When Elon Musk first mentioned the term “citizen journalism” last year, it seemed like just another attention-grabbing attempt at self-validation. Yet, in the same way that the bizarre, almost comical unfolding of events that led to Musk becoming the CEO of Twitter reflected the changing nature of social media, so too did Musk as a self-identifying “citizen journalist” point to the changing nature of who is considered a news source.
As indicated by Musk, Twitter’s vision is to pursue “the goal of elevating citizen journalism”. He added that, “Mainstream media will still thrive, but increased competition from citizens will cause them to be more accurate”. Ironically, what has happened to Twitter since Musk’s announcement, is a gradual erosion of accuracy. The inaccuracy of information that is propagated by citizen journalists, particularly those with a political bias, poses a threat to T&T that if left unaddressed will continue to erode our ability to filter out what counts as news and who is considered a reliable source.
Citizen journalism refers to the dissemination and analysis of news by the general public. Twitter was once the go-to platform for news happening in real time because it allowed verified journalists to let the world know of the latest news. The key word here is ‘verified’ because, while the general public could have always also tweeted about the latest news, a user’s verified status, indicated by that coveted blue check mark next to one’s username, was an indication that Twitter had confirmed the identity of the owner thus giving them credibility since they could no longer be impersonated.
Now that users have to pay for the check-mark without having to be verified, virtually anyone can tweet ‘news’. Additionally, those with a blue check mark will have more visibility than those without one. The changes to Twitter in the name of ‘citizen journalism’, instead of levelling the playing field as Musk intended, have actually made it increasingly unreliable for disseminating news.
While in Trinidad Twitter hasn’t had the same appeal as in the US, another social media platform, Facebook, seems the place for our citizen journalists to exert their influence. Facebook, however, is arguably worse. The social media’s repeated shortcomings at effectively stamping out the spread of misinformation was underscored this past February when Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman, Mark R Warner, openly criticised Meta, the parent company of Facebook, for its inability to combat the spread of misinformation, hate speech and incitement content not just in the US but around the world.
Add unverified citizen journalists to Facebook’s existing incompetence at controlling such content and you have a recipe for disaster made worse with unnecessary sauce. In Trinidad we may not be on the brink of a US January 6 Capital Riot, an event whistleblower Frances Haugen described as being exacerbated by Donald Trump on Facebook. However, as long as the public does not exercise good judgment with following citizen journalists, there will continue to be the risk of being misled and manipulated.
At this point, I’ll be deliberately vague about one citizen journalist in particular to avoid further exposure to their already detrimental vitriol. Because this news source has amassed a considerable audience, what they say carries even greater consequences.
While defenders of citizen journalism will point to freedom of speech, that freedom should never be manipulated in such a way that is misguidedly saucy and incendiary just for the sake of it.
While traditional media houses are not blameless in appealing to our ‘picong’ culture, citizen journalists go a step too far. Because they are not held accountable in an organisational structure they are at liberty to frame news in any way that they consider most engaging. Often, their desperate need to improve visibility through increased engagement with their content leads them to exaggerate or bend what is factual.
As citizens, they also have no obligation to present news in an unbiased manner. This disproportional disregard for providing – and I really cannot stress this enough - reliable and balanced information is manifested in citizen journalists who are paid by political parties. Within the past three years, Dr Roodal Moonilal and Khadijah Ameen are just two members of the UNC who have issued pre-action protocol letters to a citizen journalist who will continue to be unnamed.
Last year, the Ministry of Finance revealed that this citizen journalist was an independent contractor “to the Ministry of Finance in the areas of Events Planning and Communications”. For those with existing biases that are firmly fixed along partisan lines, citizen journalists who are themselves biased will have little impact. However, for the non-partisan public and younger voters who might be easier influenced, these citizen journalists need to be guided by integrity. For those without any integrity in providing unbiased news, the responsibility falls on the public to be guided by common sense and sound judgment.
Our local politicians can also play a key role in reducing the influence of citizen journalists by holding Facebook accountable to its porous algorithms that make it possible for news to be disseminated by virtually anyone. Similar to the German government which in 2021 openly criticised Facebook’s lack of control involving the inability to remove content by German extremist groups, so too should our Government be open about the social harm that is inadvertently or deliberately encouraged by Facebook.
This is not about censorship, it is about a sensible approach to controlling citizen journalism before it becomes uncontrollable.
The author is a
PhD Candidate & Teaching Associate
Department of English
College of Humanities & Fine Arts
University of Massachusetts, Amherst