News Reporting in the Age of Social Media

Rasha is a video maker whose depiction of war-torn Syria has become a YouTube hit. You may well have seen her satirical videos that comment on life in her city of Aleppo where she’s unable to go to school because of the unfolding destruction. She’s just nine years old.

More and more, people like Rasha are sharing information online and – in doing so – are affecting the way the rest of the world forms an understanding of a conflict or situation. Indeed, social media is increasingly becoming a key part of global news reporting; it provides a vast network of sources of information and contacts that simply weren’t available before. Reporters on the ground can use real-time messages to get the latest information on an area – for example, whether a street is safe to travel down. Meanwhile, back in the newsroom, journalists can analyse a wide variety of accounts and perspectives.

However, the role of social media in news reporting is complicated. Earlier this month, hundreds of people from across the digital industry heard Anne-Marie Tomchak speak on this subject at the Web Summit conference in Dublin. Tomchak works for BBC Trending which reports on what’s being shared and why it matters. In a time where ISIS has its own YouTube channel and news stories frequently break on platforms like Twitter and WhatsApp, it’s crucial that we understand how social media shapes our consumption of information.

There's no doubt that social media is a place where political, cultural and social change is happening," said Tomchak

And much of the effect of social media is positive, Tomchak argued. For a start, everyone is afforded a voice. During the Ukrainian protests, social media provided a way for citizens to communicate what was going on to the international community, independent to the traditional news streams.  In Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protests began in September, social media has been censored; however, other blue-tooth platforms are being used to daisy-chain information.

What’s more, the use of social media can have a real impact on the outcome of the story it’s reporting.

One of the biggest social media campaigns of the year, #BringBackOurGirls was created in response to the kidnapping of 200 Nigeria schoolgirls by Boko Haram fighters. The hashtag was used to call the government to do more to find the girls. It also kept the story in the public eye long after the traditional news platforms stopped reporting on it. #BringBackOurGirls has now been tweeted over one million times including by Michelle Obama.

This year Tomchak broke a story about the ‘offer’ of illegal drugs on Instagram. It was shared 2,967 times, which resulted in Instagram changing its policy and shutting down this activity.

However, as Tomchak pointed out, there are problems associated with the use of social media in reporting. Number one concerns authenticity. If anyone can share information (and this can potentially go viral), how do we know what to trust? Of course, bias has always been an inherent issue with news reporting, but we are now facing frequent instances of mistaken information circulating the web. Last week, for example, fake photos were shared on the Russian social media platform VKontakte. These were supposedly depicting the ‘Rotting West’ but turned out to be ironic plays on Russian propaganda.

The use of social media has also augmented the power of celebrity. In March, Kim Kardashian called on Twitter fans to #SaveKessab, an ancient Armenian Christian village in Syria that was said to be under attack by rebels. The hashtag subsequently soared in usage, despite widespread belief that the claims were false.

Such instances of misinformation have forced news outlets to develop a new set of skills in seeking out the original source of a story. An emphasis on authenticity has replaced authority, yet truth can be a hard thing to pin down.

There’s never been a better way to trend a hoax,” said Mark Little, speaking about Twitter at the Web Summit.

Little is the founder Storyful, a platform designed to find and verify stories being told around the web, for use by newsrooms and brands. The team monitors lists on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media sites for keywords that relate to a news event.

Speaking about the issue of verification, Little said “there are two types of journalism going on: the people on the ground, and the people curating and filtering the content.” The Storyful team use tools to help judge the quality of reporting; for example, Instagram and Google show locations of their visitors so the team can check whether someone reporting on, say, Syria is actually in that place. Even with tools, however, a great responsibility still weighs on the shoulders of journalists to judge and understand the complexities of the area they are reporting on. There’s then a food chain process whereby news stories are found on social media, verified by journalists, then fed back to social media.

What about you? Do you use social media platforms to read up on the latest news? Please feel free to share your opinions and insights below.

This post forms the last of our Web Summit series. If you missed last week's, take a look at this post on the internet of things and the tools changing the way we listen to music.

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