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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Fark.com’s censorship story is a striking insight into Google’s unchecked power

The founder of the community-driven website claims its advertising revenue was cut off for five weeks.

When Microsoft launched its new search engine Bing in 2009, it wasted no time in trying to get the word out. By striking a deal with the producers of the American teen drama Gossip Girl, it made a range of beautiful characters utter the words “Bing it!” in a way that fell clumsily on the audience’s ears. By the early Noughties, “search it” had already been universally replaced by the words “Google it”, a phrase that had become so ubiquitous that anything else sounded odd.

A screenshot from Gossip Girl, via ildarabbit.wordpress.com

Like Hoover and Tupperware before it, Google’s brand name has now become a generic term.

Yet only recently have concerns about Google’s pervasiveness received mainstream attention. Last month, The Observer ran a story about Google’s auto-fill pulling up the suggested question of “Are Jews evil?” and giving hate speech prominence in the first page of search results. Within a day, Google had altered the autocomplete results.

Though the company’s response may seem promising, it is important to remember that Google isn’t just a search engine (Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has too many subdivisions to mention). Google AdSense is an online advertising service that allows many websites to profit from hosting advertisements on its pages, including the New Statesman itself. Yesterday, Drew Curtis, the founder of the internet news aggregator Fark.com, shared a story about his experiences with the service.

Under the headline “Google farked us over”, Curtis wrote:

“This past October we suffered a huge financial hit because Google mistakenly identified an image that was posted in our comments section over half a decade ago as an underage adult image – which is a felony by the way. Our ads were turned off for almost five weeks – completely and totally their mistake – and they refuse to make it right.”

The image was of a fully-clothed actress who was an adult at the time, yet Curtis claims Google flagged it because of “a small pedo bear logo” – a meme used to mock paedophiles online. More troubling than Google’s decision, however, is the difficulty that Curtis had contacting the company and resolving the issue, a process which he claims took five weeks. He wrote:

“During this five week period where our ads were shut off, every single interaction with Google Policy took between one to five days. One example: Google Policy told us they shut our ads off due to an image. Without telling us where it was. When I immediately responded and asked them where it was, the response took three more days.”

Curtis claims that other sites have had these issues but are too afraid of Google to speak out publicly. A Google spokesperson says: "We constantly review publishers for compliance with our AdSense policies and take action in the event of violations. If publishers want to appeal or learn more about actions taken with respect to their account, they can find information at the help centre here.”

Fark.com has lost revenue because of Google’s decision, according to Curtis, who sent out a plea for new subscribers to help it “get back on track”. It is easy to see how a smaller website could have been ruined in a similar scenario.


The offending image, via Fark

Google’s decision was not sinister, and it is obviously important that it tackles things that violate its policies. The lack of transparency around such decisions, and the difficulty getting in touch with Google, are troubling, however, as much of the media relies on the AdSense service to exist.

Even if Google doesn’t actively abuse this power, it is disturbing that it has the means by which to strangle any online publication, and worrying that smaller organisations can have problems getting in contact with it to solve any issues. In light of the recent news about Google's search results, the picture painted becomes more even troubling.

Update, 13/01/17:

Another Google spokesperson got in touch to provide the following statement: “We have an existing set of publisher policies that govern where Google ads may be placed in order to protect users from harmful, misleading or inappropriate content.  We enforce these policies vigorously, and taking action may include suspending ads on their site. Publishers can appeal these actions.”

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