In defence of healthy mistrust

Does panic over a non-existent shooting in Oxford Street mean we can’t trust Twitter to tell us the

It's the kind of thing that Twitter excels at, even when it's got the wrong end of the stick. Within minutes, news of a "shooting in Oxford Street" created a huge amount of noise and a flurry of tweets. Understandably panicky Londoners told each other to stay indoors and be safe. But there was no shooting, and it was a misunderstanding that seems to have been based partly on a police training exercise and partly on a tweet about a fashion shoot.

Does that mean we can't trust Twitter to tell us what's going on? Tom Rayner, a Sky News producer, said:

The lessons from this morning's non-incident are clear: for the police, they now have to be far more careful managing and protecting information, and more proactive in quelling rumours when they emerge.

For journalists, the advent of Twitter has made the importance of checking and verifying stories even greater.

Tom's colleagues at Sky News know this all too well, having cited a joke tweet from the spoof "Daily Mail reporter" account as evidence that Vince Cable was going to resign a few weeks ago. As we now know, Cable is still very much in his job, but it goes to show that a single tweeter may not be a perfect source of information, and even a mass of panicky tweeters chirping away can lead you in the wrong direction. In the quest to be first to break the news, it's easy to see what you want to see.

On the other hand, getting information from the Twittersphere isn't necessarily a bad thing. At the height of the recent student protests, it was easy for news to focus on safe, official information from the police which gave only one side of the story, while there was a mass of contradictory information coming from inside the police kettles. Who to believe? Journalists are taught to give more weight to "official" sources like the police – or at least to know that if a police source says something untrue, you won't get in as much trouble for printing it – which can lead to a slightly skewed version of events appearing in the early stages.

Official sources aren't without their drawbacks, though, when it comes to this kind of thing. Met Police commander Bob Broadhurst told MPs that there were no plain-clothes police at the G20 protests; we now know this not to be the case. An official, trusted voice can drown out the many eyewitnesses who may have the opposing view.

Perhaps the best way to proceed is to treat official sources and anonymous tweeters with equal cynicism. At the moment, a man in a suit and tie, or a uniform, sitting behind a microphone or carving out a press release is always going to be believed more than a funny avatar and fewer than 140 characters of text. Which is understandable. But that doesn't mean we should always trust the suit and tie more; perhaps an equal amount of healthy mistrust might be appropriate.

Twitter does get it wrong sometimes, and can be misleading; but it adds to an environment in which readers find themselves constantly challenging the veracity of sources, tweets or statements, as well as comparing the official version of events to what people on the ground are saying. And that is no bad thing.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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