If you've been near social media news sites in the past few hours, you may have just witnessed an unusual and worrying example of what happens when 'citizen journalism' goes wrong and the dangers of relying on single sources for information.
To be clear, I am a huge supporter of citizen journalism, which is why it's disappointing when things like this happen as it potentially exposes the flaws in such an approach to production and distribution of the news. Within the space of of a few hours, a potentially damaging story began circulating online following a post on Mike Arrington's 'UnCrunched'. The story concerned an American Airlines Flight had been grounded and a passenger had been blocked from updating Twitter. They were then forced to switch to Facebook instead:
The story, which involved a passenger on board that had to be restrained, then began to be picked up on other tech blogs, referencing the fact that American Airlines had apparently blocked Twitter. The only problem is that within less than an hour of Business Insider publishing the story, they then issued a quickly revised article. It turns out that instead of American Airlines blocking Twitter, the site was actually just down:
In this case, the passenger herself wrote an update instantly, claiming that the original headline was wrong as American Airlines couldn't have blocked Twitter, and that it turned out the site was just unavailable at that time.
The problem with a case like this (and for clarity, Mike Arrington's post had few concrete facts, instead referencing 'apparently' being shut down), is that there will have no doubt been some immediate damage done to American Airlines off the back of this and they are seemingly faultless. It takes a few people to read the original article before spreading the story offline and online. Before you know it, an inaccuracy starts to get circulated in a big way.
This is an inherent risk of citizen or online journalism. There is a need to react faster to potential news stories, to provide people with information as immediately as possible. With this comes a change of process from the producer/distributor of a news story and a need to be constantly reactive to the situation as it changes, as well as circulating the new, correct information as quickly as possible.
The evidence of the danger can be seen on the original article on Uncrunched, which is still gaining comments in relation to the original story, rather than the clarified version. While the implications of damage to a brand are far less severe than what might happen during a national crisis or disaster situation for example, this example shows that citizen journalism still has a way to go before it can function effectively and without consequence.