Hoax, Jest & False Biography

Based on a Mar. 16th lecture by Gearóid Ó Súilleabháin

In a 2014 Guardian article, Go ahead: waste a day on Wikipedia, Dan Gillmor (who does disclose that he is a friend of Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales), is primarily positive about Wikipedia, noting that it “remains the most visible of the collective-intelligence projects” and “gets better every day”. To be fair he does clearly state, as many have, that Wikipedia is a great place to start learning about a topic but not the place to stop. He acknowledges that some deliberately corrupt information for various reasons, but goes on to claim that the minor hoaxes and bogus entries can be endured because, despite its imperfections, Wikipedia creates real value.

Amelia Bedelia Source: The Daily Dot

Amelia Bedelia
Source: The Daily Dot

On minor hoaxes and jests I tend to agree in large part. One hoax, which Dan alludes to, is described in detail by EJ Dickson in a 2014 Daily Dot piece, How I accidentally started a Wikipedia hoax about Amelia Bedelia. As diverting as the story about the insertion of a falsehood about a children’s book series character is, I find the fact that it had persisted for over five years, and that it had subsequently been cited numerous times in a myriad other publications, more revealing. Despite the admonition not to use Wikipedia as a primary or sole source it would appear that many do. A Wikipedia editor offered Dickson multiple reasons why the fabrication had not been spotted.
Equally amusing was Wikipedia’s banning of US Congress access after certain edits, presumably made in jest, were spotted by a Twitter bot. They were on subjects as odd as lizard people controlling government, Cubans faking the moon landing, and Donald Rumsfeld being an alien wizard. The article also mentions tracking of Wikipedia edits from inside the House of Commons.

John Seigenthaler

John Seigenthaler
Source: PBS

Considerably more serious was the “character assassination” (his words) perpetrated on the late John Seigenthaler, a well-known journalist, writer, and one-time administrative assistant to Robert F. Kennedy. The false Wikipedia entry suggesting Seigenthaler “was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby”. Seigenthaler’s frustrating attempts to find out who had posted the information, through Wikipedia and BellSouth Internet, was detailed in a USA TODAY op-ed. Seigenthaler contended that Federal law with respect to defamation in cyberspace had enabled and protected “volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects”. The author of the falsehood was ultimately identified and did apologize; Wikipedia did make some rule changes as a result.

Second Thoughts: In the Weeds with Wales

When I watched the Jimmy Wales TED Talk on the birth of Wikipedia,

I came away thinking Wales was part showman and part salesman, but also wanting to understand a little more about the governance of the Wikipedia he described.

The best place to start is, naturally, with Wikipedia itself, which defines its policies and guidelines in minute detail. There is no way I could adequately summarize either here. The procedural policies, which include an explanation of the Arbitration Committee – Wikipedia’s “Supreme Court” – and how it operates, are complex. The behavioral, content and editing guidelines I scanned are positively byzantine. However Wikipedia summarizes its principles in what it calls its five “pillars”:

  • Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia
  • All content on Wikipedia has to be written from a neutral point of view (NPOV)
  • Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit, and distribute
  • Editors should treat each other with consideration and respect
  • Wikipedia has no firm rules a.k.a. ignore all rules

Put in such straightforward terms it almost sounds like a collective Utopia. But further reading reveals some cracks in the foundation. I will return to some of the criticisms of Wikipedia in a follow-up post. But I did want to point here to a Guardian piece about the deletion of a Wikipedia entry on a Sunday Times journalist by Jimmy Wales himself, which shows that even he is not above breaking the rules. As the author notes, “Wikipedia, it seems, has a god, and occasionally he deletes stuff.”

The Web Changes News – and PR – Forever

Well, yes … perhaps. It would be nigh on impossible – and a rank conceit – to attempt to address all aspects of the internet’s impact on the modern news cycle but I wanted to make a few points in respect of the topic, in no appreciable order, triggered primarily by recent reading and event attendance.

Baherah Heravi, who was a guest speaker at an Innovation Week 2015 Data Journalism conference at the Cork Institute of Technology (CIT), had a number of interesting things to report about social media use by Irish journalists in a February article in the Irish Times.
An NUI Galway study, which Heravi co-authored, found that 99% of Irish journalists used social media for work, with 92% claiming to use Twitter once a day or more.

