Since their seventeenth century emergence, newspapers have evolved from instruments of commerce, through being platforms for partisan political expression, and towards their modern form: marketplaces of public opinion (Barnhurst and Nerone, 2009: 17–18).
Still, defining what is journalism remains an elusive task, mainly due to contemporary blurring of boundaries between professional and audience reporting (Shapiro, 2014: 555).
Social Network Sites (SNS), a term used to collectively describe a diverse group of commercial online services, allow for the speedy distribution of information to wide audiences (Torres et al., 2018).
SNS usage is ubiquitous, as stated in an Oxford University report by Rosner et al. (2015): “social media platforms are used by one-in-three people in the world, and more than two-thirds of all internet users.”
Propelled by the popularity of SNS, newspapers have extended their online presence to include Facebook, Twitter and other platforms (Ju et al., 2014)
Moreover, media organisations often set out specific guidelines for their employees on how they should conduct their presence on SNS, as it is considered a major supplement to their core publication platform (The New York Times, 2017).
It is therefore argued that SNS and online news have created a new conflated realm, in which journalists and media outlets regularly publish first and expect a significant portion of their readership to reside.
Is The Conflated Realm a Journalistic Outlet?
In critically evaluating the journalistic performance of this new realm, we must first establish its level of affinity to the field of journalism.
Shapiro (2014 :561) provides us with a functional definition of what journalism is, and by extension, criteria for assessing affinity to the field:
“Journalism comprises the activities involved in an independent pursuit of accurate information about current or recent events and its original presentation for public edification.”
SNS have expressed concerns and have taken concrete measures to address information accuracy and public edification (Roth and Pickles 2020, YouTube 2020). These, when coupled with contributions by authentic journalists, which meet the criteria by definition, allow for considering this new realm as having journalistic properties, rather than simply a propagation or an aggregation channel.
Trends and Editorial Measures
Interaction between SNS users rely on the concept of trust-relations. Once such a trust-relation is established, it serves as a shortcut to other processes of information verification that are normally deployed by users (Torres et al., 2018 :85).
This has not gone unnoticed by actors in the field and has been exploited to disseminate information through well-established networks on SNS. One kind of information disseminated in this fashion is a type of non-factual information, commonly referred to as Fake News (Meyers et al., 2020).
Regulatory pressure notwithstanding (BBC News, 2020), SNS owners have taken upon themselves to apply a set of editorial measures, which bear some resemblance to common journalistic practices (Gadde and Beykpour, 2020):
SNS Editorial Measures
- Credible source preference The designation of specific entities which are provided with enhanced trust status. (for example, Twitter only allowed calling 2020 elections based on publications by one of seven named outlets)
- Warning marks Providing content warnings on selected posts.
Limits on circulation
- Restricting how selected posts are allowed to propagate.
- Triggering of reader reflection Twitter’s suppression of “Retweet” flows, for “Quote Tweet” flows, on selected posts. (designed to engage the reader with the tweet’s text and suggest authoring comments as a way of triggering reflection)
- Content removal Deletion of selected posts.
- Banning from platform Removal of selected accounts, groups and pages.
The net sum of these trends and the deployment of editorial measures to combat them has functionally positioned SNS owners as editors of the new realm, hence the title of the article.
The editorial measures described above have become an issue of contention amongst information sources, users and regulators alike.
On 14 October 2020, Facebook and Twitter took steps to “restrict controversial New York Post story on Joe Biden” (Paul, 2020). As reported, this marked the first direct limitation imposed by Twitter on information published by a news outlet. The decision quickly became politicised and was reversed after two days.
Furthermore, tweets posted by US President Donald Trump shortly after Joe Biden was announced a winner by US networks, in which he claimed to be the actual winner, were promptly marked with: “This claim about election fraud is disputed” (Romm, 2020). Similar markings have been applied to Trump posts in the weeks leading to the elections and during vote counting.
These incidents, amongst many others, have brought to the foreground the key role that SNS owners have been playing by applying editorial measures in the new realm. One such visible response to this realisation has been the repeated summoning of heads of SNS for congressional testimony, the last one taking place on 28 October 2020 (US Congress, 2020)
Methodologies, Further Exploration
In the context of this article, we will attempt to provide a schema for further exploration of these editorial measures along three axes:
• Their legality — What can SNS owners legally do?
