It Ain’t Necessarily So

In the world of social media and instant online news feeds, what actually constitutes ‘news’ is rather problematic. The 140-character ‘news item’ planted on Twitter by hackers in April that bombs had gone off in the White House injuring President Obama wiped USD140 billion off the value of US stocks within minutes. Want to catch the hackers? Syrian supporters of President Assad or just some wise guys out to make a buck? Check who bought the stocks maybe.

There have been some notably tragic consequences of instant news. Sunil Tripathi was a young student at Brown University suffering from depression. After the bombing of the Boston Marathon race, he was wrongly identified on Reddit and other social media as the suspected bomber. His body was found days later drowned. The dividing line between instant news and jumping to conclusions or worse, mob rule, can be a very thin one. Reddit issued an apology for the mistaken postings, but in fact identify parades and eye witness accounts in courts of law are equally open to mistaken identity, or just simple prejudice.

In these cases the false news becomes the news story itself. A well-known ploy of tabloid newspapers is to run a quite libellous story of a well-known personality, get sued, lose the case and pay whatever fine and reap in the huge increase in sales and advertising revenues. Not for no reason did the satirical UK magazine Private Eye calls its fictitious law firm, Messers Sue, Grabbit and Run. Now this is not to suggest Twitter was in any way responsible for the false reporting, but it does help to highlight just how important Twitter and similar social media now are. No one who holds senior positions in public or the private sector can ignore it, just in case they become the news. It seems the British Prime Minister’s information secretary has installed a Twitter screen and feed into Number 10 Downing Street, the PM’s official residence. Now journalists are being given the heads-up on statements and reports that officially appear later in the day. It’s called managing the news.

There is a suggestion running through all these developments that what becomes news are the headlines (they don’t even need to be 140 characters long) and like instant coffee, it ain’t never quite the real thing. And they both come in small capsules these days. Come to think of it, a Twitter machine that makes coffee would be the best (or worst) of both worlds.

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