With more people not merely sharing news but also exercising editorial control on what they share, we are entering the age of ‘peer-to-peer’ news.
According to The New York Times, nearly half of US adults rely on Facebook as their principal source of news1; others cite Twitter as the real news source of the 21st century2. Such so-called alternative or ‘first person’ news sources are even more important to younger generations; 61% of US millennials source political news from Facebook, for instance, compared to just 39% for Baby Boomers3.
Peer-to-peer news sources fall into two categories: content generated and propagated by first person witnesses to an event, and that which is simply (re)propagated by individuals. Both have implications for the way in which news is considered and consumed.
First person news is increasingly referenced by mainstream channels to complement broadcasting; the ubiquity of camera phones and videos render the recording of any event effortlessly, and social media does the rest. The expulsion of a hapless passenger from an overbooked United Airlines flight becomes global news when a video emerged of the incident4; it is hard to imagine ‘passenger bumped off full flight’ making headlines without the accompanying coverage. In essence, this was a purely visual story; made possible and defined by the associated video. But the latter doesn’t reveal the whole story, the various offers made to passengers to switch flights, the fact that the passenger had actually re-boarded the flight after being expelled (in contravention of US civil aviation regulations); the practice of overbooking is not limited to United and – it could be argued – fundamental to helping maintain low fares. In reality, just 0.004% of United Airlines passengers were involuntarily bumped from flights last year. None of these facts excuses the treatment received by this unfortunate passenger, but it does illustrate a key shortcoming of ‘first person’ reporting; the lack of context. By definition, first person reporting is ‘one eyed’….
The second distinction of the ‘peer-to-peer’ trend is that, beyond simply sharing news, individuals are adding their own editorial comment and perspective to stories. In some cases these are overt (“Hurray, Manchester United has won the English League Cup”5), or more subliminal through the use of emoticons, icons or, increasingly, memes, for instance. In both instances, the sharer is assuming an editorial role deciding, not merely what to share, but how to position it. The nature of the Web is confrontational; people generally take sides before they enter into a conversation. Anonymity backed by the perceived distance between the various protagonists fuel what the Scientific American describes as the ‘perfect storm’ online – in other words, conflict6.
So where does this leave ‘peer-to-peer’ news; is there objective value in the same? First, it’s important to remember that conflict and confrontation are not the sole preserve of user generated content. Traditional news media have long thrived on provocation to generate a response and – ultimately – readership or viewers. The UK Guardian (leftwing/neo-liberal) or the US’ Fox News (conservative) are cases in point. Clickbait (content specifically published to solicit a response) is as common across traditional news outlets as in crowd sourced news.
But there are differences; and brands should be aware of the same. Even the most partisan journal has an editorial code, a process for address and rectification, a mechanism for all parties to be represented in an argument. Commercial realities oblige publications to retain a modicum or integrity and factual veracity, if for no other reason than to maintain their advertising revenues.
In its basic form, peer-to-peer journalism is pure vanity; users derive satisfaction from the ease with which they can share their opinions on the news of the day with potentially huge audiences, irrespective of the real substance of the same. There is no transaction or requirement to maintain advertisers; and — beyond the laws of calumny – there is very little regulation. ‘Fake news’ is a consequence of ‘peer-to-peerism’ taken to an extreme.
One attempt to combine the benefits and access of citizen journalism with the quality controls and accountability of the traditional kind is WikiTribune7. Founded by Jimmy Wales (the co-founder of Wikipedia), WikiTribune will ally ‘community contributors’ with professional journalists to deliver what they describe as genuine ‘evidence-based’ journalism. According to the site, the contents of the resulting articles are always supported by as much extra information shared with the readers as possible; with journalists sharing full transcripts, video and audio of interviews, for instance.
The shortcomings of peer-to-peer news are as evident as the opportunities; it’s never been easier for under-represented or marginalised communities to raise issues or seek representation. But consumers and brands also need a new set of protocols and behaviours to validate the same, assess its veracity and/or partisanship. Fox News and The Guardian newspaper are pretty clear about their respective political positions, and there are sufficient sources for people to verify the same. No such protocols exist to assess raw ‘peer-to-peer’ news, either in terms of factual accuracy or political affiliations.
WikiTribune is a bold step towards ‘objective’ peer-to-peer reporting; but where agendas and motivations are influencing the way individuals are sharing content, there is still much work to be done to help readers, sharers and brands qualify the same.