• Their ethical standing — Why are they doing it?
• Their effectiveness — How is it working out?
Journalistic endeavours and media bodies are bound by country specific legal limitations and enjoy certain privileges (Dodd et al., 2020). These laws may differ based on the type of media organisation as well. For example, in the UK, objectivity and balanced reporting is mandated only for the broadcast media, with print media exempt (Dodd, 2020: 11–40).
Online service providers might also be regulated by law. US Communications Decency Act, section 230, aka “The law responsible for the internet” (Franks, 2019) protects service providers’ liability stemming from user generated content that they publish. United States Code (2006) states that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Given our conflative argument, further discussion and research should be extended towards the applicability of journalistic standards and laws to SNS.
As can be derived from Shapiro (2014 :561), journalism is a professional endeavour acting for the good of society. SNS operate as commercial, for profit corporations. The extent to which SNS should adapt journalistic practices, especially in the conflated realm, is open for discussion and further argumentation.
In practice, SNS have taken upon themselves to adapt certain measures not mandated by law (Gadde and Beykpour, 2020; Dorsey, 2020). The motivation behind these steps, be it commercial or ethical, is also open for further discussion and research.
It might be that SNS are adapting such measures to largely prevent being further regulated, and therefore these are merely expressions of commercial interest.
On the other hand, the consistency of these steps, as observed over the years, as well as official positions expressed by SNS owners, might be evidence to the existence of an ethical drive.
Existing research into the tech giant owners’ community, to which Dorsey and Zukerberg belong, such as Metcalf (2019), might shed light on its moral code and therefore on the pillars on which their decision-making process stands.
Developing criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of such measurements can be an area for further research. To evaluate effectiveness, one needs to articulate intent — that is the goal such measures are designed to achieve.
Dorsey (2020) states:
“We focused on addressing attempts to undermine civic integrity, providing informative context, and product changes to encourage greater consideration. We updated our civic integrity policy to address misleading or disputed information that undermines confidence in the election”
The realisation of the said intents, to encourage greater consideration and the development of a critical perspective, could be further researched. Quantitative research could use interactive data collection and analysis, while a qualitative approach might include interviews and ethnography of specific affected SNS user communities.
The effective limited distribution of misleading and disputed information within the SNS itself — a declared intent — is inherited within the measures themselves. Still, mentions outside of the network of such measures, as well as bypass countermeasures, such as screen shots, persist. These might mitigate the measures’ effect. Further research can be applied to gauge the discourse around the application of editorial measures and their contribution to fulfilling the original intent.
Professional and Personal Perspective
As a journalist, and thereby an actor in the new conflated realm, the author recognises the significance of further research and understanding of its properties, dynamics and decision makers.
Writing journalistic content for SNS is fast becoming standard practice. Given the seemingly aligned position of SNS owners with journalistic values of factuality and transparency, one may stipulate that all is well.
Still, as the new realm possibly becomes more dominant, SNS have not waived on their core allegiance to their shareholders and their mission as a commercial enterprise. To a balanced actor in this field, this might be cause for concern, as it may call into doubt the longevity of the current journalistic-positive climate on SNS.
Additionally, one should note that most of the editorial measures have been applied to posts by specific political groups. Journalists biased towards these groups, and politicians alike, might migrate to secondary and darker platforms, such as Reddit and 4Chan, where no such measures are currently applied, thereby putting into question the effectiveness of the measures themselves.
Therefore, research of SNS owners’ role as editors is both warranted and critical to the ethical use of SNS by journalists.
Enter Tik-Tok. Regulated by an authoritative regime, it is fast becoming the SNS of choice for the young. It does not mark content as misleading. It simply removes posts criticizing China or its policies.
Journalists eager to publish there, might ask themselves if they are meeting Shapiro’s (2015) definition of being engaged in the “independent pursuit of accurate information” or are they merely reporting inside the perimeter defined by the Chinese Communist Party.
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