Irish Times 20150212

Source: Irish Times

When compared to a similar survey conducted in other countries Irish journalists ranked as the heaviest users of social media alongside their UK counterparts.
The survey, which can be downloaded in full from the Insight Galway’s Digital Humanities and Journalism group website, noted that 58% of Irish journalists used social media daily for sourcing news leads and 49% for sourcing content. The speed at which a story could be picked up and reported, as well as the increased output, in terms of the number of stories covered, were both noted as effects of increased social media adoption. It is worth noting that journalists also cited social media platforms as valuable for publishing and promoting their work, and for networking. For PR practitioners engaging with the media, knowing where a journalist’s responsibilities and interests lay could well prove useful when determining where and how best to place a story for publication. Another reason, if one were needed, for building a media list on Twitter.
Despite widespread use, the NUI Galway study did note the concern expressed by a considerable number of journalists over the accuracy of information on social media, and the belief that, without external verification, such information could not be trusted. Cross-referencing online, contacting social media sources directly, contacting official bodies and tapping into existing networks were mentioned as important validation methods. For those PR practitioners employing social media it is important to note that the two factors rated most important by journalists in deciding the trustworthiness of a social media source were the availability of a link to an institutional or company website, and the number and quality of posts from that source. Given the expressed desire to able to contact a social media source directly, making oneself readily available and easily contactable is obviously a must.
What surprised me about the study – though perhaps it shouldn’t have – was not that social media has become so important in news sourcing but that it still lags behind, if only marginally, the press release, which was cited as the main daily source of news by 59% of survey respondents.

HuJo 20150107

Source: HuJo – Insight @NUI Galway

To borrow from Twain the report of the death of the humble press release appears to have been an exaggeration. Confirmation of its enduring value was provided by another guest speaker at a well-attended CIT Innovation Week 2015 Event Management seminar. Roderick Udo, a business lecturer and music promoter, spoke informally to a small group about various aspects of event promotion. In addition to providing useful pointers on web and social media use, Udo emphasized the written word. He noted that the ability to write a press release in the inverted pyramid style was still a vital skill in the internet age, especially for resource-limited local and regional publications; indeed he found that a properly structured press release often made it to print unaltered.

[slideshare id=36054266&doc=impactofsocialmediaonnewssming14-140619034017-phpapp02]

ING conducted an interesting 2014 study on the impact of social media on news. Both PR practitioners and journalists participated. The survey found that the majority of both groups used social media in their daily work. As with the Irish study, journalists reported social media as the principal source of information but were concerned about reliability; Twitter was again the most popular platform. Interestingly half of journalists surveyed said they considered consumer opinion to be more reliable than a statement by an organization. Almost half of journalists said they published the majority of their stories as quickly as possible, with less fact-checking, and corrected later if necessary, which seems to be reinforced by the 52% of PR practitioners who reported that since the arrival of social media journalists were contacting them more infrequently to check facts. That notion of “publish first, correct later” finds an echo in a comment the late David Carr, celebrated media columnist for the New York Times, made about the web in an interview with NPR’s “Fresh Air”:

“… At least on the Web, you can amend. The ethic of the Web is to say what you know as quickly as you can, and then reiterate over and over again. The Web is kind of a self-cleaning oven, and what you have up there can grow more accurate as time goes by. That’s never true of print. It’s always there for the ages.”

David Carr The News Diet Of A Media Omnivore

How consumers interact with digital news is naturally of interest to both media and PR professionals. The Pew Research Center’s Journalism project, in examining how news functions in the social media environment, noted the following in a March 2014 article: half of Facebook and Twitter users got some news from those platforms; 78% of those who get news on Facebook visited the site for other reasons; the range of news topics viewed on Facebook is broad with entertainment topping the list and 50% of news consumers saying they view news about 6 or more topics on the site; 50% of social network users are sharing or reposting news stories, with a smaller, but significant, number contributing themselves by posting their news event images or video; people tend to group on Twitter around important news events but their opinions don’t necessarily reflect broader public opinion; and news consumer demographics on different platforms vary greatly with LinkedIn being predominately male and more highly educated while Twitter is gender neutral with a younger audience.
David Carr had this to say about Twitter:

“It serves to edit what’s going on in the world, and it puts a human curation on this huge fire hose of data that’s washing over us all. The question becomes where to look, and it’s nice to have some other people pointing the way.”

