Each day, more than 50 million Americans get their news from the Web. Many of them no longer subscribe to print newspapers and get their news exclusively from Internet and broadcast sources. Nearly one-quarter of Americans say that the Internet is their main source of news and 44% of Americans check online news sources at least once a week. Online news services continue to proliferate as newspapers discover ways to make their online services profitable.
Journalism is built on credibility. Old-line newspapers such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and others have spent decades nurturing their reputations for truthfulness and reliability. Questions about the credibility of online news sources (especially social media sources) in comparison to newspapers persist. Why are online news sources perceived as less credible than print sources, and what are online news sources doing to reinforce their credibility?
Anonymity and Spoofs
A fundamental characteristic of the web is that anyone can post virtually anything, whether it is true or not conservative news sites. Users can post information under their own name, anonymously, or under someone else’s name. Consequently, it is sometimes difficult for readers to discern truth from fiction on blogs, websites, and tweets. In the last U.S. presidential primary, Republican candidate Sam Brownback discovered that some of his “supporters” were ardently blogging untruths and were not supporters at all. One blog, (baptistsforbrownback2008.wordpress.com), published that Brownback, a social conservative, believed that the earth was flat and that rape should be considered “an unplanned sexual event”. The site was a parody of the Senator’s conservative beliefs, but was presented in such a matter-of-fact way that some considered the spurious claims to be true.
Gatekeepers Ensure Accurate Transmission of the News
Twitter, which has in recent months had several well-publicized spoofs tweeted across their platform, is taking steps to reinforce their credibility. Twitter co-founder Evan Williams said of Twitter’s credibility issue: “Anonymity was a key thing for the people there (Twitter)… How do you have anonymity and trust… that is a key thing…it demonstrated a potential we thought was there… having worked on technologies that allow people to publish more information freely, I believe, is a good thing… but it also says to me ‘Wow,’ we have so much more to do.”
Twitter’s Reputation Validation System
Williams revealed that Twitter is working on a reputation validating system which is based on users’ ratings of each other. The system is similar in theory to the ‘feedback’ systems used on eBay, guru, and other sites whose business model is “trust” driven.
“We are working on reputation systems… You may not know someone is trustworthy, but other people who are trustworthy trust them,” said Williams.
In addition, tweets now have an optional “location” feature which will assist readers in determining the trustworthiness of the tweet. For example, tweets originating from the source of an event are considered to be more reliable than tweets about the event that originate on another continent.
As newspapers continue their evolution from a print to a digital medium, readers will become savvy about the truthfulness of the various “news” sources. The steps taken by Twitter to reinforce their credibility as a news source will likely be duplicated by other social media and bloggers. Twitter users’ propensity for self-policing will make the platform one of the more reliable news sources in the near future.