Hot Source

Iain Hepburn is a journalist, podcaster and the former digital editor of the Daily Record and editor of STV Local. He is currently a multimedia producer, director of brand journalism with social media agency Contently Managed and a misanthropic commentator on the media.

Follow him on Twitter at @iainmhepburn

A confession, my filthy assistants. A few weeks ago, when the whole “Tiger Tim has died” fiasco kicked off on Twitter, I was one of the saps taken in by the hoax who tweeted a message of condolence.

Later that week, a certain hack of my acquaintance started making various disparaging comments about how everyone concerned should be ashamed, and clearly weren’t proper journalists since they hadn’t bothered checking out the truth before speaking out.

They were, in his eyes, as guilty as the hoaxer who started it.

So I’m one of the guilty. And I’ll confess to it. But while I understood my old chum’s sanctimonious attitude I certainly don’t agree with it. From my point of view, the messages were coming on Twitter from journalists and friends whom I trusted as a source of information, who were clearly relaying it in the belief it was accurate.

I like to use the ‘two source’ rule when it comes to social media these days. It’s too easy to be taken in by hoaxers and, in some cases, wishful thinking. And the sheer number of folk retweeting or expressing sadness at Tiger Tim’s supposed passing gave credence to the claim.

They, like me, I suspect did it through neither spite nor tease. They did it not because they thought it was funny or for malicious reasons. They did it because they heard a piece of news about a high profile figure that, in many cases, they’ve grown up listening to and who was known to be ill, and wished to pay respect - and did so without the presumption they needed to phone Radio Clyde’s press office at 10.30pm before sending said message of respect.

Yet rarely has the problem with sourcing trusted information in the digital/social age been so perfectly been hammered home as in that case.

When it’s so easy for intelligent, reasonable people - and me - to be caught out by Twitter hoaxes, Facebook scams and blog spoofs, why should there be any trust placed on the views or comments of anyone online? If the gatekeepers to information are as susceptible to being scammed as those they monitor, where does that leave social media as a source of credibility?

So, last week I tried a little experiment on Twitter.

At the time I was listed on 19 Twitter lists. Not a huge amount, and a number that covers a wide sweep from social media commentators to journalists to old school pals. For the purposes of this experiment, I excluded friends - although, to be fair, two of them helped out.

I asked everyone who had added me to a list to remove me from it. Specifically anyone who had put me on a a list as a trusted source, commentator or whatever. I was featured on ones which described its members as, among other tags, ‘purveyors of information’ and ‘Glasgow twitter sources’.

What I wanted to see was whether people who had added me to lists without asking whether I was happy to be added were equally as willing to remove me.

The answer? Just one person. Only a couple of others even asked why I wanted to be removed in the first place. For the rest - supposedly credible media organisations decided to ignore my wishes and continue citing me as someone whose tweets and comments should be trusted as a source of news and information.

I guess I should be flattered, yet in truth I find the lack of choice we have over how and who sources our views is slightly disturbing.

This is the new gossip - where the value of someone’s commentary comes through the recommendation of someone else’s Twitter list, and the label applied to those upon it represents a benchmark of their veracity.

And there’s little to stop that being abused by the unwary, as much as any hoax or spoof which has gained traction on Twitter and the like in recent years. When the tagging of a source is made in open, it takes just one bad apple, fake tweet or flameout rant to cast doubt on the accuracy of the others.

In the wake of the Tiger Tim story newspapers and broadcasters were quick to jump onto the ‘disgusting Twitter rumours’ row, yet a trawl through the timelines would, likely, reveal many of their own staff were among those to retweet or to pay condolences.

Social media has made the lives of journalists easy, yet it has also made them lazy. Facebook trawls have replaced death knocks and Twitter searches have overtaken interviews in the pursuit of a juicy quote. There’s not a showbiz page in the tabloids which isn’t comprised of stories sourced from celeb tweets.

Yet too often we also see hoax accounts being taken as gospel, and comments clearly designed to be a joke turned into scandal. And when others are staking their reputations on citing who is or isn’t a good source, the risks are high on all sides.

Social media users - be they celebrity or civilian, high profile or punter - are expected to be sources and commenters above reproach. Throwaway comments are blown up and scrutinised beyond all proportion. Jokes which would have been funny down the pub become Parliamentary scandals and a sign of our moral decline.

There’s little doubt as to the value of social platforms as a means of breaking and disseminating news, but the instant reaction, always on nature of it has left little time for doubt. At a time when the Guardian’s failure to check its sources properly over the News of the World row has left even that paper’s crusade against phone hacking tarnished, the nature of verification and trust - of whose word we should believe, and why, has never been more pertinent.

The instantaneous nature of social interaction has simultaneously accelerated the speed at which fact combusts. And too often the truth is being caught in the backdraft.

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