Media in Mutation: What is the Future of the News and Media Industry in a World of Social Networking? Nominet

27 September 2011 - A Workshop on Other in Nairobi, Kenya


Sites such as Facebook and YouTube have led to a huge increase in the amount of user generated content. Social networking and new technologies mean mobile data consumption has exploded. With 700 million Facebook users and 1 billion mobile internet subscribers people can now access Internet content anytime, anywhere.

How many people now rely on blogs and Twitter for their news rather than on newspapers, the TV and radio? How much do the “traditional” media now draw on social network reporting to complete their coverage of event? And how far can we trust the accuracy of what we read on the Internet?

This workshop will look at the changes to the way Internet content is generated and used and what this might mean for the future of traditional media. The discussion will try to answer the over-arching question:

“In the age of user-generated content, how can we define the boundaries between information, anarchy, art & deception?”

The discussion will look at news and reporting and the impact that user-generated content has on more traditional news media. Will social media change the way we view and rely on news? How will users differentiate between some of the key issues associated with the changing media landscape? Issues will include:

• Trust, reliability and quality of the content.
• Liability or responsibility for that content, including the impact it might have on society.
• Who owns the content?
• What is the impact on traditional media businesses? And on the trust people place in news reporting more generally?
• How does freedom of expression balance against social responsibility?



A brief substantive summary and the main events that were raised:

The workshop looked at the impact of new ‘social media’ technologies on news, particularly in relation to two significant recent events: the Egyptian revolution and riots in the United Kingdom.

The panel and audience also considered:

• Where responsibility for what was said over social networks resided
• What the best methods were to deal with the speed, ubiquity and accuracy of social media
• The retention and loss of information posted over social networks

Much has been made of the influence of social media technology such as Twitter and Facebook in the popular uprising in Egypt in January and February 2011.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the high-profile Internet activists involved in the uprising, Wael Khalil, said he felt that social media had not played a significant role when it come to building up the momentum for the protests that saw the government ousted. He did however highlight its value as a means for spreading news very quickly, saying that it offered an alternative to mainstream news outlets. He also gave several examples of how postings on social media outlets had an impact on real-world events. In Khalil’s view, it was the impact of social media on the mainstream media that was most significant.

As an editor of one of the mainstream news outlets in Egypt, Daily News Egypt, Sarah El Sirgany said she treated social media as another source of information, noting that newspapers cannot compete with the speed or immediacy of social media. However it is journalistic skills rather than speed that provide most value in terms of news.

That view was reflected by UK minister Ed Vaizey. People had an interest in being accurate as they were seeking to build an online reputation. However he also argued that things are illegal offline are equally illegal online (such as inciting a riot or libel). He also reflected that social media websites do have a responsibility to self-regulate when it comes to issues such as privacy, preventing impersonation and cyberbullying.

A discussion on the balance between satire and impersonation, accuracy and mistruth drew in some interesting examples, with UK blogger Lewis Fry pointing that with the popularity of social media, many purported personal views from celebrities or high-profile figures were produced by third parties.

The issue of trust online and the difficulty in discerning between what is real and not real online caused the room to reach broad agreement that education, rather than, for example, regulation, was the best solution. People need to be educated in how to evaluate information on the Internet effectively.

There was greater disagreement when it came to the issue of the storage and longevity of information online. Some panelists and attendees felt that information posted online should remain accessible forever; others felt that people should have the right to delete their presence online. Both sides recognized however that the data itself is not owned by the individual that posted it but by the social media company that was used. Not many users are aware of that fact; and no one had a good solution for dealing with the divide.


Conclusions and further comments:
Sites such as Facebook and YouTube have led to a huge increase in the amount of user-generated content. Social networking and new technologies mean mobile data consumption has exploded. With 700 million Facebook users and one billion mobile Internet subscribers people can now access Internet content anytime, anywhere.

How many people now rely on blogs and Twitter for their news rather than on newspapers, the TV and radio? How much do the “traditional” media now draw on social network reporting to complete their coverage of event? And how far can we trust the accuracy of what we read on the Internet?

These were the questions outlined prior to the workshop. Other issues concerned: trust, reliability and quality of the content; liability or responsibility for that content, including the impact it might have on society; who owns the content?; and how does freedom of expression balance against social responsibility?

An online survey was run in the weeks leading up to the workshop. It received 10 responses and provided some useful insights and questions (results provided at the end).

