Last month I wrote a piece for the BBC Radio 3 programme, The Essay and spoke at Dublin Talks. Here I want to connect some of the ideas I raised in both: the fact that social networks have enabled all of us to be publishers, but publishers whose work appears instantly, with no fact-checking or sub-editing, and on platforms that allow our words to be searched and found within seconds and be read by anyone.
The speed at which information now travels on social networks is extraordinary. In September there was an earthquake in Costa Rica. The shockwaves took only 60 seconds to travel the 250 kilometers from the epicenter to Managua in Nicaragua. Within 90 seconds, our Twitter list made up of Nicaraguan journalists and people we know to be on the ground were all tweeting ‘tembloor’ alerting us to the earthquake faster than official sources.
Every minute 100,000 tweets are sent, 700,000 pieces of content are shared on Facebook and 72 hours of content is uploaded to YouTube. And the implications for news organisations are clear. The ability to source stories and supporting witness testimonies around a breaking news event is changing newsgathering. But for all of the positive impact, the ease with which people can click one ReTweet button means that false information can also spread as fast as those earthquake alerts. Reports that a celebrity has died, rumours about the cause of a suicide, or posting the wrong address of a murder suspect happen frequently on social networks.
Newsgathering used to play out entirely behind closed doors, with journalists trying to beat their competitors with the quality and speed of the information they could unearth. Institutionalised fact-checking and sub-editing meant mistakes were caught before they were made public. A crucial difference now is that newsgathering on social media takes place publicly. The audience can see the same tweets and videos as the journalists in real time. The audience can share the same information. The pressure on individual journalists increases and as one reporter RTs that false information, it lends a legitimacy that makes the rumour travel even more quickly.
An argument I make frequently in training sessions with cynics is that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest etc, all have silly, frivolous names and it’s easy for them to be dismissed. But what they have created is the ability for everyone to become a publisher. Unless you change privacy settings, on most of these sites, everything you write is, by default, public, on the record and searchable within seconds.
The impact of what we write can be enormous, but we’re seduced by the platform. On Twitter, irrespective of how many followers we have and the fact that any tweet can be read by anyone anywhere, we have an imagined community in our minds when we post; the people we most commonly interact with. On Facebook, we have our closest friends and family in mind, forgetting the ex-colleagues and lovers who remain.
Managing identity is a reason for much of this tension. Offline we can manage multiple identities. We act completely differently in front of our boss compared to our school friends, or our rugby team compared to our kids’ teachers. Online it’s much harder to play with multiple identities. Some people use Linkedin to appear professional, Twitter to connect with people who share their hobbies, and Facebook to post childish jokes with friends and family. But as more and more organisations are expecting their staff to use social networks to ‘further’ the brand, it all gets very confusing.
A tale, which is often told is the story of a woman in the UK who was watching a documentary, as part of the Channel 4 Dispatches season. The programme was about domestic help and this woman tweeted during the programme ‘that maid needs a good slap #dispatches’, the use of the hashtag showing that she intended for her tweet to be part of a wider conversation. A number of charities were following the hashtag and saw the tweet. They googled her username, found her real name, looked her up on LinkedIn and found out she was a management consultant for a London Borough Council. She was sacked. Her out-of-work identity didn’t match her in-work identity.
The fact that our tweets and Facebook status updates make us publishers is hard for many to grasp, especially when the legal ramifications of that are considered. Few people have had ethical and legal training and many are publishing information online that is defamatory and downright illegal, whether that’s in a hotel review on TripAdvisor, or sharing a link to a newspaper article detailing the previous convictions of someone now charged with a similar crime.
For many non-journalists, the responsibilities of being a publisher haven’t been underscored. But the actions of journalists show that even formal training doesn’t prevent false, misleading information being shared. These platforms are seductive, whether you’re a high profile journalist trying to own a story, or a management consultant making an ill-judged snarky comment after too many glasses of wine. Employers are trying to institutionalize social media through guidelines and policies, but ultimately it’s about teaching people the serious implications of publishing on these spaces. The problem is they often feel like the least serious spaces we inhabit.