Death by Twitter

On Saturday, January 22, Onward State “killed” Joe Paterno. It took two tweets: The tweets have since been removed from Onward State’s feed.  The image above is a screen capture I took from Poyntner’s account of the incident. According to Poyntner, the timeline is as follows: (1) Onward State reports Joe Paterno’s death through twitter. The site subsequently goes down, apparently over flooded by incoming traffic. (2) 94.5 FM breaks the story on its own, but credits no sources. (3) CBS picks up the scent. They tweet a link to Joe Paterno’s obituary on their site.  It’s off to the races at that point, as the Huffington Post, Anderson Cooper, Poyntner, and Breaking News redistributed the story. What do all these sources have in common? None of them tried to confirm the reports before clicking the “tweet” button. Joe Paterno, as it turned out, was not dead yet. Paterno’s son and a spokesman for the Paterno family denied the story.

The question is, how could this happen? Shouldn’t professional journalists know better than to parrot anything from Twitter without checking?

Well, media do know better. As Eric Wemple points out, we should give “Bonus points for all the outlets that didn’t take the bait.” The AP wire, for one, did not take the bait because it couldn’t verify the original report. After all, when your source is Twitter chatter, you should be wary. Didn’t Jon Bon Jovi get the death by twitter treatment last December? As it turned out, Jeffrey Goho, a musician most of us had never even heard of before, started the rumor using Twitter. This time, established media outlets did nothing, that is, until Bon Jovi debunked the Goho’s hoax with a selfie.

So, what’s the difference between the Bon Jovi hoax and Paterno’s death by twitter? What made CBS hurry, when we all know that exaggerated rumors about celebrity deaths are a recurrent theme on twitter?

Here’s one possible answer: It’s all about the source. Granted, I’m not up to date on student run blogs. I had never heard about Onward State. This does not mean that the site isn’t a legitimate news source. Indeed, the site has been profiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Mashable as an up and coming student blog to watch. More ironically, though, US News and World Report described Onward State as being “as new as Joe Paterno is old.” Ouch!

But, what does this tell us about Onward State? It says that, up until the evening of Saturday, January 21 of 2012, Onward State was not seen as a little fringe blog. It was a little blog that could play with the big boys and girls of journalism. Unfortunately, today is January 22 and things have changed. Now, Onward State has become an example of how not to be a journalist.

My colleague, Andrea Duke, characterized Paterno’s death by twitter as one of those moments that remind us of the “whoops power of social media.”  She writes,  “You CANNOT report hearsay.  You CANNOT report assumptions.  You CANNOT report news that may or may not be true JUST to be the first to report it”

Yes, and this is also one of those moments in which we should reconsider how news is reported. We do rely on established news organizations to give us the facts, which means that we trust them to fact check. In this sense, Onward State is not the only outlet at fault. They made a huge mistake, and they have apologized profusely for it. In fact, Onward State has published two accounts of what happened, and how it happened. In one, the site’s founder, Davis Shaver, describes the controversy as “one of the worst moments of my entire life.” In the other one, managing editor Devon Edwards announces his resignation. He writes,

“I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State might be cited by the national media. Today, I sincerely wish it never had been. To all those who read and passed along our reports, I sincerely apologize for having mislead you. To the Penn State community and to the Paterno family, most of all, I could not be more sorry for the emotional anguish I am sure we at Onward State caused. There are no excuses for what we did. We all make mistakes, but it’s impossible to brush off one of this magnitude. Right now, we deserve all of the criticism headed our way.”

By comparison, this is what Mark Swanson of CBS Sports had to say:

Really? One paragraph is all we get from CBS? That’s unfortunate, and it’s shameful. Sadly, I don’t think anyone expects Mark Swanson to step down as managing editor of CBSSports.com. Fortunately for him, the blame can be shifted to a student run blog, whose own managing editor admits he made a huge mistake.  Edwards writes, “getting it first often conflicts with getting it right.” What’s CBS’ excuse? Why were they more careful about reporting Peyton Manning’s alleged retirement (breaking news, according to Rob Lowe), than when they decided to run the Paterno story? An answer like, “because Paterno was actually dying, and Rob Lowe doesn’t have Manning on speed dial,” does not exempt a news organization from its duty to fact check

Getting it before CNN does not beat getting it right, or at least trying to get it right.