David Carr The News Diet Of A Media Omnivore

Certainly the internet has changed news dramatically – the gathering of it, the reporting of it, the consumption of it, and, importantly, the underlying economic model. While dot.com versions of traditional media publications such as the Guardian or the Daily Mail, or “digital natives” such as Slate and The Huffington Post, have found their niche online, others are struggling. As a recent Roy Greenslade report in the Guardian pointed out, Ireland’s newspaper sales fell by over 7% in the second half of 2014.
A post in the Online Journalism Blog titled How the web changed the economics of news – in all media, by Paul Bradshaw, a Visiting Professor in Online Journalism at City University London, is also worth a read. In summary he notes that news consumption has moved to “sporadic ‘grazing'” and links to a PEW Research article titled Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources; as a result of online metrics (analytics) that tell how many users saw a specific page, how many clicked an ad and made a purchase, where they had visited previously, what they searched for etc., advertisers expect more and newspapers know much more about their readers; a paywall interrupts distribution channels; the cost of news gathering and production has shrunk significantly; certain types of journalism such as music or book reviews are in trouble as there is a a plethora of alternative sources; distribution limitations are a thing of the past where now only an email account or mobile phone is required and where social networks are powerful and efficient; advertising monopolies have disappeared with a myriad of choices now open to any advertiser including “becoming media producers themselves”; retailers can now engage consumers directly by publishing news on their own websites and distributing their own publications; new monopolies such as Google and Amazon are now in place and need to be understood along with concepts such as Search Engine Optimization (you can read an extended piece I wrote on SEO which contains multiple practical pointers) and Social Media Marketing; when everything is digital then text, audio, video, graphics and animation converges; the PR industry which heretofore has provided “cheap copy for news organizations” can now bypass those organizations in favour of direct appeal to their target publics; and finally, the notion of social capital, and the fact that blogs and other user-generated content (UGC) are favoured because the individual is trusted more than the brand. Multiple lessons there for the PR practitioner. The mashing of text, audio, video etc. brings to mind the concept of a social media press release:

Social Media News Release

Source: PRESSfeed

Technology has been a primary driver in changes in consumer behavior, and newsrooms have long since learned that simply migrating content from offline to online is not enough to satisfy that consumer; high quality graphics, video clips, podcasts, online polls, blogs, hyperlinks etc. are now a must, and must work seamlessly on mobile devices. Two-way communication is also a given whether through user comments on online articles and blogs, or hashtag-delimited opinion on social media.

All of which points to the Internet providing PR practitioners with a unique opportunity to gather information, monitor public opinion, and engage in direct dialogue with various publics about a host of issues. Lloyd & Toogood, in “Journalism and PR”, published in association with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, state that there is confidence in PR circles that “they can take over, and are taking over, many of the functions of journalism, and of the media in general” and that the notion that every organization is a now a media organization is “becoming a growing reality.” This idea of organization as news publisher and media owner, the fourth leaf in Edelman’s four-leaf clover,

Edelman Cloverleaf

Source: Edelman

is addressed in a myriad of PR-related articles and posts, including this one on effective media relations tactics in the Journalistics blog, which devotes a section to “inbound media relations”, and includes notes on building and maintaining a blog, treating that blog as your “owned media channel”, and publishing your news to it on a regular basis.

But if there are PR opportunities provided by new media, there are also dangers on the protection side i.e. the risk to reputation. As Rob Brown notes in his book “Public Relations and the Social Web”, “the substance of Web 2.0” is that “the owners of the means of communication no longer control the content”. Lloyd & Toogood note that “though always part of PR, reputation is now seen to be more fragile, more open to attack, especially on social media.”
As just one example, individuals are more increasingly generating content – be it video, stills or first-person accounts – and placing that content almost immediately into the public domain. Citizen journalism is the term most often used. Mark Little, of Storyful, in a panel discussion at the Web Summit conference in Dublin in November 2014, suggested that “authenticity has replaced authority as the new currency” and went on to state that social media had a growing self-policing component.

“There’s never been a better way to spread a hoax than social media, but there’s never been a better fact-checking desk than social media.”

Mark Little Social media, journalism and wars

PR practitioners, such as the author of this post titled One Million iReporters: Is PR Ready?, are beginning to consider the challenges of citizen journalism for PR, and the possible responses. The challenges include the instant, unfiltered, 24×7 nature of such news; the lack of editorial control; possible personal agendas at work; and the race to get the story first rather than get it right. To counter this the author suggests advance risk preparation; listening to and monitoring both traditional and social media for negative comments or possible issues; being available (a common theme); responding quickly and seeking corrections; developing ones own media channels; collating and distributing information as quickly as possible; and preparation of visual materials such as video and graphics which have a higher news value.

