How Newspapers are Popping the Social Media Bubble to Filter Through Bots, Trolls and Misinformation

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Ever since social media sites like Facebook and Twitter surpassed print newspapers as a main source of news for many Americans, editors have had to find new and creative ways of dealing with the digital elephant in the room. The issue has gained a bit more momentum after a new Pew Research Center report from December revealed that as many as one in five adults in the U.S. get their news via popular social media sites.

David Chavern, president and CEO of the News Media Alliance, said that despite some of the challenges that exist in this interactive 24/7 digital world, social media is actually a great way to distribute media content and engage with audiences. But one of the biggest challenges, according to Chavern, is that social media hasn’t yet proven to be a very useful way to pay for good content.

“Information may want to be free,” he said, “but it turns out that professional reporters and editors like to be paid. Free distribution of news via social media worked while there was something else paying the bills (namely print), but with continued sharp declines in print circulation, we are coming to a reckoning on the ‘free news’ era. Unless we make social media more of a monetary two-way street, then you are going to see more and more good content kept away from social media and locked behind high paywalls.”

The issue tends to be two-fold, with many media organizations using social media to encourage website clicks, while still having to negotiate the pitfalls of this medium, namely things like bots and bullies which can taint the experience for content creators and commentators alike. There’s also the issue of so-called “fake” news, information that is being widely shared from unknown or questionable sources.

If we can learn anything from the Facebook controversy in recent years, it’s that the proliferation of unchecked information can easily be shared widely with little to no real fact checking, something that professional news organizations have long used to set themselves apart as trustworthy. Facebook’s own trending platform even allows users (rather than professional editors) to essentially curate a short list of popular news stories, none of which are vetted in any credible way. And yet the links are often clicked and shared millions of times across the app. The influence of what trends take root on social media can be significant for mainstream media, especially if you consider that Facebook alone generates as much as 20 percent of traffic to most of these traditional news websites, according to MarketResearch.com.

“It used to be very clear to audiences where information came from,” said Chavern. “Things in the newspaper were different than things on TV or talk radio, and those were all very different from your crazy uncle talking over dinner. The internet blender mixes all of those things up and puts a significant burden on readers to pay a lot of attention to where information actually comes from and what kinds of reporting standards lay behind it.”

He said the best thing that media companies can do right now is to help readers understand who they are, how they do what they do, “and how it is different from other things they may see in a news feed.”

Trumping Fake News

Eric Carvin, the social media editor for the Associated Press, spends his days curating AP stories on sites like Twitter where breaking headlines make up the majority of news content. One of the ways he makes social media work is by using the platform not only to push content, but to mine for tips, sources and eyewitness media. It’s an effort that’s being embraced across the organization as reporters have to rethink the way they position and report timely stories.

“We’ve made it a priority to disseminate social newsgathering skills widely around our team of journalists, integrating it deeply into our reporting work around the globe,” Carvin said.

Eric Carvin

He explained that the AP has had to strategize how and what content is streamed and when. There are some rules of thumb that have been developed to help make the process as equitable as possible. For example, Carvin said, “We’ve made it a priority to carefully and respectfully pursue rights for photos and video before we’ll distribute them to our customers, and to authenticate each piece of content to the highest possible standards. We even have newsgathering in mind when we use social platforms to tell stories or connect people to our content—yes, we want people to consume the news we report, but we’re even more eager to establish a social presence that will make people more likely to come to us with tips, ideas and content.”

A quick look at the AP Twitter feed showcases a wide variety of headlines—everything from the latest updates about Syria to Lady Gaga at the Golden Globes. One might expect a trusted source like the AP to be able to sail through this sometimes-rough sea of spam and bots pretty smoothly. But challenges are persisting, said Carvin, especially when it comes to what he calls a very genuine “misinformation crisis.”

“The proliferation of inaccurate information and content online—whether to sow confusion, advance a political agenda or make a buck—presents an enormous challenge to an industry whose mission is to keep the public informed,” he said. “There’s so much false or misleading content on social platforms, users have become mistrustful of anything they see online or—worse—they’re being driven to make decisions about what to trust for the wrong reasons.”

