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How social media lets journalists practise poor journalism

Bias! Corruption! Scandal!

Social media is eroding core journalistic values. And whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, professional journalists are just as much to blame as flaming web trolls. I've updated this story with responses from Mike Elgan and myself, below. 6 January, 2011.

Social media is a brilliant and popular way of sharing opinions and information. But the democratic nature by which popularity is aquired on social networks means that anyone can become influential. And they don't always understand that the flipside of influence is responsibility: if you're broadcasting to a large audience, you need to listen to it, too.

As much as financial pressures and the rise of celebrity, social media is eroding core journalistic values. And whether that is a good thing or a bad thing (it may be either) professional journalists are just as much to blame as flaming web trolls.

I have, as you might imagine, an example.

Yesterday, the editors of PC Advisor braved the cold, dark and rain to stagger into the office for the first time in 2012. Of course we had been working over the Christmas break, posting and editing stories while supping mulled wine, eating chocolate and pulling crackers. But we had neglected some areas of the site. One of these is the sitewide poll, which was overdue a refresh.

After a quick chat over a much-needed cup of tea we decided to try to gauge the interest of PC Advisor readers in Google+. It's an interesting service: growing massively in popularity, particularly among techie people, but - on the face of it, at least - not well known by the general public.

We quickly put together what we thought was a simple poll guaging people's interest. The question was:

"What do you think of Google+?"

Pretty harmless, right? Well, that was before we before we posted the optional answers:

  • It's great and will be most popular social network soon.
  • It's okay, but it's not as good as Facebook.
  • I still don't understand exactly what it's meant to be.
  • It will change everything about the web.
  • What's Google+?

We set the poll live, and got on with the incessant grumbling and occasional light editing that constitutes our daily 'working' lives. (You can read all of the copy I manage to scrape up at my PC Advisor author page.)

Biased survey

Pretty soon afterward one of the team brought my attention to a post on Google+ from a US-based freelance tech writer called Mike Elgan. Now, I know Mike, or at least I know of his work, as he is a regular contributor to PC Advisor's sister sites in the States, including Computerworld, Macworld and PC World. Indeed, you can find Mike Elgan's stories on PC Advisor. And Mike Elgan is very, very popular on Google+, as he has eschewed all other social networks to focus only on this one. (You might say that gives him an unbalanced view of the social media landscape. I couldn't possibly comment.)

It's fair to sat that Mike was unhappy with our poll. Indeed, he headlined his piece 'Survey about Google+ spins result with poison pills'. He described our little poll as a 'biased survey' and said we had added 'poison pills to the answers they don't want you to choose'. (Would that we had thought about it that much.)

Mike - the man who uses only Google+, remember - opines that we have a hidden agenda. He says confidently that we "don't want you to choose 'It's great'." After explaining his theory (as fact) in great detail over several paragraphs, bless him if Mike didn't sign off thus:

"The survey writers crafted this survey so that there's no way to express enthusiasm for Google+ without agreeing to something that literally isn't true.

"Shameful."

You can't work in digital media for any length of time without learning not to get angry about things posted on the web. But I confess: this post riled me, for two reasons.

1. It assigns to PC Advisor editors a motive that simply wasn't present. It makes us look as if we have a pro-Facebook/anti Google+ agenda when nothing could be further from the truth.

2. We were given no right to reply. Given that we work for the same organisations and my contact details are public, it wouldn't have been difficult for Mike to contact me and ask for my comment on his story. He didn't. For someone who styles himself as 'The world's only lovable technology writer' this is a staggeringly basic mistake. If you are going to attack someone in writing, you offer them the right to reply. It's journalism 101, as our US colleagues would say.

(Actually, there is a 3. Mike didn't even link to the correct PC Advisor on Google+.)

Still, this is social media and the rules are different, apparently. So I stopped being angry and thought about why someone who claims to be a serious journalist would have so mis-read our motives. And, on reflection, the phraseology we used in the poll responses was open to mis-representation (if you were looking for it).