Here’s a summary of the summary broken out by broad issue.

Responsibility for information appearing on social media

The session started with the chair, Kate Russell – a BBC journalist – asking the UK Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, Ed Vaizey about where responsibility lies for the accuracy of information that appear on social media networks.

Broadly, the responsibility lies with the people producing the information, Vaizey argued. But there is also a responsibility on the part of the companies hosting the material: a responsibility that varies according to what the material in question actually is.

Noting that in his daily roundup of news, he also receives information on what the leading political blogs are saying as well as the national newspapers, Vaizey said that the bloggers “have a responsibility to themselves. People won't read them if they are not putting out accurate stories.”

The law remains the same whether online or off, he noted: “If you libel someone or slander someone on the Internet, you should be subject to the same comeback as if you libeled them in print. There are laws against inciting hatred or violence and those laws still apply if you are doing it on the Internet just as much in print.”

UK citizens were recently given jail terms for posting messages about holding a riot during recent disturbances in London. The use of social media during the disturbances led to a controversial suggestion by the prime minister that social media websites be shutdown during emergency situations. Vaizey supported the first but rejected the second: “If you stand on a street corner and shout to everyone,
‘Let's start a riot,’ you would be arrested. And similarly if you put out on Twitter, ‘Let's start a riot,’ you have to face the consequences if your actions lead to a riot happening. Just because you do it on Twitter doesn't mean you are immune.

“But at the same time, there's a non sequiter in saying you should then shut down Twitter or somehow social media is to blame for that action. No, the individual is to blame. They just happen to be using a tool to do it.”

However, there are situations where the company hosting material should expect to intervene. Vaizey gives the example of intellectual property. “You have seen a transformation in YouTube over the last few years and how they interact with major rights-holders, record labels, film companies in terms of taking down content that infringes copyright. They will do so on the basis of getting accurate information from the rights-holders but I don't think people will hold YouTube responsible for… say, one video attacking a particular person, people won't hold YouTube responsible for that.”

Award-winning UK blogger Lewis Fry agreed that people should be held personally responsible for the information they post online and its accuracy, and highlighted the example of Facebook and Twitter being used to encourage rioting as “an extreme case where they were used badly”.

That view was also put forward by attendee and British Member of Parliament Alun Michael who argued that “you need to look at all the different ways in which [social networks] can be used”. He says that the suggestion social media websites be taken down as an emergency measure was something that politicians “thought about for about two minutes and said ‘no’, that wouldn’t be a good idea”.

While responsibility rests with the individual that posts information, Head of Journalism Courses at UCA Farnham in the UK, Steve Miller, argued that there is also a responsibility on the part of the reader to educate themselves. “There's a complacency, [people] trust everything they read on the Internet. They don't evaluate it very carefully or very well. I think one of the things we have to do as educators is make them evaluate Internet information effectively and be able to distinguish good solid well-researched factual content from other content that might be of less informational value.”

As to the law applying equally online as well as offline, a different perspective was given by Egyptian blogger and activist Wael Khalil. He argued that the Internet enables laws to be challenged appropriately: “What the Internet and tools allow us now is to decide which law to respect and which not. There was a case in the past few days in Egypt there was an injunction sought to have a media blackout on testimony of the Chief of Supreme Council of Armed Forces, testifying in the [Hosni] Mubarak trial. There was a media blackout and the testimony came out and everyone was tweeting it and participating it so the first person who leaked it will not face the law because we felt we have everyone right to know what the Chief of the Armed Forces said on the stand under oath.”

“People decided that while this is breaking the law, we don't see following or abiding by this law at this point in time is valuable or important. I think there is a element of crowd sourcing taking place if two people are deciding to do that it will be really very easy to single them out and then they will be breaking the law and facing consequences, but if there are hundreds of thousands of people, then the law will have to react in different way.”

Khalil also provided a second example in favour of the idea of a crowd-sourced legal interpretation online. “After the fall of Mubarak, there was a break into the SSI, state security intelligence, our secret police. Many documents with names and few of them made it to Facebook and then Twitter and online. Some of them were implicating people sometimes falsely and allowing false documents to appear as authentic ones. Suddenly it disappeared. Everyone stopped sharing, everyone decided on their own we won't do that anymore and it just went down no more. It became unacceptable for people to start sharing things and stories. So crowd sourcing worked that way in a way people - the people decided this is not useful. So we're not going to participate.”

