, YouTube, etc.).

With increased political polarization, amplified by homophily — our preference to connect to people like us — and algorithmic recommender systems, we’re effectively constructing our own [private, personal] realities.

 This dynamic unfolds continuously, especially around political events, helping us construct our own realities and reinforce our existing beliefs. And the pace at which content cascades through the network is staggering. Even with tools that give journalists the ability to “find content that’s about to trend,” in many cases it is already too late.

Noah Feldman writes about the completely different information realities that the Israelis and Palestinians have constructed:

 “Israelis believe theirs is a democratic society in which the police enforce the law rather than break it; Palestinians think Israeli security services shoot first and ask questions later…”

 Facts are real, and can be true or false. But how we determine those facts is highly inflected by our circumstances  — which can lead to interpretations that seem crazy to the other side.

 “In a co-authored essay, John Borthwick and Gilad Lotan define Media Hacking as the usage and manipulation of social media and associated algorithms to define a narrative or political frame. In an essay, they showed a few examples of ways in which individuals, states, and non-state actors are increasingly using media hacking techniques to advance political agendas.

 More recently, [Lotan has] written about another form of media-hacking— where [Donald] Trump supporters successfully gamed Twitter’s trending topics algorithm to make the #TrumpWon hashtag trend worldwide after the first US presidential debate [in September 2016]. He wrote; ‘As I was analyzing this data, it was striking for me just how organized this group of supporters seemed to be. They seemed to have been coordinating somewhere, all publishing to Twitter with the same unique keyword at the same time (a known tactic to get something to trend).’

 In the following weeks, this happened over and over again. For example, after the [Hillary Clinton confidant John] Podesta email leaks, Trump supporters online were synchronizing usage of the same unique hashtags that changed on a daily basis. A new, unique keyword that attains high velocity of shares is more likely to trend.

(In his excellent Media in the Age of Algorithms, Tim O’Reilly notes that ‘Google has long demonstrated that you can help guide people to better results without preventing anyone’s free speech.’ Tim suggests that Google’s Panda algorithm update, which rewarded higher quality sites, solved a similar problem for Google as Twitter’s gameability. ‘Based on many queries that I’ve run, I’m not convinced.’) People clearly see Twitter as a critical recruiting tool and ask for help propagating information on the platform.

 In a recent response to Twitter’s purge of Republican accounts, Andrew Anglin at the Daily Stormer asks users to create bogus “black accounts” and start flooding the social network with content ‘in a manner which is indistinguishable from normal black tweeters.’ He claims to already have thousands of these accounts. These types of “bot” accounts are some of the most difficult to identify because they are powered by real humans and may be “activated” in a coordinated manner to send out very specific messaging at certain points in time.

 A consistent theme [being seen] not only in the US, but around the world is a decrease in trust in media institutions.

The loss of trust in institutions, especially mainstream media, is worrying because it means there’s no consensus on who is telling the truth, what is based on facts, and what is missing important context. There’s a broad range of not-fake-but-not-completely-true information. Leaving out information makes for a much more cohesive story but also may nudge a reader in a desired direction.

 The web that we’ve built — the social web, search engines, and spaces governed by algorithmic systems attuned to social signals (clicks, shares, likes, comments) — makes it increasingly difficult. In a world where stories form so rapidly and organically, who gets to decide what is real?” That is a deeply philosophical question.

 More problematic than that, social media tends to be exclusively subjective, so truth – to the younger generations – is not really relevant to their contrived reality. How does a society solve that predicament?

 Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the powers-that-be at the mega social media institutions – Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. – young, rich, surrounding themselves with more young, soon to be rich, West-coast colleagues – all have similar social philosophies (if the media is to be believed) that tend heavily toward the progressive/liberal strain of thought. What mischief might they engage in in support of liberal causes under the influence of the PLDC? Oh wait, we have already seen that – like Twitter’s purge of Republican accounts! Oh, my!!!

Next time: The freedom of the press.

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