Untangling the Web: Citizen journalists running amok

Professional journalists need to have their eyes and ears on social media as well as on the “real” world.

Fake Israeli soldier photo from Facebook 370 (photo credit: Facebook)
Fake Israeli soldier photo from Facebook 370
(photo credit: Facebook)
The practice of citizen journalism, whereby people on the street either disseminate information to the masses or collaborate with others to do so, has largely taken off in the 21st century with the spread of fast, reliable Internet access. Armed with only a smartphone, tablet or laptop and online platforms such as social media, the public now has as much power to keep itself updated as the traditional media on which it has previously depended. The simple fact that individuals have the power to reach thousands, if not millions, tips the power balance significantly.
Recent years have seen multiple world events which would certainly not have been brought to light as successfully were it not for citizen journalism. Take for example the Iranian protests of 2009, the Haiti earthquake of early 2010, or the current, ongoing and brutal violence in Syria. While the nature of these events and thus the extent and influence of citizen journalism differs in each case, the common thread is that the Internet and social media have allowed for events to be reported which likely wouldn’t have been otherwise. In these cases, people on the street successfully filled in the gaps where traditional news media failed.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
Social media and traditional media alike were abuzz last week over a photo circulating on Twitter of a Gaza man holding his bleeding daughter in his arms, supposedly after an IAF strike on the Strip. This photo was apparently circulated by social media users – including a United Nations official – for political reasons, to counter pro-Israeli elements on those same forums using hashtags such as #israelonfire in an effort to show the Israeli side of last week’s tensions. Within 24 hours of going viral, the photo was found to have been a fake, taken years before the latest round of Israeli strikes.
Earlier this year a similar situation presented, when a photo of a supposed Israeli soldier pointing a rifle at a young Palestinian girl pinned to the ground with this boot went viral on Facebook. Strangely, the photo was originally posted and reposted in relation to violence in Syria, and then somehow adopted by pro-Palestinian users decrying the horrors of the “occupation.” Before long the photo entered a third phase, and was spread with the intention of exposing the lie of a photo which pro-Israel users asserted was obviously doctored or staged.
The counterpoint generally goes along the lines of “if your cause is just, you don’t need to lie,” which is certainly valid but from a journalistic point of view not really the point. Rather, problems arise when such posts, photos or videos are taken as fact, and influence or worse – get incorporated into news stories. Posts from "official" Twitter accounts, from government spokespeople for example, are taken to be as good as a press statement these days; the damage and disinformation which can come from irresponsible use of these forums stands to be widespread.
And journalists do get fooled. A year ago, in March 2011, a young Syrian lesbian’s blog came into the public eye, as Syrian President Bashar Assad was just getting started with his violent crackdown on anti-government protesters. The blogger, Amina Arraf, then abruptly stopped posting, and word got out that she had been detained. It took a week for the real story to come out: The “Gay Girl in Damascus” was in fact 40-year-old American Tom MacMaster. Although MacMaster apologized on the blog, which has since been taken offline, the damage was done and journalists and activists alike were given a valuable lesson in credibility online.
If the man on the street wants to trust his Facebook friends or someone he follows on Twitter about events, fine. His problem. Journalists and news outlets, especially those of repute, must hold themselves to a higher standard.
Similarly, such viral happenings deserve attention in mainstream media. Over the past 15-odd years, online discourse has become far more than just nerdy chatrooms – social media platforms are in a lot of ways the new battlefields, especially when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Many have spoken and written – myself included – about how useful social media can be as a journalistic tool. About how it can be used to gather information, for leads on stories, to generate discussion and to promote original content. While this is all true, it can’t be the end of the story. As technology progresses it seems so does our ability to bend the truth.
This applies most specifically to images and videos. It’s reasonable to assume that no journalist worth his salt would see a tweet from an eyewitness, take the 140 characters as gospel, and then run a news story based on it. Yet for some reason, visual material has a different effect. We see a semi-convincing photo or a video and somehow it’s a lot harder to write off. It’s up to journalists to ramp up their level of skepticism and properly research nonetheless, as mainstream media can play an important part in exposing lies and deception on social media.
These platforms and the apps that go with them – the Facebooks and the Twitters, the Instagrams, Hipstomatics and Twitpics – are so new that much of the industry is still struggling to work out what to do with them.
But not everyone. There are some big players out there who are developing ways to involve citizen journalists in the news process in a controlled environment. The Guardian’s “open newslist” initiative is one example, along with CNN’s iReport. Both projects encourage users to submit updates and photos, videos and tips, to influence coverage and help journalists do a better job of covering the news. These projects embody one of the main changes which the Internet made to the interaction between “the man” and the man on the street; rather than big corporations telling individuals what to do, spending billions on mass, one-directional advertising, the communication is now multi-faceted. It’s about asking, discussing, listening, sharing and collaborating.
These news outlets are demonstrating the same smarts as the “cool” parents who let their teenage children drink at home where it’s safe, rather than unintentionally encouraging them to lie about their whereabouts and then get drunk on the street with their friends. The parallel alternative is of course the citizen journalists running amok online, making their own “news sites” without adequate training or experience, distributing erroneous information and doctored pictures on social networks, and generally leading people astray.
These two initiatives display a balanced understanding of both the new and emerging world of social media, and the importance of built-in checks and balances. And it’s these checking mechanisms which are ultimately going to stand the real journalists apart from the wannabes. As stories like this week’s Gaza photo demonstrate, social media, like most things, should be used responsibly and in moderation.
Looking forward, it is critical that professional journalists have their eyes and ears on social media, blogs and online forums, as well as on the “real” world around them. Sometimes that means reacting, following up on viral posts and bringing deception to light. Sometimes it doesn’t. What it always means is maintaining a healthy skepticism, and taking proper measures to verify information, or at the very least stating that a piece of information, a photo or a video clip could not be independently verified. It is this type of professional, credible journalism that will ensure the industry doesn’t get taken over by citizen journalists running amok.
The writer is The Jerusalem Post's Internet desk manager