Monday, April 2, 2012

Social Media For News: Reliable Or Not?

This weekend an April Fool's Day prank perpetrated by proclaiming that Mitt Romney had withdrawn from the race for the Republican Presidential nomination spread across the Internet, buoyed by social media users who immediately picked it up and sent it out to their networks, ad nauseam.

In fact, before the story was withdrawn it had reached the #1 spot on Google News.

Some are pointing to this as an example of just how ineffective and untrustworthy social media, and the Internet in general, are for news. Unfortunately, this simply is not the case.

As a former reporter I can attest to the fact that hoaxes, falsehoods and outright lies are a common pitfall for the news industry. That's why reporters are supposed to vet their sources, fact check and triple source every thing before they call it a "fact." Even then, mistakes happen and things which are not true slip through the cracks.

Because news is communicated via human beings it is flawed from the start. Everything we do, everything that happens in the world, is open to interpretation and that's where the trouble starts.

Social media is no more or less culpable for spreading untruths than any other news media. It just does everything faster so we become aware of it sooner. When a newspaper prints something wrong they issue a correction, usually on a back page, and then move on. Due to the nature of social media these errors cannot ever be fully retracted. They live on, being shared and passed around by people who simply don't yet know they are spreading erroneous information (or do so simply to cause havoc.)

Social media is just a tool. It cannot be defined as good or bad, only the ways in which we use it can be defined in this way. To that end I strongly recommend you carefully consider every piece of information of post, share or Tweet. Double-check your facts, triple check them if possible and be certain you follow-up later to see if someone has posted a comment refuting your post, or questioning its veracity. In this way you become a responsible social media user, rather than a conduit for falsehoods.

Mistakes happen and some mis-information is likely to get through at some point. That's OK. So long as there was no malice in your initial post you can offer a correction, maybe an apology, and move on. The worst thing you can do is argue a wrong point, deny culpability or simply ignore it and hope it goes away.

Honesty is always the best policy. When that fails, the best follow-up plans are those which involve admitting the mistake, taking the punishment and moving on.

With social media, there's always something new to move on to.

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