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The Eyeball Hunt

01 Feb 10

Do citizen journalism and social networking spell the end of credible news and information?
If you rely solely on the Web to get your news and information these days, you run the risk of getting rumour, gossip and flat-out untruths disguised as legitimate news.
Web technology has made it simple for any moderately skilled prankster to spread disinformation, which can quickly gain unwarranted credibility – especially if a legitimate news network picks it up and reports it without proper checking.
Most recently, such an incident occurred during the climate-change negotiations in Copenhagen, when an environmentalist issued an email statement purporting to come from the government agency Environment Canada, claiming that country was dramatically revising its carbon emissions targets. To add to the confusion, the prankster issued a second statement denouncing the first one as a hoax. One of those fakes ended up on The Huffington Post, a leading online news site.
Other such news ‘spoofs’ almost brought down Nigeria’s president with rumours of a health crisis, and drove down Apple’s share price by five percent when CNN’s ‘citizen journalism’ site iReport published an untrue story that Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack.
The Internet has sparked a desire for quick news fixes, and in their haste to get the story out first, established news outlets are sometimes guilty of failing to take the time to check the facts. With so much competition, no one wants to get caught lagging.
Australian-based online journalist Patrick Gray calls this “a great big eyeball hunt”. Gray’s Web site specialises in podcasts about security news, and he shared his views with security specialists at the recent Kiwicon hackers’ conference.
The eyeball hunt, he explained to NetGuide, is all about the number of times a Web page is viewed. These statistics are used by the owners of Web sites to show how popular their pages are, and thus attract advertising. More eyeballs = more money. We reported on this in last month’s issue (page 8), covering Rupert Murdoch’s war with Google. Murdoch believes Web users should pay for their news; a view that Gray supports.
“I don’t see why we can’t pick sources that we value for certain types of news, and then pay for it,” he says. Gray asks that if people are prepared to pay $2 for a newspaper, why should they object to paying the same amount for a week’s worth of online news?
“It’s bizarre,” he says. “It’s people not valuing information.”
Gray believes that if 80% of the world’s leading news organisations followed Murdoch’s call for paid content, Web users could change their view that online news is meant to be free. Otherwise, Gray believes, legitimate news sites are doomed. The eyeball marketing strategy, he says, just doesn’t earn enough.
The competition from citizen journalism sites has been further bolstered by the spreading of news links (true or not) via social networks. The sharing of information in this way compounds the risk that a rumour or hoax becomes believed as more people read it. To paraphrase famed author Terry Pratchett, a lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on. Or as Gray puts it, social networks are “an excellent way to distribute information virally”.
How good? Not so long ago, a Qantas flight made an unscheduled landing in Melbourne as a precaution after a warning light came on in the cockpit. Someone on the plane sent a text message to a friend that there was an emergency, the friend passed it on, then it was picked up on Twitter, and soon it had become a plane on fire, the airport closed and flights diverted – none of which was true.
And the point is, without legitimate news sites staffed by professional journalists and editors checking facts, how do we know what is true? The recent political unrest in Iran is a case in point. Amateur video of a young woman protestor being killed by government thugs during a demonstration went around the world online and boosted international support for opponents of the regime. But there was no independent way of confirming what actually took place. The worm later turned when Iranian authorities ran footage allegedly showing anti-government protestors tearing up pictures of the revered Ayatollah Khomeini. The regime’s opponents said the footage was faked, but this couldn’t be proved.
“We’re losing that thoroughness that enables us to discover what’s really going on,” Gray says. “People say ‘democratisation of information flow is great’ but really sometimes it’s better to have people out there whose job it is to work out whether information actually is genuine or not.”
Much as we may dislike it, paying for online news might be the only way to ensure we really get the truth.