Trump, Musk and the journalistic battle against online trolls

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg, via Getty Images

Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal tells the tale of how some newspaper stories get written. When Trump Tower was under construction, Trump, according to the book, called up a gossip reporter to claim that Prince Charles and Princess Diana were about to buy an apartment in the building.

Buckingham Palace, as a matter of policy, never comments for this type of story—meaning that for a certain kind of reporter keen on a certain kind of story, the tip is a tempting one even if they suspect it’s almost certainly not true.

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Experienced reporters get used to working out this kind of trade: We understand that PR people and others have their own agenda when they give us information, and we weigh the ethics of using it. We might decide that we’re happy to run a story sourced from a short-seller who won’t go on the record provided they can provide good evidence for their claims, for example. Or, by contrast, we may decide some rumors are too outlandish or openly self-serving to run with; in the most extreme scenarios, we may decide not to share a particularly implausible slander if we suspect we are being used. Different outlets and reporters will arrive at different conclusions, but we understand that we’re making trade-offs.

Much of this thoughtfulness goes out the door when it comes to reporting events that begin on social media. Journalists appear to lose the ability to make those reasoned trade-offs altogether when working with material that originates or develops online, as if the fact that something’s already been published, even on Twitter, gives it more authority than it otherwise deserves.

 

Musk is both a CEO and a troll. In going directly to the public via social media, and saying ridiculous things, he’s able to shape the online conversation, circumvent some internal checks on his power.

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When the president of the United States tweets threatening messages at Iran or North Korea, the White House press corps treats the tweets as a serious statement of US policy. But that kind of attention is often not merited, at least with this president, who tweets constantly and, often, erroneously. He has tweeted on multiple occasions that the Mueller investigation should be ended, but has done nothing to make it so. He tweeted that the US had not signed the G7 summit communique, and US officials went on to sign it. And on and on.

When people tweet, they often do so with their own political, financial, or corporate motivations—just as people often do when they’re calling a reporter on the phone to talk about the royals moving into their apartment building.  Or, as in the more recent case of Elon Musk, when they tweet that they’re thinking of taking their company private for $420 a share, they have motivations not just for putting that information out there, but also for doing it in that way. While Musk has since talked to The New York Times about the stress of leading Tesla—prompting concerns over his tweets—it’s also been widely noted that he has a visceral dislike of short-sellers, who were (initially, at least) badly hit by his online sideswipe.

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Thus, Musk is both a CEO and a troll. In going directly to the public via social media, and saying ridiculous things, he’s able to shape the online conversation, circumvent some internal checks on his power—like his board and lawyers—and know that there’s an eager chorus of online fans online to support his position.

The interesting question for reporters is this: If Musk had called them up, and mused about the benefits of taking Tesla private, as opposed to tweeting about it in an open forum, would the story have been handled in the same way? Should it have?

It’s not just politicians and CEOs who are able to seize the news agenda by setting the online conversation: everyone from QAnon believers on the far right to the British left-wing know how to drive mainstream media conversation, too.

 

For too long we have treated celebrities on the internet as though social media is their heartfelt diary, and people on the internet as if they are a man-in-the-street vox pop. They’re not.

 

This month, for instance, UK political coverage spent several days debating calls for the resignation of Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, following a trending hashtag campaign. But analysis by Gizmodo suggests that perhaps it shouldn’t have merited quite as much attention as it received. The hashtag, started by a partially pseudonymous activist account, “Rachael Swindon,” saw around 86,000 tweets in total from around 1,300 accounts. In practice, just 121 accounts were responsible for more than 22,000 tweets—likely enough to push the topic to trend. A protest of 121 people in a street would not even merit an inside-page news in brief for many UK papers. That relatively small numbers managed to generate dozens of lengthy articles across the media shows we do still have a credulity problem.

For too long we have treated celebrities on the internet as though social media is their heartfelt diary, and people on the internet as if they are a man-in-the-street vox pop. They’re not. The internet, and especially social media, are full of savvy operators who are using it – and us – to spread messages with their own agendas. And journalists fall into their trap, time and time again; something about online messaging turns off our reporting instincts.

So, how, then, to deal with Musk, Trump, or other online manipulators? Given that we have a president who often treats his White House like the latest series of his reality TV show, and we have CEOs like Elon Musk who do much the same, reporters need to change the way they see social-media content. We need to remember that journalism is now, as it’s alway been, something people try to game, which means we need to ask ourselves a  few important questions: Have we done enough work to make sure we know what the agenda might be – and if not, should the story be published at all? Is the piece important enough (or at least interesting enough) to your audience to justify furthering the agenda of the people who want you to push it?

Yes, journalists are being played online. But journalists have been played for generations, and we’re not passive pawns in this game. We just need to remember that the game is on, and respond appropriately, like we always have.

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James Ball is a journalist and author based in London, UK. His latest book is Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered The World.