The post-revolutionary upheaval in Egypt is unlikely to represent a normal circumstance however, and Alun Michael argued that ultimately it is up to the courts in a free and democratic society to decide where you “draw the line between the rights of the public to know and spread that information and the right of the individual whose life might have severe implication from that information getting out”.

Satire, art and just making things up

Related to the topic of responsibility also came the question of the use of social networks for things such as satire or art, and where the line is drawn between these use and plain misrepresentation or impersonation.

Lewis Fry noted that many celebrities and public figures held personal accounts on Twitter and Facebook but much of the content that appeared under their name was the result of hired third parties. “When it comes to actually looking for information from an individual, it can sometimes be distorted… so if you read something on someone's Facebook page or Twitter page that they're supporting a certain charity or foundation, then you've got to really realise that's just hype and maybe not just them actually doing it and they have just been advised to do so.”

This has implications for reporting on events, he noted: “As a journalist if you want to get a story or report that someone is doing something you have to be very careful that the source is actually coming from them and not just their press department.”

Steve Miller noted, with some irony, that he invites people from public relations to talk to his journalism students as they are often extremely practiced at getting their work noticed. “I get them into my university to train my journalism students into how to make their content more visible on the Internet. There is a sea of information out there and it's a definite skill set in how to make content more visible… we can learn a lot from them in how to make good content, factually significant content, visible.”

Kate Russell gave an extreme example of where a lesbian blogger from Syria turned out to be a 40-year-old American man based in Scotland. Is that art or deception, she asked. In response, Lewis Fry admitted that he has used the medium several times himself to present “a character trait as a way of presenting something very creative” but drew a distinction between that and “writing things from a point of view they have no knowledge of”. In that case, it “violates the trust that is between a viewer and a content creator”.

Wael Khalil pointed out that the easy of access and flexibility of social media has allowed Egyptian activists and campaigners to operate in a grey area and so gain a degree of protection from an authoritarian regime. “The 20th of March Campaign was one of many campaigns organized in a new way that's flat, that is non-hierarchical… We worked in a bit of a margin of, how to say, legality. We were not legal and not illegal. The regime could start to harass us, arrest us, for a few weeks, leave us, and this margin allowed us to gain ground and start challenging Mubarak.”

Khalil drew a distinction between hoaxes and jokes. But even with jokes you need to be careful: “You cannot tell [jokes online] because you don't see the face of the person, whether they are really joking or not. Sometimes we have to say we are joking. I once joked that a plane took Mubarak to Saudi Arabia after he was arrested and I said ‘I am joking, by the way’, and many people responded that had you not said that we would have taken it seriously. So we have to be very careful, especially when things are tense.”

Ed Vaizey joked that the first rule of being a minister is that “the government is not allowed to make any jokes”. But he notes that Twitter has a policy that you cannot impersonate somebody “and you the individual can take action to have that account stopped and I don't think that infringes on anybody's freedom. It protects your freedom.”

That same policy can also live along satire and parody, Vaizey noted. “I follow many different parody Twitter accounts which are very amusing. The Downing Street Cat (@DowningStCat) has a Twitter account and reports regularly on the prime minister and the going-ons in Downing Street from a cat's point of view. That's a very important new perspective for me and therefore one that I'm keen to follow.”

Lewis Fry noted that humour is an intrinsic part of social media, use the example of when, even during the height of the UK riots, a police force announced on Facebook that it was “Attending” when someone try to organize a riot at a given time and place using the site’s event feature.

The impact of social media on news and events

Somewhat surprisingly given the widespread coverage of the impact of social media during the Egyptian revolution, Wael Khalil argued that it had had “very little” impact in terms building the momentum that led to regime change.

He also disputed the frequently used example of bloggers being targeted by security forces during the disturbances. “There was a bit of exaggeration of bloggers being targeted as bloggers. We were targeted as activists. We were harassed because we were doing something like participating in a demonstration, only in very few cases was something you wrote the reason.”

Khalil felt that the shutdown of the Internet in Egypt for five days “didn’t really make a big difference” and noted that much of the information gathered about what was happening came “from firsthand people on the ground”. He did note however that this information was then disseminated online.