On Sunday, January 22, 2012, Joe Paterno did pass away. Last night’s odd turn of events has become a footnote to a long career. Yes, he had triumphs, and also scandal, but this post isn’t about Joe Paterno’s career. This post is about last night. Frankly, I could not help but think of other times news media has gotten it wrong. I thought about Dewey defeats Truman, but more importantly, this story reminded me of the 2000 election miscall. Four years after one of “the most egregious election-night gaffes in the modern television era,” television news anchors were more than cautious when calling the 2004 election for Mr. Bush.

That probably explains how the Washington Post used Twitter to announce Mr. Paterno’s real death this morning


Blogging from PCA

The PCA/ACA Confefence is underway in San Antonio. This is the annual meeting of the Popular Culture and American Culture Associations. This year, the South West Texas chapter of PCA/ACA is a co-organizer, so welcome to Texas y’all. I will be posting updates and live tweeting for the next few days.

First off, this is a huge conference. The program is a book with over 400 pages. This makes it pretty difficult to navigate, but once you do figure out the layout, you can hear talks on subjects ranging from fan culture, to digital pedagogies, to the relationship between pop culture and life in contemporary America. All very interesting subjects, at least, for people like me who get all excited about discussions that involve rhizomes.

More to come.

Day without Media

I had heard about this assignment in the past, this idea of having students go without any media for 24 hours. I’m not sure who originated it, but it is definitely one of those assignments that has picked up steam among media literacy instructors. I decided to try it out as well, and the results were eye opening.

First of all, it is clear that all my students are very plugged in. Many of them have smartphones, and they use them extensively. Communication, entertainment, information… it all comes intertwined through our pocket-sized devices.

Next, most of my students spoke of the anxiety that resulted from not having their usual media available. Many of them described it in terms of addiction, or in terms of uncertainty about what was going on. Others spoke of media in terms of convenience and scheduling. It is simply easier to organize one’s day when text messaging is an option.

As for myself, I tried doing the media fast. I realized that I missed the background noises from my TV. The apartment was eerily silent, and chores, though they were performed diligently, were just a drag without that background companion. By 8 PM, I broke down and treated myself to Deadwood marathon.

Participatory cultures: Not your usual politics?

In 2007, Politicstv.com began compiling a weekly top 10 list of political videos. At the time, the site had  been in existence for about a year. They were described as “a progressive political news Internet video channel featuring news, opinion and humor,”  which would support itself through advertising. The goal of the site was to reach out to progressive (read: left-leaning) viewers, focusing exclusively on issues that would appeal to this constituency (MediaPost, 2006).

I would say that Politicstv.com, though still in existence, is not one of the most successful ventures attempting to marry politics and cyberspace. In fact, when I set out to look for political viral videos, the first site I thought of was JibJab. They first came into the limelight of American public consciousness with the “This Land is Your Land” video, featuring John Kerry and George W. Bush. Though JibJab began as an outlet for political satire, by 2007 it had expanded into the on-line card business. In fact, they brought us another internet classic: Elf Yourself (Mcarthy, 2009).

Without a doubt, most political organizers in the United States look to the internet to enhance political participation. The Internet’s promises access to one of the most coveted demographics: the elusive “young voter,” the 18-34 year-olds who spend a significant amount of their time online. Furthermore, the Internet is inherently democratic: you do not need a degree, a resume, or extensive experience to start writing a blog, or to post videos of yourself on youtube.

So, why not politics? Why not admit that the revolution, as Gil Heron Scott stated once, will not be televised?

