Sunday, January 31, 2010

Social Media (Ir)responsibility

Photobucket A recent article on entitled "Enough Already! 7 Twitter Hoaxes and Half-Truths" lists prime examples of what can happen when social networking tools are placed in obnoxious hands. The examples raised in the article illustrate just how quickly a rumor can grow out of control and underscores a serious dilemma facing the social media now and for the foreseeable future: the issue of responsibility.

Although social media websites provide a great avenue for communication, the trend is also potentially dangerous because there are no rules. Because social media outlets are tools used by ordinary citizens, users are not held to the same accountability standards as professional journalists. And, according to the Social Media Bible, there is “virtually nothing” that can be done about what is reported on these sites. “This behavior is human nature. People are going to talk and gossip and complain,” the book observes. Therefore, anyone can be a “journalist.” Anyone can tweet, blog, digg, and utilize any variety of social media outlets to gain recognition even if what one says is not exactly true, and even if there is little to no research to support the claims made. I would like to believe that the reading public is discerning enough to distinguish between opinions and well researched articles, but the state of today’s news cycle leads me to believe that far too many people pay little attention to where they are getting their news.

However, as incidences of lies and offensive behavior circulate more frequently, more people are beginning to take note and take action.

Taking a stand, and then again, not

A more recent article regarding social media misuse highlights the story of Adorian Deck, a high school student and owner of the Twitter account, @OMGFacts. With more than three hundred thousand followers, Deck on MLK day posted a salacious "fact" regarding the civil rights icon. Deck could not recall where he came across the information, and could only provide links to websites that reported his fact as an unconfirmed rumor. As a result, an apparently ineffective movement was started to encourage followers to unfollow @OMGFacts which still has more than three hundred thousand followers.Photobucket

In another attempt at taking a stand against irresponsible social media users, Matt Singley, a social media observer and blogger, gave a scathing response to a fellow blogger’s call for action against McDonalds in the wake of what she inferred as support for racism and hate. Singley challenged her for “spreading fear and hatred, with very little room for facts or personal understanding. I hate seeing such spurious activism being propagated through social media… already many people have tweeted that message, but I am guessing than none of them have done any fact checking.” Although she was put on blast very publicly and very passionately, the blogger in question has yet to respond.

Then again, and proving that some social media followers are as concerned with ethics as the people they follow, is the story of Annemarie Dooling. Some of Dooling’s Twitter followers lashed out against her when, after gazing up from her mobile tweeting long enough to observe a bank robbery in progress, she decided to tweet about it rather than call the police. However, in an environment where “going viral” is a good thing, word of Dooling’s unfortunate day at the bank made her two hundred followers stronger by the end of the day.

High tech yellow journalism

Instead of setting an example for the social media to follow, the traditional press does its best to keep up with the enticing headlines and bold claims that bloggers and others are known for. Because readers and viewers are quick to berate news organizations for their slow reporting when compared to blogs which require no fact checking, it is now common for the mainstream press to quote well known blogs in order to circumvent journalistic constraints, like verifying the legitimacy of a story. Some news organizations actually re-post sub-par articles that lack clear guidelines, show no evidence of fact checking, contain no relevant sources, or too few on the record sources.

In addition, headlines regarding minute details on the lives of A to D list celebrities can just as easily be located on the websites of ABC, CNN, and other respected media outlets as on TMZ or Perez Hilton. In fact, it is quite plausible that the social media’s lack of standards is egged on by the traditional press who are quick to credit social forums with “breaking the news” which incites competition to do just that.


Because of the vast nature of web publishing, it is virtually impossible to police it all, but there are options to help users manage what they publish and readers to better trust what they read. The website encourages bloggers to sign a pledge and display the blog with integrity badge on their sites indicating their commitment to writing with honesty. Others have suggested a widget system indicating the level of trust that can be placed on the information derived from certain sources. However, the ultimate fact is that the integrity of internet reporting can only be rescued by honest publishers and readers who demand the truth.


  1. My husband works for "the most trusted name in news" and tells me they have a hard time keeping up with bloggers simply because of their strict policy to fact check every report twice. This was illustrated in stark detail when Michael Jackson was reported dead. We were both watching CNN and playing on Twitter. While Twitter blew up with the news, CNN didn't say anything for quite a while. (I believe it was 30 minutes to an hour.) My husband said that was because they were fact checking. I think it was the day after that the the rumor that Jeff Goldblum fell off a cliff in New Zealand started circulating. Once again, a rumor spread through social media without fact checking.

    While its great when a blogger or a Twitter user gets a "scoop," breaking news on social media is indeed a double edged sword. Hopefully this trend of bogus news stories will simply make people more skeptical about where they get their news.

  2. You’ve made a great point, Annesh. The public should take responsibility for posting misleading information on the web. After the 7.0 earthquake in Haiti, I received several texts, tweets, and messages on Facebook saying, “American Airlines has offered to fly doctors and nurses to Haiti free of charge.” My father has always taught me to be skeptical of anything ‘free’ so I called American Airlines in hopes of getting more information. Thankfully, I did my fact checking before re-tweeting or re-posting the message I had received. I can imagine the overwhelming calls American Airlines received from people all over the country inquiring about their ‘free’ trip.

    Like CNN, I had a hard time believing that Michael Jackson had really passed away. I believe I heard it first on ABC. I was a bit skeptical so I turned the channel to CNN. I’m glad CNN does its own fact checking before jumping on the band wagon.

  3. There seems to be a tendency for people to attribute more credibility to the written word than to the spoken. And throughout the history of journalism, there have been innumerable cases where falsehoods were reported as fact. Take a trip to the following web address to see the top ten false headlines of the twentieth century.

    If legitimate newspapers with strong reputations for good reportage can make the kind of errors displayed at the website, how much more likely is it that factual errors will be made in the online environment? And so far I've only been talking about legitimate publishers, public and private, who are trying to do a good job.

    What about the people out there who are deliberately trying to mislead, the National Enquirer types of the internet? As Jennifer and Lydie pointed out, the lack of accountability in the viral world (combined with some people's need for attention at any cost) leads to some real doozies being passed off as fact. I don't know what the answer is, but my heart tells me that relying on the nobler instincts of faceless individuals who don't have to sign their work isn't it.