Social media users, unlike people who digest other forms of media like television or radio, tend to trust online content largely because it’s shared by “friends” or because, said Carvin, “it confirms a pre-existing belief.”

This is radically different from the way people got their news in the past. Social media has made it easy to curate what users digest based on their likes and dislikes (hello, algorithms).

“In the social media and messaging app maelstrom, it’s become harder to identify the source of news content, and the structure of social and messaging platforms leads people to congregate with those who share their beliefs,” Carvin said.

The upside is that some news brands—whether globally or within a particular community—have managed to remain credible and authoritative to a large segment of the population.

“We at AP feel we’re in a good spot to stand out under these circumstances,” Carvin said. “Amid the clutter of misinformation and partisan vitriol, the news appetite pendulum is swinging back from opinion and rhetoric to facts, expertise and original reporting.”

Carvin believes that ultimately a great, well-researched and reported story will always trump the bots and trolls that seek to influence the narrative. In addition, the AP has taken steps to push back against the glut of misinformation, like having the fact-checking team work with experts throughout the news organization to separate fact from fiction, especially when, for example, a public figure makes a statement or when questionable content appears online.

“But the best tool we have in our bag is our ability to investigate, to hold the powerful to account and to share stories and visuals about news that affects people’s lives around the world,” Carvin said.

He added that news organizations need to be willing to invest in the right tools for the job. At the Associated Press, Carvin uses a tool for managing social output, and another for spotting online trends and still another for vetting public content.

“A successful social content strategy depends on knowing your audience and how they consume content on various platforms,” he said. “And we’ve found it’s increasingly important to have the right workflow and tools in place around story planning. The better our shared understanding of the newsgathering and output plan for a given news item, the better we’ll be able to prepare and schedule social content that’s optimized to help tell the story.”

To that end, it’s critical for any news organization with an online presence to make stories work well on social platforms, as well as on popular messaging and news apps (think: phone alerts).

“That means strong visuals, modular story forms and modern delivery mechanisms that allow news organizations to use our content as building blocks for their own,” Carvin said. “We certainly do want to showcase our most important journalism on major social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and to grow the audience on AP News, our own news site and app. But above all else, our presence online is a success if it helps our customers bring critical news development to their audiences.”

Tools and Tips

For the past few years, Gina Cole, the engagement editor at the Seattle Times, has been using CrowdTangle to help monitor the paper’s social media presence. The platform—which helps to manage and track posts, trends and social referrals—provides a real-time dashboard that curates content from millions of other social media accounts.

Cole said by using the software, she can see what the local competition is doing and what users are talking about on social media platforms. This is especially helpful given the sheer volume of content she and others at the paper are managing on any given day.

“We post, on average, about 30 times a day on Facebook and 50 to 60 times a day on Twitter, paying constant attention to what works and what doesn’t work on each platform,” Cole said.

Gina Cole

In addition, photo editors have built a strong Instagram presence by spotlighting images exclusive to the Seattle Times.

“Last I checked, we have the biggest IG following of any Seattle media account,” said Cole. “We’re using Instagram Stories to point that audience’s attention toward our marquee enterprise journalism, in addition to using the native features like polls and questions to get a better sense of what’s on their minds.”

Cole also keeps a pretty close eye on local subreddits, primarily to track what people are most interested in reading and discussing (issues like housing, transportation and data stories are big, she said).

“We’ll show up a couple times a year to do AMAs on those topics and/or with reporters whose work gets shared on Reddit a lot,” Cole said.

For the paper, being on social media has become an important way to engage with audiences. Cole said there’s an advantage to being able to meet audiences in the spaces where they already exist.

“The environment and vibe of each social platform is a little different,” she admitted, “and if you can master each one, you can earn a lot of goodwill—it shows you speak those users’ language, understand their norms and respect their time (in that their interaction with you feels seamless among their other interactions on the platform).”

Overall, Cole said that the Seattle Times has been able to connect more deeply with specific audiences on social media than they may have otherwise. An example she gave was the paper’s Education Lab team starting a closed Facebook group where they could facilitate ongoing conversations among educators and parents of students of color about the unique experiences those students have in the city’s local schools.

