You have a Facebook account. I know this because everyone has a Facebook account. And you are a journalist. I know this because you are reading the Columbia Journalism Review. Given these facts, it’s safe to assume you’ve heard about graph search, Facebook’s new functionality that allows you to filter users by what they like, where they live, and other data points. We’re all searchable: A month before unveiling graph search, Facebook removed the feature that allows users to opt out of public search. Want out? You’ll have to get rid of your account altogether.
Graph search is new—most users don’t even have access to the beta version yet. (Sign up for the waiting list here.) But because the Internet is a wonderful place, there’s already a Tumblr blog that publishes screenshots of audacious graph search results. Tom Scott, the blog’s creator, wrote on his site, “I’m not sure I’m making any deeper point about privacy: I think, at this point, we’re basically all just rubbernecking — myself included. Facebook does have good privacy settings: but there are many, many people who don’t know how to use them!”
This makes Facebook an appealing, easy reporting tool, even without graph search—a quick search of public Facebook posts provides an embarrassment of anecdotal riches. Whether it’s finding Democrats complaining about their Republican spouses in the run-up to the presidential election, or the relatives of crime victims after a school shooting, publicly searchable Facebook posts have become a routine part of reporting for many journalists. Graph search just makes it even easier.
In the old days, reporters actually had to call up friends and friends-of-friends to populate a trend story with anecdotes.
These days, the question is, what do we owe the Facebook users, who may or may not understand that their posts and comments are public? Is it like quoting something overheard on the street or at a public event? Or is it more like eavesdropping on a conversation at a private party—a situation that isn’t declared “off the record,” mostly because people aren’t thinking about the fact that journalists are around?
Ultimately, the burden is on social media users to understand what is and isn’t public. But the burden is on journalists to verify that those users are real people and to check the facts. Usually that means following up with the users who posted the facts, which means disclosing to them—through a direct message or Facebook mail—that you’re planning on quoting them. (Sure, online sources can lie, but so can sources you interview in person.) Most will probably be surprised that a reporter can see their posts at all.
But even if users don’t grant permission to a journalist to quote something posted publicly on Facebook, if the facts check out, it’s fair game. The same issues are in play whether reporters find their sources through the new graph search or savvy use of existing search technology or by listening to a conversation in person. What’s new? Graph search is merely a friendlier format—and the conversation around it illustrates how valuable a resource social media can be in finding quotes, sources, and anecdotes. Now style section reporters can search for “Park Slope moms who have started pilates businesses in their homes” rather than simply ask around at the Coop.