If there is a single overarching strand running through this post, and I freely confess that it may be poorly delineated, it is that, new and old media aside, the desired PR competencies remain much the same. Certainly there is a new digital terminology to digest; new web and social media publishing, monitoring and analytics tools to master; and new distribution platforms to understand. There can be no doubt that social media acts as amplifier and accelerator, demanding increased attention and ever more rapid response. But no new technology or communication medium can mask an ill-conceived idea, sloppy writing or the patent absence of a story. And, whether targeting old or new media (or dare I suggest, both), finally it is the story that matters, as the team from the StoryLab PR agency in Sligo – forty-odd miles from my homeplace – are keen to emphasize, both on their website, and in this simple yet effective promotional video:

Storytelling is, after all, a great deal older than the web.



APA 6th edition style

Bradshaw, P. (2009). How the web changed the economics of news – in all media. Online Journalism Blog. Retrieved 16 March 2015, from http://onlinejournalismblog.com/2009/06/04/how-the-web-changed-the-economics-of-news-in-all-media/

Brown, R. (2009). Public relations and the social web. London: Kogan Page.

Dredge, S. (2014). Social media, journalism and wars: ‘Authenticity has replaced authority’. the Guardian. Retrieved 16 March 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/nov/05/social-media-journalism-wars-authenticity

Greenslade, R. (2015). Ireland’s newspaper sales fell by over 7% in second half of 2014. the Guardian. Retrieved 16 March 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2015/feb/20/irelands-newspaper-sales-fell-by-over-7-in-second-half-of-2014

Heravi, B. (2015). First National Survey on Irish Journalists’ use of Social Media | Digital Humanities & Journalism. Hujo.insight-centre.org. Retrieved 16 March 2015, from http://hujo.insight-centre.org/socialjournalism2014/

Heravi, B. (2015). Irish journalists among world’s heaviest social media users, study finds. Irish Times. Retrieved 16 March 2015, from http://www.irishtimes.com/news/irish-times-data/irish-journalists-among-world-s-heaviest-social-media-users-study-finds-1.2101471

ING.com,. (2014). 2014 Study impact of Social Media on News: more crowd-checking, less fact-checking. Retrieved 16 March 2015, from http://www.ing.com/Newsroom/All-news/NW/2014-Study-impact-of-Social-Media-on-News-more-crowdchecking-less-factchecking.htm

Lloyd, J., & Toogood, L. (2015) Journalism and PR: News Media and Public Relations in the Digital Age. London: I.B. Tauris.

Matsa, K., & Mitchell, A. (2014). 8 Key Takeaways about Social Media and News. Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project. Retrieved 16 March 2015, from http://www.journalism.org/2014/03/26/8-key-takeaways-about-social-media-and-news/

NPR.org,. (2011). David Carr: The News Diet Of A Media Omnivore. Retrieved 16 March 2015, from http://www.npr.org/2011/10/27/141658047/david-carr-the-news-diet-of-a-media-omnivore

Pew Research Center for the People and the Press,. (2008). Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources. Retrieved 16 March 2015, from http://people-press.org/report/444/news-media

Porter, J. (2013). The Two Most Effective Media Relations Tactics for 2013. Journalistics. Retrieved 16 March 2015, from http://blog.journalistics.com/2013/two-most-effective-media-relations-tactics-2013/

The PR Coach,. (2012). One Million iReporters: Is PR Ready?. Retrieved 16 March 2015, from http://www.theprcoach.com/one-million-ireporters-is-pr-ready/

StoryLab,. (2015). Content | StoryLab. Retrieved 16 March 2015, from http://storylab.ie/content/

From Stallman to Lessig to Keen

Based on a Mar. 9th lecture by Gearóid Ó Súilleabháin

Another Richard Poynder interview that jumped out at me was the 2006 conversation with Lawrence Lessig, leader of the Free Culture Movement and co-founder of Creative Commons, who was mentioned in less than glowing terms by Richard Stallman.

Lawrence Lessig

Lawrence Lessig
Source: Wikipedia

Lessig is generous in citing Stallman and the Free Software Movement as key influences on his book “Free Culture”. Stallman is less so, noting in the Poynder interview problems he has with some Creative Commons licensing, and expressing the view that Lessig’s book shows him to be “less ethically firm”. The disagreement appears to reduce to Stallman’s insistence that people have a fundamental right to copy creative works while Lessig argues for a more nuanced position.