Or, as Henry Jenkins suggests, that new media, like the Internet, empower us to bypass mainstream media (Jenkins, 2007). New media are significantly different than old media when it comes to politics and participation:

The new media operate with different principles than the broadcast media that dominated American politics for so long: access, participation, reciprocity, and peer-to-peer rather than the one-to-many communication. Given such principles, we should anticipate that digital democracy will be decentralized, unevenly dispersed, profoundly contradictory, and slow to emerge (Jenkins, 2007, p. 208).

Henry Jenkins is a firm believer in participatory culture. Nevertheless, he, more than anyone I have come across, understand that the grassroots power of the internet is half of the equation. Mainstream media are constantly monitoring online events. Their reporting puts viral video into overdrive. In fact, understanding the relationship between old media (television, newspapers, magazines, etc) and new media can partially explain the difference between politicstv.com and barelypolitical.com. If you don’t recognize the site, maybe you will remember this:

Barelypolitical.com is part of nextnewnetworks.com. This is an online content provider that has branded itself as “TV for the Internet.” The company, which is privately-owned, counts Goldman Sachs as one of their investors. And this is another important distinction between barelypolitical.com and politicstv.com: the first has a clear business plan and investors, and the second one, apparently, underestimates both (at least as far as I could tell).

But I digress… I promise I have a point. When it comes to politics, the potential of the internet works as part of a strategy, and the key aspect of that strategy is convergence:

Candidates may build their base on the Internet but they need television to win elections. It’s the difference between a push media (where messages go out to the public whether they seek them or not) and a pull medium (which serves those with an active interest in seeking out information on a particular topic). The Internet reaches the hard core, television the undecided (Jenkins, 2007, p. 213).

Mobilizing on the Internet

In 2008, Wired magazine columnist Sarah Stirland wrote that Obama owed his nomination to the Internet:

He used the web more effectively than any prior national candidate, harnessing its organizing power to vault over party favorite Hillary Clinton and become the first black presumptive presidential nominee. With an enormous internet-driven donor base of 1.5 million people, more than 800,000 of whom have accounts on Obama’s social networking website, Obama is the first internet candidate to win mainstream success. His online supporters have created more than 30,000 events to promote his candidacy, some of which are still underway in the last primary states of Montana and South Dakota (Stirland, 2008).

Reading Stirland’s article, I could not help but wonder why she did not mention Howard Dean. If anyone pioneered Internet campaigning, it was Dean. This is how Jenkins summarizes the Dean campaign:

Dean raised more money online from small contributions than any other previous candidate, setting a model that John Kerry would subsequently follow to close the “money gap” with the Republicans. His staff used blogging to create a more intimate, real-time relationship with his supporters. They deployed “smart mob” — style tactics, including an adept use of Meetup.com, to quickly launch rallies, drawing together thousands of people at a time when other candidates were still speaking to half-empty rooms. Dean didn’t so much create the movement; his staff simply was willing to listen and learn” (Jenkins, 2007, p. 210).

Obama applied and refined these tactics, tapping into social networks, like Facebook, that were in their infancy in 2004, or did not even exist, like twitter. Of course, not everything was a smashing success. When the Obama campaign decided to announce the name of Obama’s running mate via text message, they overwhelmed the system. As a result, many supporters ended up not receiving the text message until hours later (Vargas, 2008).

Regardless of this glitch, the success of the Obama campaign sparked considerable interest on his web tactics. Meghan McCain, in particular, decried how much Republicans failed to understand and harness the Internet. She suggested that “unless the GOP evolves as the party that can successfully utilize the Web, we’ll continue to lose influence” (McCain, 2009). And utilizing effectively the web is not merely about jumping on every new site that appears on the horizon. It is about having a message that appeals to the voters, and, as McCain suggests, about understanding the times in which we live:

We live in an era where most individuals my age [Meghan McCain is in her twenties] get their political news from The Daily Show and SNL’s Weekend Update. I know this aggravates the old school political operatives to no end, but it’s true. The Obama administration understand that my generation spends most of its day on a laptop or a BlackBerry, and that using the web is easy way to communicate their ideas to their constituents. Making a website, Facebook group, or YouTube video entertaining and enticing is where grassroots campaigning begins (McCain, 2009).

