20140104 The dangers of “internet-spread”

Then because that article spreads, often without control and as a result of technology “scraping,” across the web within – literally – minutes, the possibility of error correction is heavily reduced. This is the third risk. The only remedies are the removal, as fast as possible, of the original article, a social media campaign to attempt to swamp search engines with disclaimers, and a monitoring scheme to identify places where it appears with a view to getting it taken down from each place as quickly as possible.

The spread of the article itself is the first – and of itself – the lesser of the two problems. The bigger danger is that the comments are used for a campaign against an individual or a company. An example was as article about the head of an Italian pasta company. He said, specifically, that he did not have any problem with homosexuals or their practices, nor (given that he is a Catholic, particularly importantly) with same-sex marriages. He did, however, say that he considers that a family should consist of a man and a woman and children and therefore does not agree with same-sex couples adopting children. His comments, made to a small-town radio programme were reported in partisan media as “homophobic” and picked up by mainstream media across the world which perpetuated the phrase and write in terms encouraging a boycott of the products made by the man’s family company. The comments on almost all websites, and even on the company’s Facebook page, made it plain that most of those commenting were doing so having not read the report of his full comments and were just joining in bashing him for their own partisan interests.

Trying to combat such an evolving threat involves both time and money and, of course, disruption to other business activities. It follows that interviewees in anything other than a live environment where they have, ironically, far more control than in a “new media” situation, should always ensure that they have copy approval for any interview and that it is clear, in writing, that the interview takes place only on condition that that copy approval is in place. An alternative is that interviews are conducted by a form of Q&A submitted and responded to.

But overlaying and compounding all of the above is the USA’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act which says that no US internet publisher may be held liable for libel or other harmful consequences of the republication of anything they find on the internet. It does not permit wholesale copyright infringement but it does mean that any scraper or site republishing extracts cannot be held liable in respect of any false or misleading information in material it republishes. Nor, importantly, in any comments thereto. And so regardless of whether adverse consequences flow for a person referred to in an article as a result of deliberate or inadvertent action by the journalist or the original publisher, if there is simply republication in the USA, then flaming and trolling are, as they spread, protected.

Homer wrote that Rumour was the messenger of Zeus, the most powerful of the Gods. But today, the rapid spread of partisan reporting of extracts and the inflammatory use of comments pages is more akin to Pheme – a Goddess who, for those in favour, spread fame and good reputation but for those she took a dislike to spread scandal and falsehood.

While internet business strategists understand that their business depends on getting those eyeballs, even if someone is hurt in the process, journalists rarely understand the ramifications of publishing a piece that might be misinterpreted or which contains errors. Most journalists appear to see the publication they work for as an island, and imagine that there is control over what happens on that island. In truth, it’s not an island at all: there isn’t even a decent moat. When challenged, they will often take a position that their credibility is under threat – it becomes a matter of their ego, they become more important in their eyes than the wider harm.

Journalists have long blackmailed potential interviewees with lines that a story will appear anyway, even if the person refuses to answer questions. While that has never happened to me personally, in an earlier life I represented people who were under such threats. Only the most rapid and forceful action protected them. There is no middle ground, no time for negotiation, no opportunity to be nice. When a media threat is present, it must be dealt with then and there, even if it is, technically, after the event. By then, it’s too late to assume that the journalist and publication that have posted the article will respond appropriately: based on a sample of one case, the whole reason there is a problem is that they have at that point, insofar as the subject is concerned, a 100% failure rate.

There is no room or time for shoulda, coulda, woulda – “you should have waited, we could have worked out how to fix it, and there would have been no problem.” There is little or no comprehension of the matters set out above: if it’s on the web, its spread is uncontrollable and so are the responses to it. For the subject of an article, as soon as an article is published, the focus switches from risk management to damage control.

It’s vital that everyone who has contact with the media, on a personal or corporate basis, understand that things have changed out of all recognition to only a few years ago. They must have a strategy in place for dealing with any problems that arise for now, contrary to the old adage, it is not true that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Before the internet, the power of social linking was obvious when the venerable UK trinket chain “Ratners” was killed by a thoughtless comment by its then CEO. Gerald Ratner, trying to emphasise that his shops sold affordable jewellery compared the price of a product to that of a Marks and Spencer sandwich. A few people had letters published in the papers, a few people were interviewed in shopping malls, all saying that they would not shop at Ratners. Within months, the business was dead. The spread of a story is now far faster, hits its targets much more directly, are often much more targeted, and real and synthetic rage and the desire to see one’s comments on a screen all combine to act in an even more powerful and more immediate way.

© 2014 Nigel Morris-Cotterill
All rights reserved