05 May 2011

Social Media, Expertise and Truth

I am giving a talk today on social media (specifically expert blogging) and the practice of science.  In the FT today John Gapper has a highly relevant column to this subject, with his focus on the media, but which I think has a broader applicability.  Here are a few excerpts:
News has become faster and looser, as illustrated by the stream of facts, insight, rumours and propaganda that surged across news and social networks from the moment the White House announced that President Barack Obama would address the nation. It is becoming harder and more awkward for news providers to adhere to the old safeguards when they no longer dominate distribution.

In many ways, the rise of social media – the ability of anyone who has a computer or a smartphone to broadcast photographs, information and opinion – is a good thing. It allows experts to find an interested audience, and those who witness world-changing events – in this case the engineer who thought he had found a quiet place to live in Abbottabad until disturbed by helicopters – to report them.

But by loosening the grip that anchors and editors used to have, it places greater demands on the readers and viewers themselves. They must play a bigger role in deciding what is information and what is misinformation; what is signal and what is noise. Some of them are willing and able to do so. Others are not.
There are many positives in the firehose of information that can be found via social media:
For what Jay Rosen, a professor at New York University, calls the “attentive” consumer, the ability to tap into a broader stream of raw information is a boon. “There are more ways to receive misinformation but if you are paying attention, there are also more ways to have it weeded out,” he says. “The difference is that the process is happening in public rather than in the newsroom.”

If you are adept at sifting information, or an expert for whom having facts filtered by an editor for a general audience is a disservice, this is all to the good. The elite audience now knows more and can sort through the noise to find the signal. That elite represents perhaps 5 per cent of the total audience – one study found that 0.5 per cent of Twitter users capture 50 per cent of attention on the network.

For the average consumer, the effect can be akin to going to a dealer to buy a car and being presented with a bunch of parts to assemble yourself. It suits hobbyists but has serious frictions for those wanting the full service.

New ways to filter information are springing up – Andy Carvin, a journalist at US National Public Radio, specialises in curating the flow of tweets from countries such as Egypt and Libya and helping to make sense of them. There is a frenzy of venture capital investment into social media aggregation.

The elite and general audiences also tend to sort themselves out by behaviour. As Prof Rosen says, the latter group is “less likely to rush immediately to the news, so there is rough justice. If you wait longer, you will get a better version.”
Gapper says that there are also downsides:
There are two difficulties, however. One is that the “mainstream media” are inexorably being dragged toward the Twitter, or news agency, model of constantly publishing and updating information, and away from the traditional approach of waiting for a while to nail down what is clearly true. The news anchor is being dragged off his moorings.

Emily Bell, a professor at Columbia University, argued this week that “every newsroom will have to remake itself around the principle of being reactive in real time”, no matter how it feels about that. Mr Blitzer looked so awkward on Sunday that it is hard to imagine him resisting the urge to match the rumour-machine next time.

The second difficulty is that many people have neither the time nor the inclination to filter out good or bad information – they tend to seize on the scraps that suit them to bolster whatever their view is of the world. That was true of President Obama’s birth certificate, and it will be true of bin Laden’s body.
Gapper concludes that there is no point in complaining as the firehose of information is here to stay.  I agree.