Muzzling the Internet

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Is Leveson about democracy? Does it or will it address online media?

“The news media has a material impact on the direction of public policy, as well as the profile of companies and the confidence of markets. The gaze of the news media also has the effect of holding governments, individuals and organizations to account—or at least to scrutiny,” 

writes Andrew Currah in his ‘investigation into the likely impact of the digital revolution on the economics of news publishing in the UK’ titled ‘What’s Happening to Our News’. Basically, the news media have sat themselves on a pretty big throne – one that, however, seems to have a wobbly leg that can tip power off the side instantly. With traditional and social responsibility on the line, as it always is when truth is the promise of journalism, we seem almost dumbfounded at the changes of the digital revolution – a weapon for success or one to topple the throne forever? “The digital revolution would appear to empower citizens and strengthen democratic engagement,” says Currah, and it’s hard to deny when technology gives rise to so many possibilities for whomever chooses to use it, but what is making everyone sweat at the moment isn’t democratic choices made by the audience, but controlling choices made by the press and its negative repercussions. “In certain quarters, the news media is not only failing in its civic function, but is also exposing citizens to sensationalist coverage, loaded with misleading and harmful information,” Currah’s chapter on ‘A democratic deficit’ concludes, a failure which gravely complicates working with political establishments and public figures, something which brought us Leveson.

In Emily Bell‘s article on the Guardian ‘The Leveson inquiry is irrelevant to 21st-century journalism’, she brings up major limitations to the very reccommendations which are meant to set limits themselves: “The relevance of the Leveson report in protecting privacy and curtailing the excesses of press behaviour has to be questionable from the outset, as its remit is both narrow and historic … Leveson deals with the nefarious ways of publishing personal information; it deals with the fallout of incestuous relationships run from the heart of government; and it deals with the personal cost of people crushed by journalism-as-showbusiness. What it cannot deal with is the regulation of the press in the 21st century.” The article mentions an exchange between lawyer Graham Shear and Lord Justice Leveson wherein the web of social media (Twitter and Google in particular) are “described as ‘an extension’ of existing media,” to which Bell has to say: “this is not true now and cannot be true in the future.” A comment on the article mirrors the difficulty of properly monitoring the biggest, most problematic presence there has ever been in the media: “I’m pretty sure that the internet is still impossible to control without resorting to China-level restrictions on it.”

Privacy and reputation seem to carry a price higher than gold (high enough for Lord McAlpine to sue almost half of Twitter), so with the internet and its boundless reputation-trashing power, will the UK eventually follow China’s tight-grip example? Will Leveson’s reccommendations have any effect when there’s still the world wide web to tackle? In any case, it’s safe to say I won’t be retweeting much until I know for sure.

Social media: you know you want to

What should we think about social media?

It seems there isn’t a conversation or discussion on journalism nowadays that ignores the presence of social media – rather, its rise and its dangers are being applied in all circumstances, not insignificant of which is politics, shown in Nic Newman’s text ‘#UKelection10, mainstream media and the role of the internet’. The paper analyses social media’s involvement in the 2010 UK elections down to each party, as well as their techniques, successes and shortcomings. With Barack Obama’s recent re-election as US president, the paper’s core conclusions are proving relevant again, and from my experience using social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr during the US campaigns, Newman’s statement that “social and digital media increased political engagement .. particularly amongst the 18–24 group” is increasingly accurate, even with an election not taking place in young adults’ home country.

Newman’s 2009 text ‘The rise of social media and its impact on mainstream journalism’ describes how I perceive and engage with social media: “Social media, blogs and UGC are not replacing journalism, but they are creating an important extra layer of information and diverse opinion. Most people are still happy to rely on mainstream news organisations to sort fact from fiction and serve up a filtered view, but they are increasingly engaged by this information, particularly when recommended by friends or another trusted source.” As an active user of Tumblr and Twitter, I am reliant on those I follow to amplify news or feed me with perspectives to consider – for facts about the US election I still turned to mainstream news outlets, but to realise my alliance with certain candidates I took into account the personal testimonies of people on social networks. Newman’s paper explains a changing journalistic practice and predicts that over time, “social media sites could become as important as search engines as a driver of traffic and revenue” (it can even be argued that that time is now).

The ever-growing social network Twitter creates controversy with its unfiltered, cut-to-the-chase content, and as Newman recalls with the Telegraph’s live Twitter feed experiment – it can sometimes go south. Newman similarly talks about the importance of brand separation (using CNN and iReport as an example), the aim to protect journalistic organisations’ “reputation for trust and accuracy.” Alfred Hermida addresses the marriage of Twitter and journalism in his text ‘Twittering the news’, arguing that Twitter is an awareness system shifting journalistic norms, and that “microblogging systems that enable millions of people to communicate instantly, share and discuss events are an expression of collective intelligence”.

Despite all the resistance (Hermida: “New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd (2009) described [Twitter] as ‘’a toy for bored celebrities and high-school girls’'”) and danger that “social media technologies like Twitter are part of a range of Internet technologies enabling the disintermediation of news and undermining the gatekeeping function of journalists,” former journalist and now academic Charlie Beckett sums it up: “we’ve emerged out of that rather boring zero sum game and realised that it is inevitable and it is not a choice.” In Newman’s 2009 social media text, BBC Business Editor Robert Peston claimed he wouldn’t be moving on to Twitter any time soon, and yet now in 2012 his account @Peston has almost 200,000 followers.

I say it’s time to trust new media, and interlace journalistic practice with audience contribution not with a cloud of worry for our profession but with excitement over such a rich “supplementary dimension”.

Don’t worry guys, social media is FUN.