‘No man is an island, entire of itself’, wrote the poet Donne, a sentiment which, albeit in a more prosaic form, might be said to encapsulate the social media policy of most American news corporations in the run-up to tomorrow’s Presidential election. Never before has the coverage of polling day itself, let alone the result, been so hotly anticipated, and many of the larger news organizations have attempted to codify in advance their social media strategy for the big day – chief amongst which seems to be the guiding principle that, in the words of the Associated Press, ‘people view all of us as speaking for the AP’. In their online presence on Twitter and Facebook, therefore, journalists must locate a delicate balance between their dual roles as individual and representative, as both personality and employee. Whilst social media so often acts as the shot of adrenaline reviving the groggy and often lifeless body politic, such a fusion of individuality with a larger collaborative responsibility is nonetheless fraught with danger for professional journalists.
To that end, a memo sent to all staff from the Associated Press’ Standards and Social Media Editor Eric Carvin reads thus: “If AP has not called a particular state or race, it’s because we have specifically decided not to, based on the expertise and data we have spent years developing. Therefore, we strongly discourage AP staffers from posting, tweeting or retweeting others’ calls […] If we tweet another organization’s call, we may imply that we endorse the other organization’s decision. At worst, we may deceive the public by spreading bad information." The upshot being that, with apologies to the poet, if the bell of bad information tolls, Carvin is damned if it’ll toll for him too.
Indeed, some have been even more prescriptive when it comes to identifying codes of conduct for social media activity, particularly on Twitter. The website Poynter has published a list of ‘6 social media mistakes to avoid this Election day’, which range from specific advice on how to spot fake photographs to more intangible rules of thumb, including the disconcertingly nebulous section titled ‘misinterpreting social media sentiment’. Clearly, the fact that people are able to construct their own bespoke media ‘experience’ (for want of a better term) on such a platform engenders a far more proactive, participatory attitude which seeks rather than waits. With such mass involvement, the potential likelihood for errors, fakes and mischievous falsities is, as seen in the case of Hurricane Sandy, greatly increased, forcing the denizens of such sites to consider more carefully the validity and accuracy of information gleaned in the heat of a 24/7 news cycle.
It will, in short, be fascinating to witness sites such as Twitter and Facebook responding to tomorrow's deluge of critical information in such a short space of time. Network executives all cited the old journalism chestnut that ‘it’s better to be right than first’ when Brian Stelter asked them about their plans for calling races Tuesday night. Nevertheless, it seems certain that, despite protestations of caution, such self-correcting functions that social media is said to possess will need to be at their zenith if news organizations, as well as lay citizens, are able to sort the wheat from the chaff.