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.