Peter Bohan – Tales from the Trail: A Little Bird Told Me

24 Jul 2015

PeterBohan

In newsrooms around the country, it’s an old saying: “If your mother says she loves you – check it out.”

An age-old truth – you are only as good as your source.

Bedrock journalism. Good to remember as the social media universe floods us with rumors and becomes a playground for hackers.

Social media is rapidly becoming the channel for news consumers with mobile devices.

“Twitter wants to become your go-to source for news” says one recent article while a July 14 Pew Report “The Evolving Role of News on Twitter and Facebook” finds that “that clear majorities of Twitter (63 percent) and Facebook users (63 percent) now say each platform serves as a source for news about events and issues outside the realm of friends and family.”

Mainstream traditional media already Tweet and post their own stories. But Facebook and Twitter are also becoming sources for mainstream media via Tweets and posts. Tweets are sprouting up regularly as sourcing on TV and radio.

That’s the danger zone: if your Twitter says she loves you, check it out.

A feed of Tweets should never be more than a tip wire – and a “live” wire, as in 1,000 volts.

Hoaxers are more active than ever. And hackers – from hoaxers to spoofers, from identity thieves to money launderers, from government spies to terrorist groups – are finding the water fine in the social media universe.

At the other end of a “county news release” may be the North Koreans or the Syrian Electronic Army. Or my own new favorite: Russia’s Internet Research Company.

Sept. 11, 2014. News of a toxic plume at a Columbia Chemicals plant in Louisiana began with a morning text message to a local resident and was spread quickly as “hundreds of Twitter accounts were documenting a disaster right down the road” and “dozens of journalists, media outlets and politicians, from Louisiana to New York City, found their Twitter accounts inundated with messages about the disaster.” Islamic State was soon being rumored as behind the attack.

All fake, according to the New York Times: the handwork of crafty Russians.

“From a nondescript office building in St Petersburg, an army of well-paid ‘trolls’ has tried to wreak havoc all around the internet – and in real-life American communities,” said the Times in its June 2 article “The Agency.”

Good lord: is it that easy to pull off another War of the Worlds, as Orson Welles did?

Well, yes. And how about one a day?

May 23, 2015: Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, an African American investigating alleged abuses by cops after the death in custody of black youth Freddie Gray, says her official work twitter account was hacked – which she announces on her private Twitter account. She does not give details. But her office later denies to Megyn Kelly of FOX News that Mosby “favorited” a racially charged tweet and another one calling the six Baltimore cops charged in the Freddie Gray case “thugs.” The local prosecutor later told Kelly that both Mosby Twitter accounts had been hacked.

The point is that hackers are drilling down more into media sources, not just into media.

Do you think you –or your Twittering sources – are protected?

“To a cyber expert, traditional antivirus protection offers the hacking equivalent of being able to repel a musket ball when today’s villains are firing AK-47’s,” notes Fortune in its fine portrait this month of the devastating attack on Sony Pictures.

It’s not just corporates or government agencies being hacked. It’s the whole expanding Twitterverse.

No one is more aware of this than Twitter. Their hacking team is at hacked@twitter.com and includes their handy how-to triage for victims.

So does this mean we roll back the clock and ignore social media if we want the facts?

Nope. The genie is out of the bottle. Elvis has left the building.

But as journalists and publishers it means we must use Twitter and other social media – not let them use us.

Consider the source. Load up the salt shakers. Pinch early and often.

Be like the Homeland Security official in Louisiana called by the resident in that toxic plume scare last September: “He hadn’t heard of any chemical release that morning,” the Times said. “In fact, he hadn’t even heard of Columbia Chemical. St. Mary Parish had a Columbian Chemicals plant office.”

Saved by the “n” and the “s” — and a good dose of salt.

Twitter or no Twitter: Always let the facts stand in the way of a good story.

 

Peter Bohan was a Reuters journalist for 30 years before becoming Executive Director of Reuters America Service, a product aimed at U.S. newspapers, web sites and broadcasters as an alternative to The Associated Press. Peter – Midwest Bureau Chief at the time – built the service starting in 2010 in tests with Tribune Company, which  became the anchor client for RAST in 2011. Peter spends more time than anyone working with U.S. newspapers to see how Reuters can address their needs.