Working the Net

| Written By:

Many journalists have abandoned reporting legwork and let their fingers do the walking: they are reproducing, sometime verbatim, anonymous content circulating on the web. In this article from The Seventh Eye, originally printed on February 28, 2007, Itai Rom and Maran Shiram, journalists for Globes, elaborate on this phenomenon. They address how these methods developed, why they are so appealing, and why information gathered on the Internet may be unreliable.

The people support the President. This, at least, is the message Motti Morel (Moshe Katzav's media advisor) attempted to convey the day after Katzav's famous "J'accuse" speech in late January. In an interview with Rino Tzror on Army Radio, Morel explained what his theory is based on: Whereas before the speech, 100% of the talkbacks on the Internet were against the President, afterwards they were evenly divided between supporters and opponents. "This is my only indicator," he stated. In an interview with The Marker (the economic supplement of Haaretz), he repeated the point, declaring that the purpose of the speech had been achieved "and there is one indicator of this—the talkbacks...We managed to change public opinion. The public now knows that the police and the media are not telling the truth."

With his remarks, this senior spin doctor set a new standard for public discourse in Israel: reliance on anonymous talkbacks as an acceptable barometer of the public mood—even if no one knows who stands behind them or how many people they represent (since anyone can put out hundreds of talkbacks from one keyboard). Those who, during the elections, dared to challenge the reliability of the polling organizations—which, despite everything, carry out their work on the basis of scientific/statistical parameters—have found a new cause.

Morel's interviewer did not question the credibility of this "indicator," and his words earned him a nice headline. It's doubtful that such an experienced media advisor would have chosen to make such a claim if the media itself had not chosen to grant legitimacy to the talkbacks and other anonymous Internet content and to use them as evidence of the prevailing mood, at times in place of flesh-and-blood interviewees.

The problem with this phenomenon is underscored by the fact that interested parties see talkbacks and forums as a major arena for influencing public opinion, and hence play an active role in them: In recent years, the press has revealed how politicians and companies hire individuals to post messages in forums and talkbacks with the aim of improving the image of their employers. Amir Oren, military commentator for Haaretz, recently reported that the office of Defense Minister Amir Peretz floated the idea of "operating a battery of women soldiers, as part of their compulsory service, to create covert 'talkbacks' on behalf of the Defense Minister," ultimately shelving it. Even if the President's men did not engage in this tactic, it's obvious that any party referred to in stories on Internet news sites can, based on the same principle, easily "prove" the public's support for himself by industriously typing away.

* * *

A week and a half after the murder of the young girl Tair Rada, the Saturday supplements of the papers gave blanket coverage to the event. The mysterious murder in the school washroom in Katzrin sparked countless theories as to the identity of the killer and led the media to explore the overall atmosphere in Katzrin, a city that is ordinarily at least as far from the heart of the media as it is geographically removed from the editorial offices of Tel Aviv. Correspondents were sent to sniff around, to get the locals and pupils to open up, and to report their feelings. Section B of Haaretz did not make do with the field piece by Lily Galili ("They Went to Sleep in Pleasantville and Woke Up in Twin Peaks," December 15, 2006), pairing it with an article by Uri Sabach ("How Does It Happen That a Child Gets Killed?"). The quotes reported by Sabach on the situation in Katzrin were much harsher than those brought by Galili, painting it as a city awash in youth violence and school drug use. In the debate over whether the killer was a pupil or an outside party, most of those quoted cast their votes in favor of the first possibility. "There are two sides," one of them maintained. "One side says that there is violence, and that's the side that's telling the truth. Only if someone pays attention to that side will they be able to find the killer! If you ask me, the killer is a pupil or pupils. This school is surrounded by violence...The other side says that there is no violence; that's the side that's trying to put the best face on things, that wants to keep up the 'good name' of the school and say that the killer came from outside, when it's so obvious that he came from among the pupils! I'm sorry if I'm accusing falsely, but that's what I think."

A reporter attempting to go back to that source today (after an indictment for murder was handed down against the school janitor Roman Zadorov) to check her position in light of subsequent developments, will find that it's no easy task. Indeed, even the journalist who wrote the article cannot stand by it—since the woman quoted above never spoke to him: She circulated her theories on the website of Rada's school, Nofei Golan. In fact, it's possible that the speaker is actually a man. Theoretically, one cannot rule out the possibility that these words were written by the killer himself, perhaps in an attempt to sway public opinion in a certain direction.

The ability to disseminate anonymous messages has been part of the Internet since its inception and is one of its primary characteristics, for better or for worse. Thanks to the Internet, important information that would not have come to light any other way is able to reach vast audiences. But at the same time, it churns out an inexhaustible supply of gossip and just plain nonsense, the publication of which is not overseen by anyone. The great advantage of the established press (both print and online) over independent Internet content is supposed to be that the information that appears is checked, edited, and backed by legal guidance—as opposed to the content disseminated in the various forums and talkbacks, which is not subject to oversight of any kind and thus has only negligible credibility. Except that little by little, instead of making use of its relative advantage to consolidate its standing as a supplier of reliable, verified information, the press is incorporating anonymous Internet content, which may or may not be reliable.

