News at the Speed of Now: Social Media and Misreporting

[ The Eager Beaver Clothing Store ] Temple Bar, Dublin, Republic of Ireland

News that rides on the rails of social media can sometimes jump off the tracks. The past six weeks have raised serious questions about social media’s role in misinformation and the mainstream media’s eagerness to report outweighing their duty to verify.

Granted, my journalism training consists of a crash course gleaned from the first season of The Newsroom, but it seems that the news business has two extremes balanced against one another.

  • Everyone is in ratings a race to be the first report
  • You must have 2 reliable sources before reporting
The, now infamous, tweet of @ComfortablySmug during hurricane Sandy had CNN and The  National Weather Service reporting that the stock exchange had been flooded:

The following day, this apology was posted on ComfortablySmug’s Twitter account:

Then, again last week in the swirl of misinformation that was reported before verification during the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre, the details were grossly inaccurate including the

  • Identity of the shooter (Ryan first and later correctly identified as Adam)
  • Mother, Nancy Lanza’s profession (first reported as the teacher at the school)
  • The father’s murder (first reported to be at the “apartment” of Adam Lanza)
And then, several sources pointed to the wrong individuals on social media:

Within 10 minutes, this tweet was retweeted 10,000 times and his followers grew from 20 to 5000. Later in the afternoon, when it was discovered that the shooter’s real name was Adam, @Adam_LZ’s twitter account suffered the same reaction:

In both cases hurricane Sandy and Sandy Hook, the question has been raised, “should social media contributors who spread misinformation be prosecuted?”

It seems like common sense that spreading information on social networks should be accurate, but we have a brigade of armed citizen journalists on the loose that have little training and understanding of the legal ramifications of “publishing” information. There is no crash course in “how to use your twitter account with social, moral and legal responsibility.” While traditionally, publishers have been such a narrow slice of the global population, in the past 10 years we have increased the number of citizen journalists to at least 1/8th of the global population (number based solely on active Facebook accounts). While they are armed with the press, they have little understanding for the ramifications of its use.

I am going to start a series over the next few weeks that investigates the responsibilities that one has when using social media, but I’m curious, what do you think? Should there be a greater accountability applied to journalists than individuals? If one holds themselves out as a citizen journalist, should they enjoy the same privileges afforded to journalists?

Jeremy Floyd

Jeremy Floyd is the President at FUNYL Commerce. Formerly, he was the CEO and President of Lirio, Bluegill Creative, a marketing and communications firm in Knoxville, Tennessee. In addition to managing the digital strategies, Floyd was an adjunct professor for the University of Tennessee Chattanooga MBA program teaching digital strategies and social media. Floyd blogs at and tweets under the name @jfloyd. Jeremy is licensed to practice law in the State of Tennessee and holds a law degree from the University of Tennessee College of Law and a Bachelor of Arts degree from MTSU in English and Philosophy.

  • Jeremy,
    Bravo for focusing a spotlight on this growing issue. “Social Media” could be substituted for “government” in the famous quote below.

    Government is like a baby. An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.
    — Quote by Ronald Reagan during his gubernatorial campaign (1965)

  • Now, Jeff, you had to send me off to the dictionary to find out what “alimentary” meant. 🙂

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Right now threats of prosecution are like going after file traders in the napster days–lots of bark, little bite. The digital sphere is rife with legal issues far more damaging than this…like cyberbullying / online assault, but who is going to take that case?

    It seems like there must be a standard where negligence in misreporting is defensible. On the other hand, where there is malicious intent, it should be like screaming “FIRE” in a crowded theater.

  • I agree. This is another item to add to my “ticks me off” list. I think it will go just below the “bumper-sticker activist”, who puts a sticker on their car to show they care but never actually does hands-on volunteer work to prove it. Thanks for letting me vent safely along with you.

  • inda