Social media are not going to replace traditional outlets as primary providers of news any time soon, but they are an increasingly important platform upon which news is delivered by those outlets to their readers.
“If searching for news was the most important development of the last decade, sharing news may be among the most important of the next,” the Pew Research Center wrote in a May 2011 report analyzing online news behavior .
As such, the policies and practices social-media services are relevant to anyone who gets a good deal of their news from following someone on Twitter or perusing their news feed or a list on Facebook. Trouble is portended whenever the social media conduits become road blocks, as happens on occasion.
Several news organizations, including MSN.com recently reported that several people who posted information and photos from May 25 marches against genetically modified food and Monsanto had their content blocked and, in some cases, their access to Facebook limited.
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MSN and the website Natural News published one of the photos that one of the protesters, Andrea Lalama, says got her censored. The MSN story also linked to a photo gallery of other photos that have been banned by Facebook. A few I would consider too risqué for publication in our newspaper, but a few others — including a cartoon of Adam and Eve, which temporarily got The New Yorker magazine banned — seemed far too benign to merit a social-media juggernaut’s attention.
(For the record, I did a quick scan of some GMO march-related Facebook pages and all seemed to be up and running, unmolested. I also emailed Facebook requesting responses to the articles I’ve linked to here — they weren’t directly cited in those stories — but thus far have received only an automated acknowledgment that my email was received.)
Twitter has been at the center of similar controversy. The account of UK journalist Guy Adams was temporarily blocked after he helped fuel the social media meme criticizing NBC’s tape-delayed coverage of last summer’s London Games. Adams didn’t coin the “#NBCFail” hashtag, but his coverage — and criticism — helped popularize it.
Adams, the Los Angeles correspondent for London-based The Independent, was removed from the social networking site the day that he wrote a story detailing widespread public complaints about the network's coverage of the 2012 Summer Olympics.
According to The Independent, writing about its own reporter, Twitter claims to have suspended Adams because of his tweet during the Opening Ceremony — when NBC prevented American viewers from watching live coverage, “so that the network could screen the occasion during an evening prime-time slot coveted by advertisers.” Twitter and NBC had struck a partnership during the 2012 Games, although Twitter explained that it was neither the agreement with the peacock network, nor Adams’ sentiment that got the account block. Rather, Twitter said it took down Adams’ account because he posted the email address of NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel and told readers to send complaints to him.
Twitter’s guidelines forbid posting of private information; however, the address Adams provided was Zenkel’s work email, available on NBC’s website. It also followed a naming convention that would have made it easy to figure out even if it were not on the site, much like the one we use at this newspaper — most employees’ email addresses are their first initial and last name “@islandpacket.com” and/or “@beaufortgazette.com.”
The best brake against such censorship is the outrage of social-media users, which certainly was provoked in these two examples, even if some of it was misguided. Natural News, for instance, opined that:
Facebook has also been caught in the outrageous abuse of Free Speech through the censorship of people who have all sorts of non-mainstream views, including people who believe in the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution.
What Facebook and Twitter did was certainly censorship and was certainly ill-advised (in my view, anyway.) However, it just as certainly did not violate the Bill of Rights or the Constitution. The First Amendment protects people from government censorship, not private actors. Indeed, Facebook in particular seems to take seriously its privacy and conduct rules, aimed at cutting down on smut and vitriol. It has that right, just as this website has the right to determine who comments on stories here and on what conditions.
But it also gives them the right to kowtow to a large corporation or limit or prohibit those with certain political, religious or social views. They would do so at their own peril, in my view, and would likely respond to pushback from users. By the same token, these are not journalistic enterprises, and free exchange and balance are not necessarily coded into their DNA ... or their HTML, as the case may be. Neither do these organizations have long traditions of a wall of separation between editorial and advertising functions. Many of these social media are still trying to monetize wild popularity, and the pressure to do so only increases when their stock offerings are taken public.
These pressures can be mighty, and not even newspapers, broadcast media and other journalistic ventures resist them. It will be interesting in the months and years to come to see how hard social media resist.