The aforementioned article in Haaretz was actually not an article but (as the subheading explained) "Excerpts from Postings in Internet Forums Following the Murder of the Young Girl Tair Rada." Quite apart from the matter of questionable reliability, in this instance the newspaper is supplying its readers with content that is devoid of any added value, since they can easily locate it on their own PC. (Rami Rotholtz, Features Editor at Haaretz, says that "the assumption is that this is a service. Not everyone uses the Internet.")

One of the dilemmas that has dogged the press since time immemorial is how it should relate to statements by sources that refuse to be quoted by name. The problems involved in quoting unnamed sources were treated extensively in issue no. 59 of the Seventh Eye, which described, inter alia, how an internal committee was established at the New York Times in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal and related that as a result of the committee's findings that anonymous sources were the factor most damaging to credibility, the paper directed its reporters to avoid excessive use of unattributed quotes and to press their sources, as much as possible, to speak "on record." But if the use of unidentified quotes whose source is known only to the reporter is problematic, all the more so the use of anonymous Internet quotes. Here, even the journalist him/herself does not know who he or she is quoting; consequently, he or she is unaware of the speaker's motives and unable to assess their degree of expertise in the issue under discussion or the extent of their seriousness.

* * *

The tendency of reporters to quote from material on the Internet is understandable: For one thing, the work is relatively easy. In the past, a reporter assigned to describe a certain occurrence was required to trudge into the field or, at the very least, to locate sources by telephone and persuade them to be interviewed. Today, by contrast, reporters can quickly google their way to reactions and impressions on just about any topic under the sun. An article in The Marker, for example ("Netanya Residents, Get Ready: Privatization of Public Transportation Is on Its Way to You," August 31, 2006), dealt with the public's complaints over the quality of public transportation in the cities where it was privatized, arguing that privatization "is also accompanied by a decline in the level of service." Once upon a time, a reporter might have needed to go to bus stops and interview users of public transportation, but today it's no longer necessary: not a single consumer was interviewed for the article. Instead, the reporter relied on "hundreds of talkbacks trailing after every article on the topic that appears on the Net," which together served as a "single testimony" on the situation. While the director of the Forum for Public Transportation and that of the Organization for Promotion of Transportation were interviewed by name for the article, much of the piece was devoted to quoting anonymous talkbacks, including claims directed against specific bus companies. The companies were asked to respond to the complaints of the distinguished talkback writers, who, as usual, remained anonymous.

An article in Haaretz dealing with restrictions on smoking in nightclubs ("Curtain of Smoke Comes Down," January 10, 2007) made the claim that most of the public sides with the smoking ban, and that "a sizeable number of music lovers admit that they stay away from clubs with live shows to avoid suffering from the smoke." How is this claim backed up? The article brings quotes from singers and club managers, but the public itself is represented by only one identified speaker who spoke with the reporter and a batch of postings to Internet forums by unknown parties. "Dozens of messages posted in recent months show that members of the forum are revolting against intolerable secondhand smoke," it was stated in support of this thesis. The problem with such "evidence" lies in the nature of the Internet and its users: First, one person can send dozens of messages, and there is no way of knowing how many people are actually behind these postings. Second, controversial issues often evoke responses from only one side of the battle. It's possible that those who object to smoking in clubs, for example, consider it more of a "burning issue" than those who support smoking, making the first group more eager to express their disapproval. And third, over-reliance on Internet users can lead to a gradual stifling of the voices of those who do not surf the Web, or alternatively, those who do use it but prefer not to enter the fray of virtual responses, finding it superficial and overly intense.

It seems that these characteristics actually make Internet content more attractive to journalists. Thanks to its anonymity and the lack of a need to stand behind it, this material has all the qualities that a journalist seeks in an interviewee: It's colorful, hard-hitting, highly "sexy," and often "bloody." A person being interviewed for a newspaper will generally be a lot more careful with his words. Finding Jewish interviewees who will express outright support for a return to the 1947 borders, for instance, is not necessarily easy; but quoting talkback writers in this vein is a lot less complicated. Thus, in an article in Makor Rishon on the ramifications of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip ("Let the IDF Sweat," September 8, 2005), Hagai Segal states that "the fruits of the disengagement are already growing on our tree." As evidence of the public's downfall, he brings the opinion of some "talkbacker" that "the partition plan of '47 is the fairest plan conceived to date." Segal also asserts, for some reason, that the anonymous poster is "unquestionably a Jew."