So I removed the offending parts of answers from the poll, and went social, posting this comment below the post:

"Hi Mike, as the editor of PC Advisor I must admit I find your post intriguing. It certainly was never our intention to 'craft this survey so that there's no way to express enthusiasm for Google+ without agreeing to something that literally isn't true'. In fact, we were trying honestly to gauge our audience's interest in Google+ - a service both I and the survey's author use, and on which we have a PC Advisor page we're keen to promote. Indeed, one of our lead stories today is about Google+'s success!

"On reflection, the phrasing of the first and second options may be a little clumsy - although they fit with our more conversational style. (It may be worth pointing out that PC Advisor is the largest consumer technology magazine website in the UK. It's a consumer title, unlike Computerworld, and UK media is by and large more informal than its US counterparts anyway. Sometimes we take liberties with langauge.)

"I'm inclined to change the phrasing of those options in direct response to your post, so kudos to you. But I refute entirely the suggestion that our actions are 'shameful': you're wrong on that, just as you were wrong to guess on our motivation. If we are guilty of anything it is minor ineptitude in our phraseology. And as we work for the same organisation I can't help but feel it was remiss of you not to drop me a line for my thoughts on this before you posted!

Keep up the good work."

This elicited a mixed response. A good chunk of people were pleased I'd taken the time to engage, but plenty took the opportunity to flame me. No matter. The response I wanted was from the author of the piece. And response came there none, for more than 24 hours.

Where's the response?

In fact, there are - to date - 129 responses to Mike's story, of which a few are written by me, and none by Mike Elgan. And his derogatory and incorrect comments about PC Advisor editors remained untouched. But Mike was not sleeping on the job. Oh no. Instead (long after I responded to his initial story, and long after we tweaked the poll) Mike posted a follow piece-up entitled 'Google+ triumphs over bad survey!' in which he urged his followers:

"If they want skewed results, let's give it to them! Go here to vote."

That's right. Mike was so offended that our survey - in his view - was biased against Google+ that he urged his readers to skew it in favour of Google+. Ironic much? It worked too, to an extent. From more than 1,600 respondents, 81 percent think Google+ is great. Unfortunately, we can't write that story now, because the poll is well and truly gamed. Again with the irony.

I responded to the latter thread, too, with - as yet - no response from Mr Elgan. In fact his only response at the time of writing has been to append this to the original post, a good 30 hours after my initial response:

"UPDATE: Matt Egan of PC Advisor wrote in the comments of the poll: "I've responded to Mike on that thread. We tweaked the questions to reflect his (valid) points about the phraseology, but utterly refute the idea that we were somehow trying to denigrate Google+ and favour Facebook. It's an odd viewpoint: why would we favour one social network over another?"

...which I really do appreciate, but is hardly engaging with me, now is it? And it seems odd to ignore the comments made by readers on your own thread. But that may be just me. Either way, after initially failing to give PC Advisor right to reply, Mike's only response has been to cut and paste a comment I made on our own site and stick it on the end of his post, out of context. My many comments remain unanswered. The incorrect statements about PC Advisor's motives remain untouched, leaving lots of Google+ users to draw their own conclusions about our 'bias'.

So what have we learnt? Well, social media probably is eroding the traditional virtues of good journalism, but professional hacks are as much to blame as citizen journalists and bloggers. And no matter how benign something is, if you post it on to the internet, someone, somwhere will see conspiracy and start grinding an axe. Oh, and don't think you can use an online poll to gauge anything (although that hasn't stopped us trying - our much more benign poll on social networking can found here).

Right, better go. I have to count the money I made from Facebook by denigrating Google+ via an online poll. (Mike, I'm kidding.)

See also: 10 most important technology changes we've seen

UPDATE: in the early hours of January 5th, UK time, Mike posted the following on Google+

Matt, both poison pills were in the options that would otherwise demonstrate enthusiasm for Google+. Why would whomever crafted this poll stick options that nobody could possibly agree with only with the pro-Google+ questions? That appears self-evidently biased to me. 

