We’ve seen a lot of conjecture in the press recently about who is winning the social media war over the current conflict in Gaza, while some commentators such as Con Coughlin in The Daily Telegraph, Paul Mason of Channel Four News and Colin Daileda on Mashable are giving a points victory to the Palestinians, many other news organisations are reporting more even handedly on the way social media is being used by both sides.
One point stood out in all of this reportage and opinion: the unwillingness to really engage with what it means to be a journalist when so much information is flowing onto our smartphones, computers and tablets in real time. Mason summed it up thus:
And here’s the point: instant, unfiltered reports are cross-checked via the hive-mind created by social media itself. It is the medium that becomes the editing process: as last night, for example, when well-connected Israeli journalists were able to confidently nix the Hamas claims to have captured an Israeli soldier. Once they did this, reporters inside Gaza were able to question Hamas’ account.
But, one has to ask, what if they hadn’t? One also has to ask how long that process took, and how was that correction then broadcast to all the people who may have seen the original tweet? The answers are simple: Too long and it wasn’t.
There will still be a lot of people who still believe that Hamas captured an Israeli solder, just as there are still people who believe there were riots in Brazil during the World Cup because the hosts were being beaten 7-1 in their own backyard.
What is more worrying is that when experienced and respected professional journalists like Paul Mason, sitting comfortably in the middle of a field in Wales, go dewey-eyed over the prospect of the self-correcting hive mind of the Twitterati making sure that truth is always told, it really does make one wonder whether the whole of journalism should just pack up, go home and leave it to Twitter.
He rounded off his journalistic suicide note with an interesting point:
Today, anybody, wishing to bomb civilians, or risk civilian casualties in a military operation, can tell quite quickly what is fake and what is real. And so can the population that elects them. That’s the difference.
So what is the role of the journalist then? According to Paul Mason, and others like him, it appears that journalism is doomed and will be replaced by the massed intelligence of the “hive mind”. It’s what James Surowiecki termed The Wisdom of the Crowd.
While it is certainly true that social media has corrected many things that have been reported incorrectly (both on social media and in some notable cases, by journalists themselves) it is the reporting of these facts (and corrections) by journalists that sets the record straight and broadcasts those facts far wider than the self-interested confines of the Twittersphere.
Can we leave the truth to a hive mind where governments and corporations, dictators and religious extremists, vacuous pop idols and sports stars have, with their huge numbers of followers, much more of a voice than ordinary people. Can we trust any hive mind that is so badly skewed in favour of the vested interests? Can we trust a hive mind where spoof accounts can have more followers than the real ones? Can we trust a hive mind where propagandists and trolls can create huge numbers of zombie accounts to overpower any dissenters? Can we trust a hive mind that is run by one corporation, or will it start to run experiments on us like Facebook did?
There are clear dangers in taking the wisdom of the crowd at face value, as Surowiecki himself pointed out:
If army ants are wandering around and they get lost, they start to follow a simple rule: Just do what the ant in front of you does. The ants eventually end up in a circle. There’s this famous example of one that was 1,200 feet long and lasted for two days; the ants just kept marching around and around in a circle until they died.
The problem is that groups are only smart when the people in them are as independent as possible.
Journalism therefore still has a huge job to do: its role is to search out the truth in all of this monsoon of live, real-time information, to cut through the propaganda and misinformation and tell the stories that people can trust, to place that information in its proper context and give people a way to digest the news instead of being overwhelmed by it; in Surowiecki’s terms, to keep people smart and independent.
Twitter is a tool – it can help journalists tell the story, it can, as Andy Carvin (formerly of NPR) demonstrated, allow you to cross-check and verify, but like all tools it can also be abused and mis-used.
As journalists, it is our job to ensure that, if that happens, then the “hive mind” is held to account, just like any other form of power.