Revolutionary Measures

If a tree falls on Twitter……

The launch of CNN, back in 1980, ushered in the era of the 24 hour rolling news cycle. No longer did people have to wait for their morning papers or the 10pm TV news to find out what was happening in the world. And this had an impact on the news itself – rather than having to schedule events and press conferences to fit around journalists’ schedules, organisations could be confident that reporters would be available (and coverage would result) pretty much throughout the day. On the flipside unscrupulous PRs couldn’t try and sneak out bad news, knowing that it was just too late for print deadlines and would be out of date 24 hours later.

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The internet obviously accelerated the news cycle, making it even faster and more constant. You didn’t need to be watching CNN or other 24 hours news channels to see the latest stories, opening up access to everyone with a smartphone. It also allowed a wider range of media to reach people – you didn’t need to be a TV station or a major newspaper to break a story, you could be a citizen journalist or simply someone who was in the same place as a breaking news story. Essentially this democratised the reporting process. It became difficult for governments and corporations to spike negative stories as, hydra-headed, they simply popped up elsewhere.

We’re now in the midst of the next news cycle, focused on social media. As soon as something happens it is pored over on Twitter and Facebook, with both the public and experts giving their views. If previous news cycles were one reporter/media outlet to many readers or viewers this is essentially any to any – going beyond democracy to the text book definition of anarchy (‘without a ruler’).

In many ways this is a good thing, as it opens up the debate to multiple voices, many of whom have traditionally not been heard. But it drives three big issues that I believe threaten the integrity of how we get the information that shapes our world view and actions:

1. Who do you trust?
Major news organisations have a brand that their readers/viewers trust. They know what to expect when reading a story on The Sun compared to the Daily Mirror or the New York Times compared to Fox News. However, in the anarchic world of social media anyone can post ‘news’ or comments that are inaccurate or knowingly untrue. This fake news can be mischievous, misleading or designed to push a specific agenda, and is very hard to stamp out in the instant world of the internet. And the rise of fake news risks people tarring every news organisation with the same brush – we’ve all seen politicians describing as ‘fake’ stories that they simply disagree with.

2. Who shouts loudest, gets heard
Whether it is the distance that social media provides, polarisation of views or simply that the world is getting nastier, the amount of abuse and trolling on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook seems to be ever-increasing. Just this week Viscount St. Davids was found guilty of making menacing communications against Gina Miller, who led a legal challenge that forced the government to consult Parliament on Brexit. Amongst other abuse he offered £5,000 in a Facebook post to anyone that would run over Ms Miller. Parliament itself is holding a debate on the abuse suffered by MPs and candidates of both parties in the recent election campaign.

What seems to typify all of these communications is that people appear happy to say things online that they wouldn’t to someone’s face, and that very often it involves men abusing women, often in sexual terms, for daring to disagree with their views. The sheer weight of such trolling stifles honest debate and ultimately puts people off sharing their thoughts and opinions, or even self-censoring what they write.

3. Knee jerk reactions lead to instant actions
When stories break the true facts are often unclear. Whereas traditional news organisations would then take the time to research events and wouldn’t jump to conclusions the opposite is true on social media. People make immediate judgements and share them with the world, and the sheer force of tweets and messages can then shape the news agenda. A case in point is the recent disqualification of cyclist Peter Sagan from the Tour de France, for his involvement in a crash that forced Mark Cavendish out of the race. The race jury first gave him a lesser punishment, but then seemed to be swayed by the force of anti-Sagan anger on social media, changing their minds and throwing him out of the race. Taking time to study events in more detail would have led to a less knee jerk reaction, but it often feels that people believe they have to react instantly, without the full facts, leading to decisions that don’t necessarily stand up to future scrutiny.

The social media news cycle has undoubtedly delivered major benefits – it helped drive the Arab Spring for example. But its sheer anarchy means that everyone, from politicians and PRs to the general public, needs to think before they tweet if we are to have a fair, honest and unbiased discussion of news on social media.

Photo: By Tiia Monto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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July 12, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The rise of citizen journalism

A poster wrote with "Evolving Citizen Jou...

Pretty much everyone now has the means to report what is going on in the world around them. Even the most basic phone has a camera, and it is simple to post images, video and text to social media sites at the click of a button. Consequently citizen journalists – ordinary people doing the job of trained reporters – are everywhere.

And there are significant benefits to our understanding of the world. Particularly in straitened times, journalists can’t be everywhere at once and often arrive after the news event has actually happened. In many cases, such as during the Arab Spring, journalists can be banned or censored by regimes and individuals that don’t want stories to be reported. So citizen journalists with camera phones can be our sole source of first hand information. Much of this then feeds into the traditional media, with TV news and national newspapers running stories based on reports filed by citizen journalists.

