Magazine article Editor & Publisher

THE DARK SIDE OF SOCIAL MEDIA: When Journalists Unwittingly Help Spread Misinformation

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

THE DARK SIDE OF SOCIAL MEDIA: When Journalists Unwittingly Help Spread Misinformation

Article excerpt

We all read (and in some cases reported on) how Russia used social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter, to sow racial and cultural disharmony in an attempt to undermine the 2016 election.

What we haven't spoken so much about is how journalists helped them.

Twitter has been and remains a powerful tool for journalism, especially when it comes to breaking news. Following the right experts can enhance your beat reporting and help grow your readership. It's a boon for sports and entertainment reporters when it comes to gaining personal insight (and a fantastic quote or two) from their subjects. Applications like Storify provide a powerful way to contextualize aggregated content from Twitter to offer more insight to readers.

But there is a darker side to Twitter's relationship to journalism that existed long before the company angered brevity-loving copy editors everywhere by expanding its character limit to 280 words. As journalists, we may not want to admit it, but in most newsrooms Twitter has an outsized importance on what we consume, cover and write about.

"I always say that Twitter is at once so great and so horrible," Adam Himmelsbach, who covers the Celtics for the Boston Globe, told Sports Illustrated. "But I also have to remind myself sometimes that I'm not writing for Twitter, and that in the end, it's a small part of the overall audience."

Small is understating it. According to statistics from the Pew Research Center, just 24 percent of online adults use Twitter, the least popular among all the major social media networks, including LinkedIn. Its demographics skew young (18-29), educated and affluent--hardly representative of most communities that newsrooms cover.

It's also easily gamed by organizations and PR companies who have the time to commit to spending time on a platform that isn't paying them directly. Becoming popular on Twitter, largely denoted by the number of followers an account is able to amass, often offers a false sense of legitimacy to unsuspecting reporters.

One specific case speaks to how easily it was for Russian agents to use journalists to help spread misinformation.

Jenna Abrams, who went by @Jenn_Abrams on Twitter, was a popular figure on social media. She boasted nearly 70,000 followers, and her tweets were used or highlighted by several major news outlets during the 2016 election, including USA Today, the Washington Post and the BBC. She even managed to create news when several outlets reported, based largely on her tweet, that CNN aired porn during the broadcast of Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" in November 2017.

Unfortunately, Abrams was a fake Twitter persona created by employees at the Internet Research Agency, a "troll farm" funded by the Russian government, according to information released by the House Intelligence Committee back in November.

Abrams' account was unwittingly promoted by newsrooms and reporters looking to create posts based around the real-time social media response to breaking news events. In one instance, news organizations highlighted a tweet she wrote about Kim Kardashian. Another that went viral was a tweet defending the Confederate flag.

With legitimate news agencies helping to spread fake information in the guide of a real person's opinion, it's no wonder Oxford Dictionaries selected "post-truth" as the 2016 word of the year.

Americans are rightly worried about the news they're reading being fake. According to a Pew Research Center study conducted following the 2016 election, 64 percent of adults think fake news stories cause a great deal of confusion, and 23 percent admitted having shared a fabricated story themselves--sometimes by mistake, and sometimes intentionally. …

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