Of course Internet content can also be used wisely: Among the forum postings published by Haaretz regarding Tair Rada, there were also messages that were not anonymous, for example, one from Daniella Shaul, who writes: "When I think of how many times I worked hand in hand with the Golan Police so that things [meaning displays of violence among young people—the authors] wouldn't get into the local and national press, I feel like crying." A simple check reveals that there is indeed a resident of Katzrin by that name. Reading such a message makes one curious to get in contact with her and find out more about the "things" that were hushed up by the police, but this was not done.

The talkbacks are often a source of inspiration for news stories, particularly in the electronic media. The large number of talkbacks protesting the charge for access to Palmahim beach, for example, led to an article on the topic in Ynet (Yedioth Ahronoth's online paper) entitled "Where Do We Pay for Palmahim Beach?" (May 25, 2006) quoting complaints from the Green Party and Adam, Teva v'Din—the Israel Union for Environmental Defense. The greater public was represented by talkbackers "Omri from Nes Ziona" and "Motti from Rishon Lezion." As the Ynet article shows, the talkbacks led to an important effort to address a topic that has genuine—not just virtual—public significance. But there are still limitations to relying on monologues appearing on a computer screen; they will never be a substitute for voices on the ground. And it is the dialogue with the latter that can generate new stories and fresh angles.

Internet material does, however, offer a certain solution in cases where it is difficult to impossible to get to non-virtual interviewees: During the Second Lebanon War, for example, the Israeli media quoted extensively from Lebanese blogs, using them to describe the mood in Beirut. Extended excerpts from such postings were published separately in Haaretz, interspersed between articles. It can be argued that in a situation of this type, it made sense to quote the blogs owing to the objective difficulty for Israeli journalists to interview Lebanese citizens. But even if we choose to make use of blogs, it should be done in a more limited manner; here as well, interested parties can very easily start a blog that falsely reflects public sentiment. In practice, the Israeli press relied on Lebanese bloggers without reservation; in fact, it seems that the title "blogger" even enhanced the importance of the poster in the eyes of the editors. A headline in Haaretz in the first week of the war declared: "Lebanese Blogger: Fear of Civil War." It's hard to believe that a similar headline would appear quoting a random Lebanese citizen interviewed in the street.

Rami Rotholtz feels it is possible there is "arbitrary use" of Internet content, but "that's why there are editors. If a blogger describes destruction in Beirut in a penetrating way, I will make intelligent use of it. You have to use common sense. And the same thing with texts by bloggers from Katzrin. I see what is written and what I can take. It's not unethical: Bloggers are eye witnesses; it's an expression of the prevailing mood. During the war, bloggers published valuable news items." Using them on the news pages is out of bounds in his eyes, but in other sections "I use them to spice things up, not on a regular basis."

Could it be that in the case of Tair Rada, the chef who added the spice was acting on behalf of the killer?

"Could someone have fabricated the postings? Yes. But overall, the descriptions fit what I saw in the photos. This wasn't exclusive information from a place we didn't know. Uri Sabach was asked to quote material from the Web. I'm opposed to mixing information from bloggers with news stories, but I see a purpose in taking excerpts by themselves and using them alongside an article, as an indication of people's feelings. I would not take a talkback and publish it on the front page of Haaretz."

An article in Maariv dealing with Internet addiction ("Can't Stop," February 19, 2006) actually served as a concrete illustration of the problem. The piece included quotes from experts on Internet addiction; but the examples of people experiencing this phenomenon firsthand (with the exception of one anonymous interviewee) were all contributors to Tapuz forums with screennames like "cameraaddict," "prettywoman," and "the1Einat." A poster on the BanaNot site, referred to as "brenda," even earned a pull-quote highlighting her words.

Dror Globerman (editor of Maariv's high-tech section), who oversaw the article, justifies the reliance on these sources: "The article doesn't quote talkbackers but regular posters. When a person belongs to a certain forum, he's a fixed person with a fixed username. It's true I don't know what his real name is, but it's someone whose personality is there in his postings. He makes relevant comments. He's not someone who reacts and runs."

Doesn't this encourage reporters to get lazy and quote Internet users instead of "real" interviewees?

"I agree that the quality and credibility are lower than in an interview with a flesh-and-blood person, but it's not the same as a talkback. When a member of a forum repeatedly uses the name 'brenda,' it's her. The name is taken. There are lots of messages with that name, and they're all hers. It's not a person who writes 'david beitar fan,' where you don't know who he is."

One of the real-life interviewees for the article, a social worker, analyzed the dangers inherent in the virtual world: "If you have a date in reality, you've got to dress up, go out, sit in a café, smile, pay attention to your date—it's tiring. Here, this isn't the case...The ease of access, the illusion that there's always another relationship you can be in, all have addictive potential."

It seems that the same holds true for journalists as well: If you're looking for people to interview in reality, you have to go out into the field, persuade them, get them talking, listen to them—it's tiring. With the Internet, the situation is different: the accessibility, the illusion that there's always another Web user out there who can supply insightful remarks, creates the potential for addiction. 

Itai Rom and Matan Shiram are journalists for the financial daily Globes.