In 2009, I wrote a piece for BusinessWeek‘s innovation blog that told the tale of a guy based in Chicago who tapped his social network for money to help a friend in trouble. He raised $12,000 overnight, and I wrote a story about how amazing it was that such largesse could be harnessed in such a short period of time and how lovely that such generosity and humanity lurked amid the bits and bytes.
Most people agreed. Then a guy called Mark popped up in the comments section. Mark thought the whole thing was a crock, and that I had done BusinessWeek readers an enormous disservice by not traveling to Chicago to verify that the woman existed and was indeed in need.
I asked a senior editor at the magazine what he thought. I mean, our online department had the budget of a gnat. There was no way I’d have been able to travel from New York to Chicago to verify the story. I knew the guy raising the money pretty well and had quoted him in stories before. I trusted him. And anyway, I wasn’t endorsing the fundraising; I was merely reporting on a new phenomenon enabled by the connective tentacles of the Internet and technology. My excuses stuttered on, and the editor fixed me with a look. “Two words,” he said, tartly. “Bernie Madoff.” And with that, he plunged a dagger into my heart and I relearned the unimaginably important lesson at the heart of all journalism: question everything, and then question it again.
It’s a lesson that came to mind with the revelation that Amina, the Gay Girl in Damascus wasn’t anything of the sort (in fact, she was the invention of an American Man in Scotland.) Amina came to the attention of the world’s media after “she” wrote a blog post back in April. In My Father the Hero, she outlined the story of how her father had shamed some thugs who came to their house in the middle of the night to arrest her. The story was raw, powerful and emotional. I cried when I read it, and promptly sent on the link via Twitter, with, I might add, a disclaimer: “No idea if it’s true.”
And, indeed, it turns out the story wasn’t true. After stories about Amina’s situation were featured in the world’s press, it turns out that she was the invention of one Tom MacMaster, a man who says he was raising real issues and meant no harm. (Note: the blog itself has now been closed.) Now many people are furious about being misled. Some in Syria are incandescent with rage that they put their own lives at risk for an idiot with a vivid imagination and a laptop.
Ethan Zuckerman, founder of Global Voices, writes a thoughtful take on the real issues at stake here. Not least, he writes, that MacMaster’s duplicity serves as “a caution to all news outlets that seek to use citizen voices to tell stories in the future. That’s a serious problem.” That’s for sure. MacMaster may not have wreaked the financial havoc of Bernie Madoff, but he’s unwittingly outlined the challenge of verification and identification that faces media companies and journalists looking to use the platform of the Internet to cover global news stories in a timely, useful and accurate manner.
As it stands, news systems using the Internet are at very real risk of being duped by schemers building their very own Ponzi schemes of manipulation and misinformation. And while some organizations, such as the BBC, have extensive policies in place for vetting information coming from social media, it’s clear that the entire platform can get shaky, fast. We imagine the system is built according to our own personal moral code; it’s worth remembering that it’s really not.
The digital age has afforded an astonishing disruption of the news industry. New formats and connectivity have upended what used to be a fairly well understood process of gathering and disseminating news. We’ve all become used to getting instant reports and insights from those on the scene at the time. It’s super exciting to witness the various experiments underway, not to mention painful to witness the inept responses of so many of the incumbent players. Yet as consumers and producers, we’ve become steadily less attuned to judging whether something is fact or fiction, news or opinion. This isn’t merely an abstract issue. On the contrary, it’s too meaningful to allow simply to shake out in the grand scheme of things.
Most often, I write about design. One of my pet peeves is that designers rarely seem able to articulate their value to non-designers. It strikes me now that this is true of journalists too. Journalists (and publishers) have been appallingly bad at explaining why there’s such a process to what they do (or even that there is one.) Instead, they have systematically undermined their own behaviors and fundamental practices in order to try and compete in the new environment. Yet too often, they choose to compete in the most defensive manner imaginable. Too often, online operations of the mainstream press are viewed as the Junior Varsity version of the print-based mother ship, with blogs or Twitter feeds seen less as the front lines of reporting and more as repositories for the breadcrumbs of print stories. Meanwhile, the economics of the new world remain entirely uncertain even as the business model of the old one teeters.
Yet one thing is clear. Both as producers and consumers, we all need to remember to be hypercritical in our thinking and reading and aware that the new sources and resources available are as unsettling as they are exciting. Amina the Straight Man is a timely reminder and a warning of the potential Ponzi scheme that lies directly beneath our fingertips. And these days, we clearly can’t rely on journalists to question everything for us; we must all remember to do the same.