The other day I read a piece by Jesse Singal on New York Magazine about why “‘Citizen Journalism’ Is A Catastrophe Right Now, And It’ll Only Get Worse“.

In the third paragraph of the article, Singal writes,

Every time WikiLeaks drops a new trove of Hillary Clinton or Democratic National Committee emails, a torrent of bullshit is uncorked. That’s because countless citizen journalists rush to pore over the documents, posting j’accuse screen-grabs ripped from context that are quickly retweeted through huge, hyperactive networks of anti-Clinton Twitter denizens.

Singal then goes on to contrast the methods of these unscrupulous ‘citizen journalists’ against knowledgeable and trained professional journalists, who would know, for example, that there is nothing noteworthy about the New York Times contacting the Clinton campaign ahead of an article about to drop.

“To any working — that is to say, professional — journalist, there’s nothing here. Not because we’re trying to cover up collusion, but because this is a perfectly conventional interaction between a writer and subject,” writes Singal. “The headline description of this email is “Journalist Does Job.” And yet it, and countless other nothing snippets of nothing emails, has been crackling energetically across gonzo social media.”

The whole article, but particularly this section, made me wonder where we should be drawing the line between ‘citizen journalism’ and general social media hype. And it’s not a question that I’m claiming to know the answer to, but nor do I necessarily agree with the way that Singal frames the issue, either.

What makes someone a “working journalist” as opposed to a credulous “citizen journalist”? Is it that they get paid? In the article, Singal names right-wing political commentators Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh as having fallen for a troll tweet about ripping up absentee ballots in the Post Office. While they’re not news reporters, both Drudge and Limbaugh are established media figures who get paid for what they do. What about that makes them citizen journalists? I am a “working journalist” who is paid to write, but I write for B2B publishers and have never been in the position of having to contact a source for comment ahead of an article I’m publishing. Would I be classed as a citizen journalist if I fell for false information on social media?

Last weekend, I went along to the London Student Weekender, an afternoon of talks by great journalists like Buzzfeed’s James Ball and The Times’ Emma Tucker. Alistair Reid of First Draft News gave my favourite talk of the afternoon, which was all about verifying false information on social media.

Surprise surprise, any number of established media organisations have fallen for social media fakes and treated them as fact. These range from the Evening Standard and others reporting a story about a ‘killer clown’ being chased into a Cambodian minefield from the fake local news site The Times of Cambodia; to the BBC, New York Magazine (oh hi there) and Sydney Morning Herald reporting on an Australian man who had supposedly been banned from Facebook for using his legal name, Phuc Dat Bich – his real name was revealed to be Thien Nguyen.

A screenshot of an Evening Standard news article headlined 'Killer clown' dies after stepping on landmine in Cambodia, with a picture of a sinister-looking clown beneath it.

Having misinformation gain a wide platform and be spread quickly and uncritically is a hallmark of the social media age, but it isn’t just the fault of ‘citizen journalists’, and nor does it mean that citizen journalism in the social media age is bound to be a catastrophe. And it’s not that, as Singal writes, the “members of the community spreading these falsehoods” (which, as we’ve established, also includes professional journalists) “forcefully reject or are unfamiliar with the values of skepticism and fact-checking”. It’s more that these values aren’t always applied as consistently as they should be in the rush to be first; or that more training is needed with verification techniques such as reverse image search, using EXIF data and checking domain registration details.

As Reid pointed out in his talk, we rarely remember exactly who was the first to break a story, but we do remember the times when they got it really wrong.

Going back to the ‘Hillary emails’, Zeynep Tufekci has a great opinion piece on the New York Times about why Wikileaks isn’t whistleblowing, which talks about the dangers of the way that Wikileaks (and other data hacks) have dumped reams of information, unfiltered and uncurated, into the public domain with no regard to the consequences.

To me, the article just speaks to the need for journalists – citizen or otherwise – to be the ones who handle whistleblower information with consideration and discretion, making a call about what to release and what sensitive information to censor, just as when Edward Snowden released NSA documents to journalists like the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Pointras. Do that, and the stories get reported effectively.

I suppose the point that I’m making here is twofold; one, that if you release reams of sensitive data to the general public with no discretion, then of course the result is going to be a mess of speculation, hysteria and misinformation. And two, just because social media is often used to spread misinformation doesn’t mean that citizen journalism is doomed.

Putting across a reasoned, balanced point of view in the online hubbub is always going to be a challenge; everyone has a platform, and often the most sensational, exaggerated or baseless ideas are the ones that get all the attention. This is a problem faced by the journalism industry as a whole, as well as by politics, and any number of other sectors. It’s not limited to citizen journalists.

That’s not to say that citizen journalists can’t be responsible for social media hype or for the general spread of misinformation online, but it’s an internet-wide problem. It doesn’t mean the potential of citizen journalism is being ‘squandered’ any more than the potential of social media or the internet as a whole is being.


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