The greatest impact that social media had, in Khalil’s view was that it impacted on mainstream media coverage. “I think that the main impact happened when social media, Twitter and Facebook, had a strong impact so that the mainstream media could not ignore it, so it had to take it on and then it became a public case. I think this is the case for Khaled Said, the man who was brutally beaten by police last year. His case started on social media and has been taken and expanded and I think this interaction whether influencing public opinion or creating news, was very important.”

He noted that Twitter also “created an alternative source of news… more or less real-time updates so we knew things from Twitter that were happening and the following day it was old news.” Khalil noted a recent survey which revealed on nine percent of Egyptian receive their news from Twitter or Facebook, with most of the rest accessing it from the mainstream TV media.

Deputy editor of only independent English-language daily newspaper in Egypt, Daily News Egypt, Sarah El Sirgany, reflected on the impact of social media on the established media. “You have to treat it as another source. Technology is being used but at the end of the day you have to use the traditional methods of information, facts, credibility of persons. When you have a blogger or a tweet saying something, you don't just taking take it as face value; you should know the source… At the end of the day, take it as a tip. If I hear about something that I cannot verify it right away, I just pick up the phone and ask all the questions that I need to ask.”

She noted that newspapers can’t hope to compete with the speed of social media but that its role came with “putting in place the checks and cross checks”. The value that journalists provide is “not just breaking the news but also verifying it… and giving a more comprehensive story.”

Deleting your data

One of the most significant aspects of the use of third-party social media services such as Twitter and Facebook, discussed in some depth, was the issue of who owns that information, and who has the right to remove or retain it.

Kate Russell asked if people should have the right to delete content that they have posted online; it drew a variety of responses. Ed Vaizey noted that he would be “very worried about any regulation that required deletion”, and suggested that self-regulation should provide a solution: “If a website were to offer the right to have data removed, I think that would be an attractive offer for many people.”

Wael Khalil argued that no content people put online should ever be deleted: “It’s part of ourselves and I think the backfire from actually deleting it might be worse than leaving it and defending it or even apologizing.” Although he did note that he once asked someone else to delete a tweet because he put someone else in danger by naming them. Besides, people can take a screengrab of comments, or a post on Twitter may have been retweeted. “Some of it is sometimes out of context and you have to live with it.”

Sarah El Sigarny was also against deletion. “If you go in a hall and say something you can't go back and erase that. People have to start dealing with the Internet as if it's an open forum with everyone having access.”

UK Member of Parliament, Eric Joyce, noted that judges in the UK still see real value in the deletion of tweets. “The position judges take actually is that even if it's been seen several hundred thousand times, that's still different from every single person on your street knowing about it. So if you were to delete a tweet… then you would have an impact. Someone could take a screenshot and circulate it. But it's still sitting in your stream, everyone still sees it.”

Several people noted that it depends on who owns the data, and in most cases that is the social media companies.

Wael Khalil pointed out that no one really knows how those companies make decision in relation to deleting or retaining content. “How do they decide which page to drop? There's real lack of transparency. They respond much stronger to stronger governments. We don't understand how Twitter decides.”

There may be a need for rules that force companies to explain their processes, he suggested: “We should push for more transparency from the corporates. If they bring down a page they have to have clear at that point why they did that… We have to have some sort of appeal or reconsideration. Not everyone can pick up a phone and call Google or Twitter or Facebook and at one point in time we can expect governments or corporates to start using that against content they deem unfavorable to them.”

Examples were given of when people’s data was deleted against their wishes were given, including activists in the UK who had their Facebook page removed just prior to the Royal Wedding in London, and a Palestinian “Day of Rage” Facebook page that was removed when many other countries held similar pages for the same event and were not impacted.

Steve Miller noted the “widespread ignorance about who owns your property, who opens your content on sites like Facebook”. However he raised a separate concern over the loss of useful content over time. “A lot of valuable information that has been published on the Internet which was deleted and even though you have and so on there is still huge amounts of information that has been lost, information of value. It works both ways.”

In response to that issue, Ed Vaizey pointed out that the UK government was trying to pass legislation that would protect and store online content but due to the nature of the Internet had hit a problem in that archives of information are valuable commodities and so media outlets were resistant to the idea of the British Library making them freely available online. A solution appears to have been reached: “We're restricting access to the library content. It won't be available at home.”

Finally, a number of panelists and attendees argued that the most important aspect currently in dealing with content posted in social media network was to understand and to properly implement privacy settings. Something that is not always easy when at least one company has become renowned for changing its privacy settings and rules without informing people, Kate Russell noted.


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