New Media: The good, the bad, and the downright ugly

Over the span of the last two weeks we have witnessed both the power and the folly of new media.

The blogosphere, twitterverse and other online forums proved to be effective rapid-reaction communications tools when a massive earthquake devastated Haiti on Jan. 12. Outside Haiti, the Internet exploded with posts and tweets providing donation information, suggestions to help people search for loved ones and heartfelt entreaties to lend a helping hand. From inside Haiti survivors tweeted eyewitness accounts and offered to help locate loved ones, uploaded information to MySpace, YouTube and Facebook.

Did all this online activity dig people out from under collapsed buildings? Did it put bandages on bleeding wounds? No, of course not.

But it did provide an almost immediate platform for people to come together, share information and reach out with compassion and do what they could to help Haiti.

All this activity quickly caught the notice of major news organizations. As BBC News Monitoring Analyst Lewis MacLeod blogged:

 

The Twitter community in fact provided much of the early information on the crisis in the existence of what the Columbia Journalism Review called “the Haitian news vacuum”. The Los Angeles Times quickly created a list of Twitter users believed to be tweeting from Haiti and the New York Times blog The Lede began regularly updating a post with news about the quake. …Curtis Barnard, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review blog, said that nevertheless “the world owes a measure of debt to new media platforms – which will undoubtedly continue to play an important role in Haiti in the days and months to come – for their assistance in facilitating the early response to this disaster”.

Then came the news – via a faked CNN page and Twitter trending – this weekend that Johnny Depp had died in Bordeaux, France as the result of a car crash. News spread quickly. Fans began tweeting “R.I.P.” messages to the star. Until a second wave of news broke – the claim was a hoax.

@tigerkite tweeted: Dear Internet, please use Google. Despite what “hip” newscasts like to say, twitter is not a news source. #johnnydepp=veryalive

@andgbb wrote: #JohnnyDepp was found dead in both London and Paris…#hoax

@ohkaykayy delivered this warning: the internet is obviously warping peoples minds.. taking everything at face value.. #johnnydepp is not dead. the cnn article is from 2004

Nor is Depp the first. Celebrity death rumors are a dime a dozen in the online-verse. Harrison Ford, Miley Cyrus, George Clooney, Natalie Portman, Britney Spears, Jeff Goldblum and Rick Astley are among the celebrities who “died” in the last year online.

The last two weeks have left me with a deep appreciation for the power of new media, and reinforced fears that as traditional media struggles to survive the information people around the world are getting may not be accurate – or even real.

Where is the balance between the two? Does the average Internet user assume enough personal responsibility to replace the digging and fact-checking that traditional journalists do on a story? Is the rush to have information immediately, damaging our long-term perceptions of reality?

I don’t have the answers yet – I guess only time will tell.

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3 Comments to “New Media: The good, the bad, and the downright ugly”

  1. Pauline says:

    Great post.
    I have to say as a former (small-time) journalist that no, I don’t think the average Internet user assumes enough responsibility when it comes to verifying information. I’ve seen the change in myself since leaving the world of reporting attached to a paycheck. But old habits die hard. When tweets appeared about Britney Murphy’s recent death, the first thing I did was google her name to see what came up. Not until I saw enough did I post condolences via Twitter.
    But would have googling been enough as a reporter? No, of course not. There would have been calls made, police reports checked, hospitals contacted; all before a story would be ready to print for a traditional news source.
    Yes, what happened regarding Haiti was phenomenal. But Johnny Depp is alive. And the sad fact is that for those relying on Twitter for their news information, they won’t know otherwise until they log back in to check for more tweets.

  2. sherry stevens says:

    my most ‘fav’ ‘report’ so far out of Haiti is that Israel is harvesting organs because there aren’t enough in ‘Palestine’…..hoooray for the internet!

  3. Very interesting blog. Excuse this long comment it didn’t start out to be!

    We have some experience of using Twitter as a campaigning tool and know well the pitfalls of believing all that is read.

    Our organisation has a ‘full-time’ Twitter Dept which campaigns on Human Rights and Women’s Issues and helps other people’s campaigns.

    We had a recent story where we became aware of a campaign relating to a woman who was imprisoned for life when she was a teenager in the US.

    The story is a very emotive one. But we could find no concrete evidence as to its truth or whether it was a marketing operation for a human rights organisation.

    So we stopped talking about the case. Finally today we had some verification so can continue with or plans

    Similarly during the first 2 weeks of the Haiti Earthquake we received lots of info about fund raising. However, it was sometimes hard to distinguish rumour from fact.

    We see Twitter as an amazing tool for awareness raising. Our work there is a huge unknown because we are flexible as to which human rights issues we are focusing on.. There are forever new issues presenting themselves.

    Equally, evaluating the success of what we do is difficult. The only way we can judge this is by the amount of messages from people who want to become involved either directly in our organisations online Volunteer Centre, who endorse the Safe World for Women Campaign, or just by always being around on Twitter and sharing what we send or giving us messages to send out.

    Some final words

    1) We are currently involved with supporting 2 campaigns. @freethehikers
    @freethehikers Free the Hikers is a heart wrenching story of 3 young people who strayed into Iranian territory and got arrested by the authorities. They have now been in jail, in Iran, for over 6 months.
    Their campaign is run by family and in particular a remarkable woman Farah.
    Through being involved helping raise awareness we have become close internet friends. When she says she cried yesterday – we feel it.
    http://freethehikers.org/

    2) @freegary is the story of Gary Mackinnen who has fought a 7 yr battle over extradition to the US from the UK for hacking into Govt Computers.
    We became involved because Gary has Aspergers syndrome and says he was hacking the computers looking for info about UFO’s.
    I have personal experience of how Aspergers affects someone and felt the US Govt was over-reacting by demanding his extradition.
    And then I ‘met’ Gary’s mum, Janice, on Twitter. @JanisSharp has done the most incredible things to raise awareness of the story, including getting David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) and Bob Geldof to record a song alongside Gary. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LEcrryZ3ss
    I have so much respect for Janis, for her determination and strength to keep going.
    A quality you can’t ignore

    3) Lastly we are working on our biggest challenge ever. To try and expose links between the Dominican Sexindustry and Human Trafficking. Human Trafficking is a crime which, without doubt, needs more attention.

    If our work on twitter can help to expose and destroy this sickening abuse of human beings then I will feel some sense of success.

    Twitter can be a fantastic tool for this but at the same time, as you say, both reader and writer need to be beware.