And anti-Google+ bias doesn't exist in a vacuum. There has been a pattern of dirty tricks employed by various commenters and others to spin public opinion against the network. 

Still, you're not responsible for other people's actions. And you say no bias was intended. So as you pointed out, I gave your point of view in your words on my post. 

Regarding your story linked above: 

You say: "We were given no right to reply." Presumably, you mean to reply privately before posting. But you misread my intent. My post wasn't for you. I had no intention of trying to convince you to change your survey. It was for my readers. I have a running theme of outing anti-G+ propaganda that fails the test of reason (I like the reasonable kind), and I do these posts to launch conversations about the nature of these slanders so we can all learn how to spot and understand them. 

Also: You suggest that my post is "journalism." It's not. This is my personal Google+ profile, and my posts are absolutely not journalism. They're just public conversations I have with a few hundred thousand of my closest friends. I often reference other people's and my own products of journalism, but my posts themselves are not. 

You characterize the phrasing of your survey questions as "a little clumsy." Come on. To combine radically different categories of information into a single question isn't clumsy. It's bizarre. It's like a survey that says to choose one: 

* Vanilla ice cream is my favorite. 
* Chocolate ice cream is my favorite. 
* Strawberry ice cream is my favorite AND I believe that the moon is a giant scoop of strawberry ice cream. 

I would guess that the survey would conclude that nobody likes strawberry ice cream. 

You also complain that I haven't responded. Dude, I posted this 11 hours ago. Why do you think I would drop everything and make responding to you my top priority? I'm under no obligation to reply to you on your deadline. 

So to recap: 

1. I shared with my readers your statement that no bias was intended
2. My post wasn't for you, but to generate a conversation with my circle friends
3. My post isn't journalism (see #2)
4. Your claims that I'm not responding to you are bogus

I responded thus:

Thanks for your response, +Mike Elgan, I do appreciate it. I think there is an interesting story here, albeit not one about bias against Google+, or angry editors lashing out in response. (I also think that +Antoine Carriere is dangerously close to the truth...)

I've never disputed that our poll was poorly constructed. It's bad. It's just not evil. My problem with your original post was, and remains, your statement - as fact - that we were motivated by a desire to understate the popularity of Google+. We weren't. We were just inept.

What I find interesting is the idea that posting to your hundreds of thousands of circle friends on Google+ does not represent journalism. I agree with you, but only up to a point. 

There's no disputing that the way we now convey information to an audience via social media is different from what we used to consider 'journalism'. The standards, and rules are different. And Google+ is particularly different: it is, as you say, a 'private conversation'. I think, on reflection, that lets you off the hook in terms of right of reply before posting. 

But your Google+ persona has great influence. Publishing to hundreds of thousands of people may not be 'journalism' as it is traditionally defined, but it is publishing information about someone - in this case +PC Advisor - in writing, as fact, to a large audience. You wouldn't, I presume, make a statement about someone you know to be untrue and damaging to their good name and then say: 'it's okay, it's not public'? 

Or would you? As I say, it's an interesting story. 

Several commentators on your original post inferred from it that PC Advisor - and therefore presumably IDG - was in the pay of Facebook. That we were corruptly taking money taking money to defame an organisation in the guise of editorial content. That is defamatory to us, and if someone posted on PC Advisor something similar about a third party I'd either challenge it or remove it: as the publisher, we're responsible for content published on our site, and we are not keen on being sued. In this case Google is the publisher, and not you. But again, does that make it okay for you to publish, for example, a libellous statement? It's not 'journalism', after all.

So although your post may have not been intended for me, it was read by a lot of people, and I don't think the fact that you publish to Google+ lets you publish just anything about anyone. Do you?

As to your response, of course you don't have to stick to my deadlines. But it wasn't 11 hours, Mike. There was more than 30 hours between my original, detailed response to you on January 3rd, and your recent comment in response on January 5th. But the time is irrelevant. 

