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Rumor & news: How free-floating media becomes suspicious explosive objects

There are several daily examples of lazy journalism that involves “cut and paste” from Google or Twitter

paris attacks, paris terror attacks, paris attacks media, paris attacks twitter, journalism, media, media and rumours International media park their satellite trucks on the main square in the suburb of Molenbeek, after security was tightened in Belgium following the fatal attacks in Paris on Friday, in Brussels, Belgium (Reuters photo)

In the age of advanced and evolving social media and digital news platforms, any global event unfolds simultaneously in several spaces – at the place of its occurrence, in local neighborly conversations, in rumors around the city, national television news and globally in live media streams being captured and simultaneously transmitted in the form of real time audio, video and text. As the pace of news circulation increases, the differential time between the actual happening, its transmission and media staging and eventual responses to the event all shrink significantly.

As witnessed very recently in the deadly and unfortunate terror attacks in Paris, within an hour of the actual attack, we were watching and reading all of the following things together – a live feed of the ongoing hostage situation at the Bataclan theatre, an invocation of the other attack at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, circulation of random videos and images about riots in other parts of Paris as well as old and new tweets from world leaders about the refugee situation in Europe.

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On three different occasions when I shared a photo, video and tweet about other incidents of terror, I was immediately corrected by people who pointed me to the original sources of those objects. The infamous Donald Trump tweet promoting guns after the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015 suddenly started getting shared again. Then people quickly pointed out its original date and corrections followed. Similarly, the fire in a migrant camp in Calais had no apparent connection to the ongoing Paris attacks and that famous peace sign picture of Paris was not made by the artist Banksy (here’s a list of all the rumors).

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While some rumors and out-of-context pictures may not cause so much harm as they are swept away in news media cycles, some others contribute to strengthen and shape wrongly formed public opinions. For instance, as famous news satire host John Oliver illustrated, American news channel Fox News blindly used a 2010 video of a Muslim group in France found on YouTube to talk about radical Islamism among Syrian refugees coming to Europe. This is among the many daily examples of lazy journalism that involves “cut and paste” from Google or Twitter. This problem, however, hasn’t started from and isn’t limited to global militancy and news regimes. The problem of provenance in the digital realm is a larger and older one.

Wikipedia defines provenance as “the chronology of the ownership, custody or location of a historical object”. While historically provenance was used to answer the who, what, when and why questions about a work of art, with the evolution of computer science and related fields, data provenance has become an important field of concern. In the context of digital provenance are included things like metadata (data about data), photo credits to authors, source of a video, upload information, technical details about the format of the object and so on.

Not just in critical times, loss of provenance also affects the quality of daily information exchange. Listicles (Articles like “10 things only an Indian will understand”) in a post-Buzzfeed and ScoopWhoop world (in the Indian context) have become a dominant form within journalism and they are here to stay. Broadly, user generated content (stuff that you submit as a reader) has become integral to television and print news reportage.

Often, images submitted on Twitter, Reddit, Imgur and other peer-to-peer forums lose their provenance quickly. Even on Facebook, we often just save images we like and pass them on. Once uploaded to Facebook, all the contextual data of a photograph is stripped off, making it an “orphaned” image. In its early days, content aggregators like BuzzFeed and others were often charged with plagiarism because they used images without crediting the original author. Once an image reaches Reddit and someone makes a meme, it is impossible to attribute the author every time it is used (Buzzfeed had over 130 million unique visitors in November 2013).

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Both the scenarios discussed above tell us about the underlying infrastructure on which our digital interactions happen in the times of crisis and otherwise. Anthropologist Brian Larkin states that infrastructures are useful in revealing how exchange of ideas, affect and goods happens over distance and binds people into communities through shared viewing, hearing or consumption of goods. In that regard, the materiality of the web – the protocols we use, metadata standards as well as the ways in which web services handle data; all shape the lives of information objects on the internet. And as users, while real crises unfold in physical geographies, we all participate in them through extended affective geographies – those created and served to us through audio-visual and textual extensions of physical events by various media forms.

Decontextualised, isolated, free-floating media objects then also become the “suspicious” explosive objects of our digitally mediated world. The absence of attribution, media sources and the ever-increasing pace of media sharing and circulation – all significantly hamper trustworthiness of online information.

First published on: 19-11-2015 at 01:19:38 pm
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