To be fair, not all Republicans are as resistant to the Internet. McCain herself is an excellent example. However, she notes, with frustration, the disconnect between the Republican party and young voters. It is also worth noting that the demographic composition of the nation is changing dramatically. In other words, “the overall U.S. electorate is becoming less conservative, less white, and younger, while Republican voters are getting older, whiter, and more conservative” (Koppelman, 2008).

Maybe it’s time, like McCain suggests, to rethink the usefulness of videos like this one.

References:

  • Jenkins, H. (2007). Convergence Culture: Where old and new media collide
  • McCain, M. (2009). Why Republicans don’t get the Internet.


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Lessons learned in Milwaukee @ AoIR Conference.

“Best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men” can explode in your face. I was supposed to arrive in Milwaukee yesterday at around 1 PM for the Association of Internet Researchers conference. Instead, I ended up missing my flight and being stuck in Detroit, where I was treated to some very strange public art. They probably figured that having thousands of travelers swoosh around on those belts, in a tunnel decorated in Plexiglas and lights, while serenaded by esoteric music, was soothing. It was not. Frankly, it was just plain strange, and unnerving.

But I finally did make it, and I learned something: never underestimate how long it will take you to clear security checkpoints, and make sure your cab picks you up at the right address. Otherwise, you end up somewhere you never expected to go. “Best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men”.

Of course, that is not the most important thing I learned from attending this conference. I presented a paper on Family Guy and online fandom. My argument was that we should consider the ways in which corporate websites structure fan participation. I’m not sure how I did in the delivery, basically because I can’t remember presenting. Conference presentations get my adrenaline pumping, and that tends to erase all memories.

Except for the important ones, mind you. Today, I learned about communication design. The cliff notes version thereof is that websites are designed to support specific functions. For example, we don’t go to twitter to stream video; we go there to link video. Furthermore, communication and participation themselves can be designed to support specific practices. By this I mean that the ways in which we invite participation to a site may influence the responses that we receive, and what people end up doing there. I will definitely be reading up on that, so I can understand it better. It will be very useful for my dissertation.

The other important thing I learned today involved the #ir10  back channel. I had heard about back channels before, but had never used them so extensively. I found myself twittering incessantly about what was going on in the sessions I attended, and was also able to keep tabs what was going on in other sessions. Moreover, I think I could write a fair reconstruction of the ideas that stood out for me the most if I go back to my twitter feed. Here are some highlights:

  • Social networking may not be as social as I thought. Design issues limit users ability to converse coherently (Panel on Convergent Media).
  • When activist use social media, they using something they have limited control over. Bandwidth, accessibility, and especially terms of use can constrict the potential of social media. However, even if social networking sites are not perfect, they should not be dismiss (Panel on collective action).
  • New trend of advertising targeting women. Technology products promise serenity now, and the Palm Pre is like a Quaalude (Feminist Political Economy panel).
  • According to @michaelzimmer Discussion of AoIR research ethics guidelines boiled down to this: “don’t be a dick”. I wasn’t there, so I’ll take his word for it. Plus, good advice for life anyway.
  • Here’s a post from the back channel @janelle_ward: Brilliant! Geek Feminism Blog asks “Where are all the men bloggers?” http://bit.ly/15daAd
  • If your presentation is about immigration, and you get a question about zombies, smile and nod. “Best laid schemes o’ mice n’ men.” Robert Burns was right.
  • Sex on Second Life. It’s not surprising. Humans are sexual beings. The question to ask is what the implications are. What does it tell us about the division (arbitrary) between Real Life and Second Life? Your avatar does not make decisions; you do (is that from Nakamura?)
  • We — academics, that is — need to pay more attention to writing out our methods. Academic writing and publishing is also about teaching others about research practices. If we limit ourselves to statements like “this is an autoethnography,” we are falling short.
  • Blackbird, a web browser for African Americans?

Fantastic conference. Great learning experience. Definitely a lot for me to think about.