What bothers me is that in the time between me commenting and you responding to that time, you found and posted a statement I made on my own website about this issue. And then you made a separate post encouraging people to skew a poll on our site, repeating your statement that we are biased against Google+. So either you ignored my comment specifically, you don't read any of your comments, or you decided maliciously to continue to attack PC Advisor for some reason I don't understand. I suspect it isn't the latter, so which one is it?

I can understand the reasons for your original post and acknowledge that it was our mistakes that led you to make incorrect assumptions. But asking people to skew our poll after I had made it clear that we had no intention of acting against Google+, and had changed to poll questions to reflect this, seems misguided at best, and malicious at worst. I wonder if you still think that encouraging your readers to skew a poll in this way was a good idea? If so, why?

As I say, I appreciate your response. I really do. And I accept that expecting you to offer me right of reply was ambitious on my part. But I am genuinely interested in the answers to the questions I pose here. Google+ offers a unique combination of public and private, unlike say, Facebook or Twitter. You can't consider posting to hundreds of thousands of people 'private', but I'm not sure where one should draw the line. 100 people? 1,000 people? 

And if you are going to make untrue statements about people and organisations to such an audience, you definitely can't consider it private!

Best,

Matt

---

Then Mike:

So when +Snoop Dogg posts: "wat a puffpuffpasstuesdays! moved up to #2 on google + make sure u add me twizzles!" that's "journalism" because he has a million+ followers? 

And when a small-town newspaper with 100 readers posts an article about the city counsel election, that's not journalism because it's a small audience? 

There is and should be no connection between audience and the binary distinction between journalism and not journalism. I know you agree with that, but I just want to be clear because it seems a majority of our peers think blogging is journalism. 

When you have a lot of followers on a social network, you have influence. But you also open yourself up to counter-argument by people who also have influence. So, for example, if you've followed the argument I had here this week with +Jon Mitchell, he slammed both me and Google+. I slammed him back. And in doing so, people with more audience and influence than I have, including +Vic Gundotra and +Robert Scoble chimed in with views somewhat contrary to my own (unlike me, they both said Mitchell made good points about Google+ that should or will be addresses). 

That's the beauty of social influence. If you're influential, the chance that your opinion will be disagreed with by people with even more influence is far greater. 

So let's say I reach 300k people, and I try to influence them by saying "Lady Gaga sucks!" What will then happen is that people with a collective influence of 3 million people will respond with "No, Lady Gaga rocks!" And in doing so influence far more than I did. So people with social influence can't ever use that influence to actually change public opinion unless their opinion is very agreeable to the public.

---

Then me again:

True: influence opens you up to conflict with other influencers, which balances things somewhat. It's a subtle point, but a valid one. It doesn't make it a zero-sum game, though. Lady Gaga's reputation would survive, but she can look after herself. It would be a different story if you tried to influence your circle friends with a negative viewpoint about someone over whom the public had no opinion to start with.

The other day you did, in effect, say that '+PC Advisor sucks'. I know how many people visited the site in response to your second post telling people to game our poll (a lot more than voted in the poll). They weren't coming because they think we run a great site. Therefore our reputation was adversely affected. Of course, the issue would never have arisen if we had done our jobs properly... but your post massively amplified the effects of our shoddy work and seeded the incorrect impression that PC Advisor has an axe to grind against Google+. To a large group of people. PC Advisor does have a strong reputation with millions of UK users, and can look after itself. I'm just illustrating a point.

You're also right that audience side cannot decide whether something is journalism or not. Social and journalism have different rules. The confluence between audience size/influence and 'journalism' in the social sphere is that if you publish something a sufficiently large group of people are going to see, you have to get your ducks in a row. But only because with great power comes great responsibility. 

If Snoop said 'PC Advisor is corrupt' on Google+ we'd sue his ass and we'd win - even though Google+ is, in principle, peer-to-peer. (And Snoop and I are close.) If someone with 100 followers published the same on a public medium such as, say, Twitter, we'd never see it or care (and the lack of audience would mean our reputation remained unharmed anyway).

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