In the last 72 hours I have spent a frustratingly amount of time playing Whac-A-Mole to bad reporting from a number of professional journalistic sites and individuals who rightly want to draw the world's attention to the ongoing battle of Palmyra, but who wrongly choose to do so using less than thorough reporting techniques.
On March 9th, Twitter user @rt0ur (Russian Tour) posted an image that didn't explicitly list itself as new, but which showed comparison images to some of the destruction wrought on the ancient site of Palmyra. A snapshot of both the text and image used in this tweet can be seen to the right.
As concerned individuals search for recent news via social media on the state of Palmyra's heritage and Tadmor this seemingly "new" imagery cascaded into a series of rapid retweets from users following the conflict who assumed the imagery was new. Unbeknownst to many who saw the tweet and reposted, the image was originally published last summer on August 9, 2015 in Issue 11 of Dabiq (Arabic: دابق ), the online magazine used by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant for propaganda and recruitment.
Sometimes reposting an image, assuming that it is "new", is an honest mistake.
It is unrealistic to expect the passive consumer or the generalist journalist mining information on social media to ghoulishly scroll through, screen-catch, store and then recognise every image ever published by ISIS via the deep web or video sites. But the dishing-up of old news repackaged as "new" news serves to highlight how the world's news is spread with rapid velocity over social media. It also underlines how easy it is for news to become distorted unintentionally or in some cases intentionally by individuals or organisations with Twitter and Facebook accounts.
It also draws attention to how audiences that assume a more active role in providing analysed content; those who participate actively in developing "breaking news" or expert analysis reports on the state of heritage through social media, need to exercise due diligence in their researching.
“The fact that a tweet by a journalist is restricted to 140 characters does not mean that journalistic ethics can be ditched.” London Journalist, David Brewer
Across the world people are trying to make sense of the horrendous situation in Syria, focusing on Palmyra in particular and wondering what, if anything, anyone can do to help. Sometimes the only thing individuals feel they can do is spread the word on what's happening. Unfortunately some web-based journalists and social media users think that having an engaged audience is also something worth manipulating, using journalistic shock and awe tactics to encourage more viewer traffic or increase followers.
Using web platforms and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, that feed upon audience interaction via retweets and repostings, followers and retweeters sometime end up serving as echo chambers, for those that choose to manipulate content. Without integrity, social media journalism becomes easy to manipulate and users reposting inaccurate or tainted information can unknowingly support a specific opinion or agenda, driving web traffic towards unethically behaving news sources.
Propagating one's own viewpoint or opinion isn't inherently bad. Opinions do matter, and voicing them is a good thing, but encouraging followers to read published content by distorting factual accuracy is akin to "traffic whoring".
In the biz, some of the less taste-worthy news agencies actually assign staff to “traffic-whoring duty.” But the lure of offering up posts that content providers know will garner more page clicks and attract more followers can lead web journalists to intentionally distort reality.
Content providers often subscribe to a carrot and stick formula of SEO-rich headlines plus key words sprinkled with enticing visual imagery known to appeal to their intended market audience. But these ingredients are only part of the recipe of good web-based journalism. The formula can be harnessed, and used ethically or manipulated and used dishonestly.
Sometimes reposting an image is abject manipulation.
An example of unethical reporting is when a news agency or social media account holder intentionally creates a false illusion of reality, complete with dramatic photo or video, packaging their creation as "breaking news". Such was the case yesterday when a video was posted on Twitter by @ruptly (Ruptly), a video news subsidiary of RT (originally Russia Today), the Russian government-funded television network.
At first glance, viewers were led to believe that they were looking at new video footage, likely obtained through boots-on-the-ground soldiers advancing to retake Palmyra. In reality and ironically, it is a video from May 20, 2015, the day that insurgents swept into Palmyra's military air base, prison, intelligence headquarters and the city's ancient sites.
When I pointed this out to Ruptly, they silently withdrew the video late yesterday without further explanation or acknowledgment of their fast switch. But not before the extracted video had been retweeted several times.
The same type of sensationalist, false reporting was propagated by Breaking News, @BRnewsKING though their report yesterday centered on multiple airplane strikes at Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma'ani Castle (Palmyra Castle).
Again branded by heritage activists as "new" news, the report was picked up and then analysed by geopolitical analyst and microblogger @markito0171 who spent time pinpointing aircraft.
It is one thing to accidentally misrepresent current affairs, propagating someone else's error in assumption. It is another thing to intentionally amplify incidents, turning the imagery into page view chasing gutter journalism thereby manipulating the chain of historical events. When the latter happens content providers create a reverberation, often in a partisan manner, that only serves to further polarise parties to a already complicated asymmetrical conflict.
I encourage news organisations, journalists, analysts and citizen activists reporting on the Syrian conflict to slow down on retweeting, to be more transparent about, and more attentive to, the way in which reporting has an impact across the conflict heritage ecosystem. Viral journalism is great, but only if we police ourselves and demand factual accuracy from our sources.
Ethical journalists should strive for honesty and be courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. Good journalism seeks the truth and reports it, even when the truth isn't necessarily something we are happy about.
Good journalists also take responsibility for the accuracy of what they report and verify information as best as is possible before releasing it to the public. When errors are made or situations misinterpreted, journalists should be accountable and transparent to their errors, acknowledging mistakes and correcting them prominently.
Lastly I believe that journalists should live by the creed:
Being the first to report should never compromise the truth.
Op Ed by: Lynda Albertson, CEO ARCA
@sauterne (Ergo Sum)