Guernica has an interesting interview with Michael Hastings, the journalist who penned the Rolling Stone article that got Gen. Stanley McChrystal dropped as the head of forces in Afghanistan. The bulk of it concerns the dangers, both physical and social, of practicing war journalism, but there’s an interesting sideline about the potential for using social media for psy-ops purposes:

Michael Hastings: A new software is being developed so the psychological operations guys and the Pentagon’s strategic communications guys—and we don’t really know who’s running it—but this is all totally out in the open. It’s this new program that will allow them to have like ten fake Twitter accounts and ten Facebook accounts so you can pretend…
Guernica: So you’re saying people at the DOD will be creating phony users on Facebook and Twitter?
Michael Hastings: Exactly. It’s called Operation Earnest Voice. It’s incredible when you think of the power of this. Why not create ten fake Libyan Twitter users and then get one journalist to follow them. But the problem is, of course, it corrupts the entire process.

I don’t know how reliable Hastings’ account may be (the Guardian has also reported on the program), but for the moment, at least, the salient point is that something like Earnest Voice is virtually implicit in social media. And Hastings is right: sock puppets have the potential to corrupt the entire journalistic process.

As it turns out, Hastings comment dovetails into a number of articles and news reports that I’ve stumbled across in the last several days. For a start, it’s worth comparing it to Emily Bell‘s insistence that, henceforth,

If you are related to the world of news, as opposed to the world of analysis, [and] if you don’t have a strategy for live stories and reporting, then you have a very limited future.

If Bell is to be believed, any news organization not plugged into social media is bound to lose readers to organizations better capable of real-time reporting. That means not only paying attention to Twitter and Facebook for eye-witness reports to breaking news, but also cycling those bits and pieces of first-hand reports back into the social media environment by reporting them, both on websites and through social media feeds. Nor is she afraid to spin that declaration into a projection about the future of journalism:

The live updating stream of thought and reaction is here to stay, and it will become more prevalent rather than less. If they haven’t already news businesses will need to prepare their journalists, their technologies and their interfaces to reflect this new world. It is not about ‘being first at the cost of being right’, it is about being there, or not.

Assuming that (for the moment, at least) real-time reporting is an inexorable feature of modern journalism, and that news organizations must adopt some form of it in order to remain competitive, the first problem is that of reliability. Robert Hernandez, over at The Online Journalism Review, argues that journalists have always faced that problem, and that the solution is to treat social media sources with all of the rigor that the profession has always demanded:

These are not facts. These are tips. These are potential sources. These are places you as a journalist bring your core values — news judgment, ethics, accuracy, transparency — to vet information to make sure you have accurate information.
[...]In the real-time Web, speed is highly valued. But responsibility and credibility outweigh that. Be known for getting it right first, not for getting it first and wrong.

Which is all well and good, but I wonder how well it meshes with Bell’s vision of “Real Time, All the Time.” That seems to put priority on the value of speed. If reporting in real-time is what’s required to remain competitive, then isn’t some erosion of standards almost inevitable?

In fact, both Hernandez and Bell emphasize the speed of real-time reporting without noting the ways in which it no doubt differs from more traditional means of sourcing a news story. Hernandez’s example is almost entirely about locating potential first-hand witnesses. Those witnesses will, in turn, need to be vetted and interviewed (and here, perhaps distastefully, Hernandez seems to be getting ahead of himself by identifying them as potential sources even before their safety can be assured). But the journalist who finds her witnesses through Twitter or Facebook can’t have the same sort of confidence that they might have in a witness they find by actually arriving on the scene. What’s added is the need to verify the most basic claims implicit in calling someone a first-hand witness, i.e. the claim to have actually witnessed the event in question.

How much more difficult does that make journalism? For a fairly innocuous example, consider the curious case of the mangled MLK Jr. quote. In the wake of news that Osama bin Laden had been killed by Navy SEALs in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the following quotation began to make the rounds on Twitter and Facebook:

“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr

The Atlantic‘s Megan McArdle reported on it yesterday, suggesting that the quotation had been deliberately faked. That piece was about the rapidity with which false information could travel on modern media, and the credulity with which most of us pass it on.

Then, today, McArdle posts a longer follow-up article, explaining the saga of the falsely attributed quotation. The gist is that

[Jessica] Dovey, a 24-year old Penn State graduate who now teaches English to middle schoolers in Kobe, Japan, posted a very timely and moving thought on her Facebook status, and then followed it up with the Martin Luther King Jr. quote.
[...]
At some point, someone cut and pasted the quote, and–for reasons that I, appropriately chastened, will not speculate on–stripped out the quotation marks.  Eventually, the mangled quotation somehow came to the attention of Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller fame.  He tweeted it to his 1.6 million Facebook followers, and the rest was internet history.  Twenty-four hours later, the quote brought back over 9,000 hits on Google.

What we’re seeing here, in miniature, is the process of sourcing social media, and for something that, realistically, ought to be simple enough to verify in the age of Google Books. But by the time McArdle had tracked down the origin of the quotation, tens of thousands of people had already seen the first article calling it a fake.

Some will say, so what? “Out of Osama’s Death, A Fake Quotation Is Born” is low-impact news, hardly news at all, more a novelty than anything else. Which is precisely the point. The competition value of the article was low. Had its value as news been higher, we might have seen the story picked up by other outlets, and broadcast far beyond the audience that was likely to see McArdle’s retraction.

For example: back in December of last year, several large news organizations (including the BBC) reported that PayPal had suspended WikiLeaks’ account after receiving a letter from the U.S. State Department. The story made the rounds, getting a lot of readers up in arms, before the correction came out. The story, it seems, had started at a tech conference where PayPal’s VP of Platform Osama Bedier gave a somewhat muddled answer to a question tendered by the Telegraph‘s tech writer Milo Yiannopoulos. Reactions were quickly tweeted, and an article on TechCrunch was immediately picked up by larger news outlets. All of thus occurred even before the TechCrunch reporter could get backstage to confirm the quote with Bedier. When he did, Bedier clarified that he had meant the letter sent to WikiLeaks, not PayPal, in which the State Department clarified its position on the Cablegate leaks. TechCrunch was quick to post an update, but by that time other news outlets had already committed to the story as it was originally disseminated, and it was widely accepted that the State Department had directly pressured PayPal into suspending the WikiLeaks account.

None of which is to say that tools like FourSquare and Twitter can’t be useful, but they’re often most useful after the fact. It’s rare for a first-hand witness to be privy to all of the facts, and their perspective is often so limited as to make it impossible to discern the story in their report.

What journalist could have guessed that Sohaib Athar‘s early morning tweets were, in fact, the first public reports of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound? Piecing that particular story together has been difficult even for those in the command room, as today’s retractions have shown. But is it any surprise that the government has had to issue so many corrections, given that their early reports seem to have been built from the same sort of real-time reporting that informed the stories about the false MLK Jr. quote and PayPal’s non-existent State Department letter?

Which brings us nearly full circle. I don’t know the status of Operation Earnest Voice, but given the imperatives placed on real-time reporting, it’s easy to see how something like it is almost certainly on the horizon. The “report first, and ask questions later” mentality that’s brewing in journalistic circles is creating an increasingly sharper division between what Bell’s article called “the world of news, as opposed to the world of analysis.” That division is ripe for exploitation.


is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.