Digital Publishing: When Journalists Unwittingly Help Spread Misinformation


We all read (and in some cases reported on) how Russia used social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter, to sow racial and cultural disharmony in an attempt to undermine the 2016 election.

What we haven’t spoken so much about is how journalists helped them.

Twitter has been and remains a powerful tool for journalism, especially when it comes to breaking news. Following the right experts can enhance your beat reporting and help grow your readership. It’s a boon for sports and entertainment reporters when it comes to gaining personal insight (and a fantastic quote or two) from their subjects. Applications like Storify provide a powerful way to contextualize aggregated content from Twitter to offer more insight to readers.

But there is a darker side to Twitter’s relationship to journalism that existed long before the company angered brevity-loving copy editors everywhere by expanding its character limit to 280 words. As journalists, we may not want to admit it, but in most newsrooms Twitter has an outsized importance on what we consume, cover and write about.

“I always say that Twitter is at once so great and so horrible,” Adam Himmelsbach, who covers the Celtics for the Boston Globe, told Sports Illustrated. “But I also have to remind myself sometimes that I’m not writing for Twitter, and that in the end, it’s a small part of the overall audience.”

Small is understating it. According to statistics from the Pew Research Center, just 24 percent of online adults use Twitter, the least popular among all the major social media networks, including LinkedIn. Its demographics skew young (18-29), educated and affluent—hardly representative of most communities that newsrooms cover.

It’s also easily gamed by organizations and PR companies who have the time to commit to spending time on a platform that isn’t paying them directly. Becoming popular on Twitter, largely denoted by the number of followers an account is able to amass, often offers a false sense of legitimacy to unsuspecting reporters.

One specific case speaks to how easily it was for Russian agents to use journalists to help spread misinformation.

Jenna Abrams, who went by @Jenn_Abrams on Twitter, was a popular figure on social media. She boasted nearly 70,000 followers, and her tweets were used or highlighted by several major news outlets during the 2016 election, including USA Today, the Washington Post and the BBC. She even managed to create news when several outlets reported, based largely on her tweet, that CNN aired porn during the broadcast of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” in November 2017.

Unfortunately, Abrams was a fake Twitter persona created by employees at the Internet Research Agency, a “troll farm” funded by the Russian government, according to information released by the House Intelligence Committee back in November.

Abrams’ account was unwittingly promoted by newsrooms and reporters looking to create posts based around the real-time social media response to breaking news events. In one instance, news organizations highlighted a tweet she wrote about Kim Kardashian. Another that went viral was a tweet defending the Confederate flag.

With legitimate news agencies helping to spread fake information in the guide of a real person’s opinion, it’s no wonder Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year.

Americans are rightly worried about the news they’re reading being fake. According to a Pew Research Center study conducted following the 2016 election, 64 percent of adults think fake news stories cause a great deal of confusion, and 23 percent admitted having shared a fabricated story themselves—sometimes by mistake, and sometimes intentionally.

So, what can newsrooms do to protect themselves from sharing misinformation, Russian or otherwise?

Well, the first thing to consider is stop doing posts rounding-up what random people are saying on Twitter, unless you’ve either personally verified who the person is or are only using information from verified accounts. Proper sourcing remains as important on social media as it does speaking to people for a story, so both should be held to the same newsrooms standards in terms of verifying and authenticating information.

This is especially true with photos, which are easily manipulated or taken out of their original context to promote false information. Take for instance the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C. During just about every heavy downpour or storm on the East Coast, people will unsuspectingly share the same photo of soldiers guarding the tomb in the rain despite the fact that it was taken in September 2012. So establishing the origin of an image, confirming its location and the date and time it was taken and obtaining permission of the author remains essential if you’re going to source images from Twitter.

Plus, in almost every case, a story could be fleshed out more if a reporter actually makes contact with someone on Twitter. Even 280 characters is often not enough for people to properly flesh out their thoughts on Twitter, which leads to comments and ideas often being taken out-of-context by a reporter in a hurry to assemble a post. There’s also the missed opportunity of what you might have been able to uncover if you’d taken the time to simple DM or reply to a source.

One anecdote that has always stood with me was an incident experienced by Stephanie Brooks, then a journalism student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. The Toronto Star used a tweet she wrote on a local school’s decision to ban yoga pants, and despite that fact that Brooks knew Twitter’s terms of use before she started tweeting, it nevertheless took her off guard.

Brooks’ tweet was innocent enough, simply stating that “Every school should just have a uniform.” But in an essay she wrote for the Canadian Journalism Project, she outlined why relying on a quote from a platform that places brevity about all else can be problematic for reporters.

“The reporter—should she have contacted me—would have found out that as a student who has experience in almost every school system—public, homeschool, private—my time wearing a uniform was the best and the reasons why,” Brooks noted. “Would this information not have provided for a better, more enlightening story?”

As someone who uses Twitter everyday in my reporting, I understand that we’re all crunched for time, and as journalists we want to trust our instincts when it comes to what we use and don’t use from Twitter. But as the Jenna Abrams case points out, some of the speed bumps in the newsroom we view as hindrances might actually prevent us from doing the bidding of Russian agents in our reporting. 

Rob TornoeRob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Reach him at


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