Del Stone

Del Stone
Fort Walton Beach, Florida, U.S.
November 25
I am a journalist and the author of many works of fiction published professionally in the United States and abroad.

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APRIL 17, 2012 11:27PM

Social media and the news: I rest my case

Rate: 19 Flag


Recently USA Today posted a story that, to skip to the high points, indicated more people were getting their news from social media sites like twitter and Facebook than they were from traditional news outlets.

You can read the report here.

I read this stuff and I don't laugh, though I'm tempted. I shake my head, let go with a heavy sigh, and wonder about the intellectual indolence of my fellow citizens.

I wonder about the expectation that news and "information" will be accurate. I wonder about libel law. I wonder about the implications that an errant post will lead to real consequences that will cost lives and increase the misery index.

In my capacity as online editor for a newspaper I encounter the web-centric ignorance of the general public on a daily basis. For example, once I wrote a column about the ACLU and told readers the devil had appeared at my desk. Clearly this was an attempt at satire. Yet readers called to ask if it had really happened and if so, what did the devil look like? Readers accuse us of evil machinations regarding comments on articles, and why are we suppressing them, when the real problem is they need to clear their browser cache. They accuse us of "sensationalizing" stories when in fact they've objected to a police blotter item on our police blotter page.  I have the greatest respect for our readers but at the same time I have come to think I can no longer overestimate their intelligence. That must sound arrogant, and I suppose it is. But at the same time these are day-to-day realities with which I'm confronted, and I can't ignore the fact many readers, maybe most, don't have a hootin' hell of an idea what they're talking about.

Enter social media. I'm not a hater of social media. In fact, you could call me an early adopter. Back in the online days of the late '80s I was a habitue of bulletin boards. Ever heard of FidoNet? I'll bet you haven't. I know what Gopherspace is, and Usenet. I jumped on the web and was using the cloud before it was called "the cloud." I have a Live Journal page, multiple Myspace pages, and yes, Facebook, twitter, LinkedIn, Quora, Pinterest, YouTube, MyNetImages, Flickr, and even Yahoo Groups. I've been living online since 1988 and I see the value in social media.

But I also see their liabilities.

One of the web's fundamental flaws is its elimination of gatekeepers. Say what you will, but the world was a better place when people with knowledge were overseeing what was dispensed to the public. They may have possessed uncommon power, and we may have discovered talents who otherwise wouldn't have come to the public's attention without social media, but the truth is the gatekeepers were pretty good at their jobs and the cream almost always rose to the top. Compare that with today's glop of self-published, self-appointed, self-anointed arbitrars of "information." Ridiculous accusations, like President Obama's birth certificate, distract from truly important conversations like how to tame the federal deficit.

Social media posts are important and useful contributions to a news report. We've been alerted by readers to incidents local law enforcement brushed aside as unimportant. We use Facebook and twitter to supplement what we do as journalists. But replace them? I can hardly fathom the thought.

Any rumor, any unsubstantiated accusation, anything that attracts the public eye, can be reported via social media. Is it true? Is it responsible? What are the implications? None of that is reported. What's missing is context - how this affects me. How this affects my community. What I should do in response, if anything.

I recognize the value of social media, but I also recognize social media are one court ruling away from being put out of business. Traditional news outlets - newspapers, radio and TV - are bound by strict standards of libel law that don't apply to social media. The first time a court rules a Facebook poster is responsible for misinformation propagated on his page, the freewheeling days of social media will come to an end. And frankly, they should be required to play by the same rules "traditional media" do. If they're going to share a libelous post by somebody else, they should share in the reparation of damages.  Isn't that fair? I think so. No insurance company would take on the libel tab for Facebook.

When this court ruling comes to pass - and it surely will - expect a clamor for gatekeepers. These gatekeepers will consist of professional writers and editors who are trying to maintain a standard of truth and verifiability in an age when sensationalism and popularity trumps all.

On the same day I read social media are replacing traditional news outlets, I read this report: twitter hoaxer comes clean and says: I did it to expose weak media.

I rest my case.

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Deserves to be on the cover, but it won't likely be, for reasons you and I can both surmise.

As an erstwhile gatekeeper, one who believed -- and still does -- in the fundamental values of impartiality, fairness, thoroughness, accuracy, speed, vigilance and the like, I am appalled by what is considered "news" on OS and elsewhere.

I too have been online a long time, back to the days of IBM 8088s, dialup modems and BBSs. I eschew the current crop of social media because I value my anonymity and have no wish to expose myself to the vagaries of self-appointed and inept arbiters of taste, style and substance.