Nearer to home, the closure of many local newspapers has spurred community activists to launch alternative sites and blogs. Many of these aim to hold local councils and elected representatives to account, using the Freedom of Information Act to unearth key facts about how we are governed.

All great stuff and to be praised, but there are three key reasons that we should be wary about what citizen journalists write, publish and upload.

Firstly, bias. As someone that studied history, I know that bias is evident in anything we say, write or do – whether we know it or not. Professional journalists are trained to understand both sides of a story and (as much as possible) divorce bias from what they are writing. It is why the majority of stories have quotes for and against a subject in them, even if the overall tone is slanted to left or right. Citizen journalists don’t have this training and may well have an axe to grind – potentially making their reports unreliable, whether consciously or not.

Second, the law. The laws of libel apply equally to the internet, as many people found out with the Lord McAlpine case. Again, journalists are trained to understand libel law and what can and can’t be said. Reddit’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing demonstrated what can happen when citizen journalists are given an unpoliced platform. The site’s Find Boston Bombers thread wrongly accused several people of being involved in the atrocity, leading to harassment of their families and potentially slowing down the police investigation. In today’s instant news cycle, where an unsubstantiated tweet can be front page news in seconds, there’s a real issue with potentially malicious or unthinking reports quickly making it into the mainstream news.

Finally, there’s the area of copyright. Lots of news sites now actively encourage you to upload your pictures, video and text to give added perspective on news and features. The latest, the Guardian’s Witness site, provides the chance to contribute to live news and other content through a smartphone app. Content is vetted before going onto the site, with stories and videos made available to journalists for potentially developing into bigger pieces. All great, except that as soon as you post your prized video, The Guardian gets an unconditional, perpetual and worldwide licence to use it as it sees fit. You may still retain the copyright, but the paper can commercially exploit the content however it wants.

Controlling how news is reported and disseminated is inextricably linked to power. Hence why dictatorships have always censored or removed the free press and run state TV stations with a rod of iron. While much of the western world has moved on from that, media is often controlled by a certain group, making citizen journalism a vital part of the opening up of reporting to everyone. But if it is to truly make a lasting impact for good, citizen journalists need to understand their own responsibilities when it comes to bias, the law and copyright and act accordingly.

May 1, 2013 Posted by | Creative, PR | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The C-word and social media

Events over the last week have got me thinking about social media and the C-word (censorship). Firstly, Twitter announced that it was ‘accommodating countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression’, i.e. enabling the blocking and deletion of tweets on a country by country basis. The example it gives is the legal ban on pro-Nazi speech in Germany and France, which no right thinking person is going to disagree with. The issue obviously comes when something is not to the taste of a particular regime, but a key issue that citizens of that country want to discuss. If you take the example of last year’s Arab Spring uprisings, would the tweets of protesters have been removed?

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Image by Getty Images via @daylife

At the same time the European Union has published its new Data Protection Laws, which, if passed, will become law across all 27 EU members. These include the so-called Right to Forget, which means any citizen can demand that information they have posted on social media is not just removed from that network, but the entire web. Again, this is a question of degree – removing that dodgy student photo from Facebook when you start going for job interviews is one thing, deleting a tweet from a politician that makes him/her look stupid seems to me to be completely different.

None of this is new – all through history there’s been a conflict over the control of how information is distributed. In early civilisations this was pretty simple – only certain people could read/write/chisel hieroglyphics so rulers could keep a close eye on them. And if malcontents daubed slogans on the walls of public places, not a huge number of people would see them.

Obviously this changed with the printing press, which provided the ability to make multiple copies of documents relatively quickly and easily. So governments regulated printers (and pretty much still do) to try and control what information was disseminated. What makes the internet and social media so different is that you don’t need expensive printing and distribution channels – you can tweet or send a Facebook update using a mobile phone or PC from anywhere. Governments can track down who is responsible, but it takes time, hence the wholesale banning of social media

or switching off of mobile networks, for example in Egypt last year.

So, you can see Twitter’s new rules and the EU’s laws as just part of an ongoing struggle between the rulers and the ruled. However I think that social media has tipped the balance towards citizens and away from governments – it is simply too difficult to regulate, even with the support of the networks themselves. New ones will simply spring up – and the only way to combat them will be to switch off the internet entirely. And in our connected, web world that cripples a country’s ability to operate. So while censorship is still a threat it is beginning to become an increasingly empty one.

 

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January 30, 2012 Posted by | PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment