Twitter hoaxes and the ethics of new media — what happens now that we are all journalists?

There have been a rash of internet hoaxes lately — including a fake Google protester, a made-up tweet from Paris Hilton and a fictional conversation between a “reality TV” producer and an irritating passenger on an airplane. As a New York Times story points out, most of these were spread by social media and fuelled by credulous reports from a number of media outlets. Media critics have rightly argued that this is a problem, driven at least in part by the speed of online media.

Obviously it would be nice if more media outlets checked such reports before they repeated them. But are reporters and bloggers the only ones with any broader ethical responsibility? What about those who engage in hoaxes? What is their responsibility as members of what Yochai Benkler — of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society — has called a “networked fourth estate?”

A responsibility to correct the record

Elan Gale, a producer of the “reality” TV show The Bachelor, was the architect of the hoax conversation involving a woman theoretically named Diane, to whom he allegedly wrote passive-aggressive notes on airplane napkins as he live-tweeted the entire episode. In a Twitter debate on Monday night that included Tow Center fellow Alex Howard and me, Gale argued that he had no responsibility whatsoever to correct the record once he realized that some people believed his story was true.

Elan Gale tweet1
Elan Gale tweet2

In a nutshell, Gale said he is just a fun-loving writer who enjoys playing Twitter pranks and/or creating what he called “performance art” like the airplane incident, and it’s not his job to point out when people — or media outlets — are taking his words seriously rather than dismissing them as satire. Gale said he assumes that his Twitter followers know he routinely makes things up, and therefore they are “in on the joke.” And what about those who aren’t? They’re on their own.

Elan Gale tweet3

There’s no question that — as Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab put it in the New York Times piece — the fast pace of online media often means outlets wind up simply pointing to things instead of actively trying to determine whether they are true (another reason why I wish someone would expand Snopes into a full-fledged media entity). And it should be noted that it’s not just new media like BuzzFeed: the New York Times itself mentioned the Gale incident on its travel blog, although that post appears to have been deleted.

We are all media now

BuzzFeed says it tried to reach Gale via Twitter to confirm the story, and updated it as soon as it had more information. And there is undoubtedly pressure on such sites to run a salacious piece first rather than waiting to check, since the traffic rewards can be remarkable — as Gawker’s “viral content” specialist Neetzan Zimmerman pointed out during a recent debate with founder Nick Denton on the merits of checking stories rather than just running with them.

But I would argue (and did argue during my Twitter debate with Gale) that since each of us is effectively a member of the media now, whether we like it or not, it’s incumbent on the sources of such erroneous reports to point out that they are engaging in fiction, rather than leaving everyone to their own devices.

Elan Gale tweet4

Josh Stearns of Free Press pointed out recently that the rise of networked journalism requires a new ethical approach, one that applies not just to journalists but to anyone involved in what Om has called the “democratization of distribution.” Part of Gale’s argument is that he is just a joker, and no one was harmed by his story, and that’s true — a fictitious conversation on airplane isn’t a world-changing event, and likely no one’s life was altered by his hoax. But that’s hardly the point.

The larger point is that we are all in this thing together now, this distributed and networked media ecosystem, and we should act like it. That means checking things before you retweet them, and not going off on witch hunts if you are on Reddit after a bombing, and other things as well. But blaming “the media” for getting it wrong is no solution either any more. We are all the media.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Don Skarpo

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