Despite the successes, Cole said there were certainly ever-evolving challenges to the fluid platform.

“On any social platform, you don’t control the means by which you reach people. That relationship is mediated,” she said. “So in order to show up on your intended audiences’ screens, you’re often beholden to algorithms cooked up by companies whose goals don’t necessarily align with yours.”

Cole said these challenges are making it important to diversify across platforms. Many news outlets that “pivoted to video” to succeed in the Facebook news feed, she said, have now discovered “it’s risky to put all your eggs in one social basket.”

Ultimately, each social media platform works a bit differently. “On social media, and on Facebook especially, the posts that get the most interaction—reactions, comments and shares—tend to be the ones that make people feel something. It can be joy, outrage, hope, sadness, surprise, warm fuzzies, whatever.”

In terms of algorithms, the Seattle Times has an organic/paid combo-platter strategy when it comes to maximizing posts’ reach and growing its online following. In the newsroom, it’s just about telling great stories in the right formats, varying post types and experimenting a lot to see what works.

“Growing our audiences on social media sites is important for a couple of reasons,” said Cole. “There’s the obvious: more eyeballs on our stories, more paywall hits and thus more subscription conversions, wider brand awareness, etc. But there’s also the fact that as your social media following grows so do the chances that the right post might reach the right person, that a callout might show up in the news feed of someone who’s affected by something you’re reporting on, or that an investigation might be seen by someone with the power to right the wrong you uncovered.”

In other words, the greater the reach, the greater the potential for impact—something that’s nothing new to media organizations.

“We also meet weekly to look at what’s working and not working and discuss what we can do better,” said Cole, which is paying off. Last year newsroom staffers, as well as product and marketing folks, all worked together to create the Seattle Times social media playbook, something Cole describes as a “living document that covers a bunch of social media topics, including ethical considerations, photo and video policies, helpful tools, how to reach out to readers on social media, how to keep the conversation going and deal with criticism, examples of good replies to people who complain about our paywall, etc.”

The playbook has been shared with everyone in the newsroom starting two years ago, and Cole said ever since then, she has been keeping it up to date with the most recent guidelines as well as training every new employee on its contents.

What Happens Next?

As the very fluid future of social media poses important questions about how to reach audiences with smart and compelling content, the media’s love/hate relationship with the platform is likely to ebb and flow too.

“I expect news organizations will have to adjust to people moving their sharing behavior to more private spaces,” said Chavern, especially “as the public grows increasingly (and understandably) weary of the abuse, harassment and partisan rancor that too often comes with an open online presence.”

David Chavern

Chavern predicted that a lot of the users that media organizations are accustomed to reaching widely through public posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter may start to spend more time in private Facebook groups, taking advantage of the new “close friends” option for Instagram Stories, or even relocating entirely from social platforms to messaging apps.

“This makes audience development work more challenging,” he said, “and there’s a risk that the ‘filter bubble’ problem will worsen as people congregate privately with like-minded people.”

It’s also a lot harder to combat misinformation when it spreads within private networks, which is why media companies need to engage more directly with their audiences, Chavern said.

“While it’s not a great way to distribute content, it is a wonderful mechanism to talk to your readers about that content,” he said.

Media organizations are, in many ways, the last refuge for facts in a digital landscape riddled with a whole lot of fiction, something that is not far from the minds of most editors in 2019.

To this point, Chavern’s been monitoring media companies about whether there could be an advantage to banding together to negotiate social platforms collectively, and to ultimately create a much bigger presence. Rather than introducing a form of federal control, something that’s also being widely discussed, he said it could be “a wonderful, light touch way for the government to make a big difference for the future of news.”

But will it be enough to combat Trump’s tweets, trolling and bots while still maintaining enough revenue to do the actual work? Chavern sees a lot of potential for media organizations in the social media landscape.

“I think that social media will continue to prove to be a great way for media companies to engage and talk to audiences,” he said. “Without some changes, however, it will not be a great way to distribute and pay for the creation of content.”

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