Besides: Marshall McLuhan was right all along.
skypixieo - agreed, agreed and agreed.
I am also worried about people just going to read "news" that is slanted to one side. Fox and MSNBC. I used to like Chris Matthews, but he suddenly had to convert from moderate to super liberal probably to keep his job. How phony. I don't want to hear propagnda from people who think that it is the straight news.
I think the liberal media is partially to blame for this. There bias was so obvious that Fox was revenge. Fox is the most popular channel so they must be doing something right.
If the mainstream media had tried to bring more conservative writers in, not just a "token" here and there, people would not have lost so much faith in the press.
We need a return to true, unbiased news. I really don't see it anywhere in the mainstream press, at the moment. Everyone seems to have a political bias.
What passes for "news" on local stations and to a large extent the networks (both cable and the traditional) is downright disgusting. Since when have people been so fascinated with the abhorrent that world news (good or bad) is virtually ignored? I really have to dig deep to find out what is happening in Japan with the nuclear problems (which are not just theirs) and the BBC news is the closest I have found to "real" news.

I too wish your piece were elevated to the front page, however no celebrity died or some such thing...thanks for bringing your questioning here.

R and friended.
Ugh, I meant added to my Favorite's insidious social media is.
This is the most intelligent statement of "the problem" I've ever read.

In giving up any kind of filter or gatekeeper we have ---as you put so well--lowered the standards of accuracy and critical thinking,

We've also changed the patterns of communication. With the massive tidal wave of communication roaring up at each of us; it's become perfectly socially acceptable to NOT answer. So dialogue suffers. And when dialogue suffers, we all loose. When 2 way communication is considered as outdated as a "Walkman," it hurts everyone.

A second casualty is commentary. If I responded to your piece with a "rant" about Fox News or how my New York Times delivery was late again; rather than address the substance of your point---that too would be socially acceptable. As long as I was provocative enough.

I'm looking forward to that first lawsuit.

The pendulum has swung too far.
I, too, use SM in my workplace anonymously with a business but as a news source -- no way, never. There is a place for aspects of SM but generally I hate the narcissism behind the majority of the personal stuff and hate the blur between the personal and public life.

I have more to say but have to run but just one word first, ...
If there is ever a WWIII, it will be started by Misinformation Glut. I think you are right -- it's just a matter of time before the hammer falls.

Kathy, many people feel disenfranchised by traditional media outlets who seem to slant or distort their coverage to favor a political position. When I was a high school I did a three-week project where I looked at the stories presented by the three major networks on their nightly news broadcasts. I tried to evaluate each according to its bias, if any. I won't say my methodology was useful - it was a subjective. But at least it was consistent. My conclusions? ABC had the least "slanted" news. NBC was in the middle and CBS at the left. These days with cable, and unabashed agendas, it's a lot easier to see who's in which camp. I have two gripes with Fox: 1. They sometimes skew facts or numbers to support their viewpoint. 2. Their opinion commentators have reduced discourse to screaming. That's no way to have a conversation.
Buffy - I feel friended anyway! But to your point, I think the problem with current news is the pressure many news organizations feel to make money and to be "current." And I think the web is redefining what "news" is. When I see stories about one celebrity unfollowing a former spouse on twitter, I react one of two ways: 1. Either the news organization is grasping for eyeballs, or 2. it perceives most people are interested in that kind of thing and it's responding to a need. I'm not sure which is correct; both don't say much about the current state of "information."
Chicago Guy - so true. I'm reading an interesting book - "The Shallows" by Nicholas Carr. Check it out. He talks about how the web is reshaping how we think, how we learn, and how we retain information. It's astonishing.
Scarlett - I agree. SM is a useful tool, but I don't think it should replace journalism. It should be used as a supplement.
Lezlie, I think you're right. The risk for misinformation is high. I remember an incident from the pre-web days that illustrated the importance of precision in communication. Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev, in speaking about the West, said, "We will bury you." Folks were alarmed by that statement and assumed he was implying a future attack. Apparently "We will bury you" is a Russian expression that means, "We will outlive you."
"I shake my head, let go with a heavy sigh, and wonder about the intellectual indolence of my fellow citizens." Wonder no more -- it is all too apparent that we are becoming a post-literate society -- unless you want to consider LOL and WTF the like literature.

