The yin-yang of social media

By Dianne Bayley, Writer & Social Media Manager

According to Chinese philosophy, the concept of yin-yang (literally meaning “shadow and light”) is used to describe how polar opposites or seemingly contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world.

It is suggested that we all have a “light” and a “dark” side – the latter being the part none of us likes to look at or acknowledge. Social media is proving to have both too – and none of us wants to delve too deeply into that, either.

I am all for the incredible freedom of speech social media affords us and love its ability to get news across the oceans in mere seconds. I am also delighted that nothing can ever really be a secret anymore, no matter how hard governments, organisations and even individuals try to keep the lid on things . . . there will forevermore be a “someone” who wants to “break the news”, and word will get out efficiently.

So, here’s my beef: Being a social media manager means I spend a lot of time online and monitor a variety of trending topics. I watch to see who posts what, and how it’s received by people – then re-posted or discussed. It requires an open mind and a lot of “restraint of tongue and pen”, especially because I am as opinionated as anyone else who loves social media.

When ‘opinion’ becomes ‘fact’

August brought some whoppers on social media; items that were picked up from online news sites and tweeted, posted and shared until “opinion” became “fact”. And therein lies my problem. Twitter’s 140 character limit doesn’t give anyone the option of saying “Beware, this is an opinion. I LOVE it, but it is just an opinion, so don’t get your knickers in a knot and don’t take it as gospel, because it’s not FACT, and therefore not journalism”.

Let’s go back to when “journalists” were not writers or Tweeters or Facebookers; to the days we see in movies, when a journo would BE at the actual scene of the story and rush over to find a telephone booth, from where he (it was usually a he back then) would call into his newspaper’s offices and report the news as he had SEEN it; written it in his notebook (which was considered a legally credible source as long as another journalist could read the notes); and both the journo and his editor would stand by the story, at the risk of getting fired if the reporting was inaccurate.

Let’s go back to when a newspaper published some news and by the next day it wasn’t “news” anymore. Then the journalist had to follow up new angles and events. Now, a “citizen journalist” – or even a real one – can “re-tweet” something that was published in an online version of a newspaper, and it appears in the Twitter “tickertape” to have “just happened”. This is what has become known as “churnalism”. Sadly, because there’s no warning label, many, many people see the headline and re-tweet or post it to Facebook – and the whole bent, buckled and spindled story starts again.

In the past few weeks we’ve seen the Lonmin/Marikana tragedy unfold and be told – and not always by people who were there and often quoting “an eye witness”. We’ve seen the Woolworths issue hashed and rehashed until Facebook comments had to be locked out by what I consider a competent social media team. We’ve also seen Morgan Freeman die. Again and again and again, on Facebook. Apparently, he’s died several times a year for about four years.

Social media has given rise to “Opinionistas”, and there are millions of us. Unfortunately, the people reading what we’re writing are not always clear that this is my personal opinion, as of now. As a responsible writer who doesn’t care to merely fan the flames, I believe it’s my responsibility to tell them that. It is also important that I know what I can and can’t be sued for online – which, as far as my understanding goes – is the same as what I can and can’t be sued for saying in print or broadcast platforms, in most cases. Except for this one: In December 2011, a judge nailed a blogger with a $2.5-million fine for, essentially, not being a journalist and damaging a company’s reputation. Here it is in brief:

“The Obsidian Finance Group sued Cox in January for $10 million for writing several blog posts critical of the company and its co-founder, Kevin Padrick. Obsidian argued that the writing was defamatory. Cox represented herself in court.

“The judge threw out all but one of the blog posts cited, focusing on just one, which was more factual in tone than the rest of her writing. Cox said that was because she was being fed information from an inside source, whom she refused to name.

“Without the source, she couldn’t prove the information in the post was true – and thus, according to the judge, she didn’t qualify for Oregon’s media shield law since she wasn’t employed by a media establishment. In the court’s eyes, she was a blogger, not a journalist. The penalty: $2.5 million.” ~ From Mashable, full story here

From where I sit, I’m watching the power of social media being used for positive change as well as for slagging off people, places and organisations. It’s clear that too few people who read blogs and posts ever visit sites like before passing on bad news, in particular; and care little for the damage that can be done to organisations through “hearsay”. We may not like the organisations we discuss online, but do we have the right to “suggest” foul play when we’re not sure of it – and possibly destroy the jobs of people who work for those organisations?

The last thing social media needs is regulation. I think there are too many control freaks regulating the world anyway. What we do need, though, is for honest bloggers, journos, writers and citizen journalists to think before they write – and for those reading the things they write to be aware that, unless they can verify the FACTS, it is all opinion. Which, as we know, is like a bottom. Everyone has one, and nobody wants yours.

• This blog is the OPINION of guest blogger Dianne Bayley, and may not necessarily reflect the opinion(s) of Letsema Communications, where it was first published.