The Cult of the Amateur

Source: Wikipedia

It is therefore perhaps a little odd, given Stallman’s overt disappointment in Lessig’s failure to be absolutist, to read Andrew Keen’s criticisms of Lessig in “The Cult of the Amateur”. “A fronte praecipitium a tergo lupi” Lessig might have been thinking in reading that he and “cyberpunk William Gibson laud the appropriation of intellectual property.” But Lessig is a law professor and more able than most to defend himself, which he does quite comprehensively in a May 2007 post on his own site. Lessig suggests the Keen book can only have been intended as masterful “self-parody” and is “riddled with falsity”, errors he subsequently proceeds to parse in detail.

That said, I must confess to still preferring Keen’s take on amateurs.

Master of the Recursive Acronym

Based on a Mar. 9th lecture by Gearóid Ó Súilleabháin

Richard Stallman, progenitor of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), founder and lead architect of the GNU project (GNU’s Not Unix, hence the title of this post), and author of the widely-used GNU General Purpose License dubbed “copyleft”, does not, on further reading, appear much fond of compromise.

Richard Stallman Source: Salon.com

Richard Stallman
Source: Salon.com

A 2002 Salon.com article, Code free or die, reviewing a biography of Stallman, celebrates his stubbornness in stating that “his single-minded commitment and brutal honesty are refreshing in a world of spin-meisters and multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns”. Linus Torvalds, author of the Linux kernel (I will not address the GNU/Linux naming controversy here), indicates in a blog post that he is not a fan of Stallman because he doesn’t like “single-issue people” and he doesn’t think “that people who turn the world into black and white are very nice or ultimately very useful.”
Eric S. Raymond, co-founder of the Open Source Initiative (OSI), in a piece titled Shut Up And Show Them The Code, rejects Stallman’s rhetoric, claiming that OSI’s tactics work while FSF’s don’t, and that the excellence of open source software is a “more persuasive argument for openness and freedom than any amount of highfalutin appeal to abstract principles”.
But then Stallman too has plenty to say on what he sees as clear distinctions between free and open source software, noting on the gnu.org site that “Free software is a political movement; open source is a development model.”

Richard Poynder

Richard Poynder
Source: richardpoynder.co.uk

Journalist Richard Poynder’s superb interview with Richard Stallman is one of several of his Basement Interviews available online. The 2006 interview provides insight into Stallman’s combative nature and throws up gems such as “I don’t want to answer that question. I don’t like being handed a quotation and asked to utter it.” I strongly recommend that you download and read the interview in its entirety (available as a PDF from Poynder’s site or in text form here) as it contains Poynder’s detailed background and explanatory notes which are an education in themselves.

Stallman’s TEDxGeneva 2014 talk “Free software, free society” is worth a watch:

and early on includes a simple explanation of his four software freedoms:

  • 0: to run a program for any purpose.
  • 1: to study how a program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (requires the source code).
  • 2: to redistribute copies.
  • 3: to improve a program, and release your improvements (requires the source code).

I love the zero-based numbering.

The Art of Conversation

Having watched Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together presentation, which included some follow-up questions from Aleks Krotoski, I went in search of more on Turkle and tripped across a brief TechCrunch conversation she had with Andrew Keen where they specifically address privacy and Facebook:

Later, watching Turkle’s TED Talk, Connected, but alone?, and noting her comment that social media draws us to “sacrifice conversation for mere connection”, I was reminded somehow of Gary Nunn who writes for the Guardian’s “Mind your language” blog. A recent post by Gary titled Small talk? It’s not big and it’s not clever prompted me to tweet a suggestion that he needed to visit Ireland where “small talk is an art form”. He was gracious enough to reply. I was being a tad flippant, but I do feel that the art of conversation, whether trivial or consequential, has long since peaked and is descending at pace towards a monosyllabic base camp.

William F. Buckley Jr.

William F. Buckley Jr.
Source: Wikipedia

On the other hand, Jeff Jarvis and his plea for “publicness”, reminds me of one of my favorite authors and broadcasters, the late William F. Buckley Jr., who once quipped “I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said.” Buckley, the founder of National Review, whose command of language and rhetoric is abundantly evident in his sublime essays and in his Firing Line debates, also humorously noted that he “would sooner be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand members of the faculty of Harvard.”