You are absolutely correct about the importance of gatekeepers, and sad to say, present-day "gatekeepers" are too often no more than paid stooges for propaganda machines. See Fux News for details.

We can already see the consequences of the dumbing-down and the shining-up, and the 2010 mid-terms were worse than the triumph of mediocrity -- they were the triumph of idiocy.
Almost forget -- I'm not familiar with the user groups you listed, but I think it's a safe bet the level of intelligence and discourse on them was miles above that of Facebook. I'm not on Facebook, and I don't tweet. Hell, it's hard enough to get an idea across in several paragraphs, let alone say anything of consequence in 164 characters or whatever.

What passes for information on Facebook is what used to -- and still does -- pass for information over the back-fence: Gossip.
Facebook is already devolving into something even more banal that it was to start with. Like Tom says, Gossip. And silliness. Oversharing! I don't think there is a solution, really. I fear gatekeepers will be trampled and found face-down in the mud in front of the sheep pen.
Tom - It's "Idiocracy" in the flesh!
You're talking about a very important social issue. At the largest level, America is dealing with a stagnant economy at best, an overconcentration of wealth, politics as a game of how many campaign contributions you can kype, and a dumbing down of education among other things.

Social media ultimately complicates the situation. Given one's personal affinities, it's easy to get sucked into one or two information sources depending on one's ideological bias to begin with. Social media and the internet aggravates bias and ignorance by easily channeling you into more and more web pages that reinforce your biases instead of exposing them to a variety of opinions that might challenge your assumptions.

My son in law is a classic case in point. I just terminated a flame war with him. He began by claiming that the Buffett rule would only add an additional $4B towards fighting the federal deficit. Supposedly because of this, he saw no reason why the government should impose a 30% income tax on people making over $1 million a year.

Intuitively, this $4B figure didn't seem right to me. A surface skimming of the net showed that F*x News and various GOP affiliated websites parroted his line verbatim. Even an article in the Washington Post parroted this line (shame on them!). Only when I'd done extensive research, did I find that the $4B figure was only if the Bush tax cuts expired, and that if the Bush cuts were left in place, the Buffett rule would actually generate $100B+.

My son in law threw back at me more bogus information to back his claims. He cited, a right wing website that has a faux US government look to it. A quick check on my son in law's "facts" showed that this website was 100% wrong.

His exchanges with me became increasingly nasty, as he could cite website after website that he depended on for his world view. Unfortunately, I concluded in this case that it was a pure case of "garbage in, garbage out."

With almost everyone in the position of not having 30+ potential news sources to fact check each other, it's easy for people to fall into whatever ideological blinders that they want to wallow in.

In an age where someone could supposedly cite a website with the headline of I WAS ELVIS' SPACE ALIEN BABY as a fact, is there any wonder why the American republic has fallen so low?
Lefty - Correct, which is why I avoid arguing with folks who can cite an infinite number of URLs supporting their positions. It's impossible to refute each and every one of these without leaving your job, family and responsibilities untended. Even when you do they're not convinced. In larger terms the web is not so much about "news" but "emotion" made to look like "news," which is why it's important to find sources of information you can trust. Usually those are manned by gatekeepers. I think the laziness endemic to our culture is behind the problem. Fifty years of no responsibility, no delay of gratification, and no meritocracy, have created a body of people who expect to get what they want when they want it without having to earn it. The same applies to opinions as it does a big house in a gated community.
Very well said. This is such an important subject, and one I attempt to discuss with my new media/journalism students. Some get it; most don't. I'm looking forward to reading The Shallows. Oh, and great comments too.
@emma peel 2 - Thanks. To clarify, I'm not discounting social media's role in journalism, but I don't think it should * replace * journalism.
@Boanerges1 - Maybe if I put "slut" in the headline I'd get an EP.
I apologize for arriving so late, Del, but I'm rarely on anymore and just found a message (dated almost three weeks ago) that I'd find this post both illuminating and worthwhile.

It is indeed both. Social media has so often cried wolf regarding "breaking news" that it is hardly the appropriate place to primarily report news. I've seen so many posts on Facebook alone where I have had to correct an acquaintance by pointing out the obvious: their post was not research, and if it had been they would have easily discovered it was a hoax or that they were simply misinformed.

And therein lies much of the problem - social media posters are not required to research their content, nor are they required to provide supporting evidence. All they need is an opinion and a place to put it.

Well done, Del, and I sincerely hope that some day we can return to the cutting-edge journalism that was so important to this country in the 60's and the 70's.

Bill S. - You and me both, sir!