The latest in my series of FAQ posts comes from a current MA Online Journalism student, who is writing an article for a German publication.
How has the use of user-generated content from social media changed over the last years in the UK?
The use of UGC from social media has changed enormously in the UK in the last decade. Obviously many of the platforms didn’t even exist a decade ago, so we’ve moved from quoting emails to taking screenshots, to a situation now where it’s common to embed live social media content which users can interact with from the article itself – whether that’s to share, like, follow, or respond.
One of the biggest factors in this shift has been changes in the content management systems (CMS) used by news organisations. In the past it was difficult enough for a journalist to add a link to a story, but there’s been a lot of pressure to improve those systems to make the integration of UGC easier, and that’s yielded some impressive results, at least at the national level.
Large news events have played a role too. Many news organisations felt that they were not prepared enough for the UGC coming out of the July 7 2007 bombings — but the use of social media by celebrities and public figures has also been a big driver.
When did newsrooms start focusing on verification skills and tools?
With the increased use of UGC there’s also been an increasing interest in verification skills, particularly led by organisations like the BBC who established their UGC unit in the wake of the July 7 2007 bombings and were obviously very keen to ensure they did not publish material which was false.
The sorts of practices used within that unit have spread into the wider industry.
Organisations have also become more interested in verification thanks to the work of people like Eliott Higgins who have used OSINT and verification techniques as a proactive newsgathering technique, rather than just a reactive one.
What role do you think user-generated content from social media will play for the future of journalism?
I think in many ways we have moved from a focus on UGC as eyewitness material, to a focus on UGC as a quick way to quote public figures.
Public events now are just as likely – if not more likely – to be accompanied by UGC reactions from public figures rather than people who were actually there.
We’ve also moved towards a semi-automated approach to UGC: services like Dataminr and Storyful serve to alert journalists to UGC which is potentially newsworthy within parameters set by the reporter, rather than journalists purely relying on networks that they’ve curated manually, as used to be the case.
In that sense we need to be careful about the algorithms that are used to judge newsworthiness, and how passive we become as newsgatherers. It’s encouraging to see news organisations building their own alerts tools, for example.
I expect that automation to continue, and for artificial intelligence to take on a more active role in that.
Machine learning will increasingly decide what journalists need to know about what’s being shared on social media, and again I think that’s something we need to think carefully about.
The third major development is that social media is now much more widely used, and increasingly weaponised.
How important will verification skills and the development of new verification tools be for future journalists and newsrooms?
The revelation that over 2700 Twitter accounts were part of a Russian ‘troll army’ – and that those accounts had been cited more than 80 times in the British media – should be a wake up call to journalists when it comes to verification.
Again it is likely that machine learning will play a role in helping journalists – or third party services like Dataminr – identify and flag suspicious accounts.
But we also need to acknowledge that we are working on the battlefield of an information war, and equip ourselves accordingly.