Remember citizen journalism? The early-2000s idea that one day the widespread use of smartphones and internet technologies would lead to a democratisation of the media and an end to the elite?
Whatever happened to that?
For those commenting at the time, citizen journalism was the defining buzzword of the era. Having been let down by the false promises of the dotcom boom, internet pundits saw the proliferation of free blogging platforms, social media sites and smartphone technology as setting the stage for a whole new age of internet optimism.
Despite all its supposed potential, the following ten years would see the fiction of citizen journalism worn down and slowly replaced with the realities of ad-funded media and the web’s new model of attention economics.
Now, the buzzwords of the early 2000s have been substituted with much less optimistic alternatives. To talk about internet commentary is to talk about clickbait, trolling and the rise of Fake News. Notions of transparency and decentralised ownership are behind us. Which simply leaves the question, what went wrong?
The personal printing press
In 1960 the American journalist A.J. Liebling wrote that “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” What Liebling meant by this statement was that, in the harsh realities of the market, it was only those rich and powerful enough to manufacture a book or a newspaper whose opinions could truly be heard.
Unknown to Liebling at the time, this pithy comment would provide the rallying cry for a new generation of citizen journalists over forty years later.
Quoted by internet pundits, technologists and journalists, A.J. Liebling’s criticism of traditional media would help to inspired a demand for technologies that allowed users to create their own content – with the vision of one day allowing anyone to “own” their own printing press and distribute their own news.
Whether through the proliferation of blogs, the rise of social media or even the use of personalised GeoCities pages, the internet was pegged to finally turn the whole process of journalism on its head.
As with so many “disruptive” internet technologies however, the appeal of citizen journalism lay in its ability to cut out middlemen and to attack the very notion of “professionalism”.
In the same way that Google has lifted information from the hands of fusty academics and Uber has broken the black cab monopoly (or so we thought), citizen journalism was about prying “the truth” away from professional reporters and placing it in the hands of the wider population.
One of the oldest mantras of internet freedom is the idea that as long as people are provided with access to the right tools, anyone can achieve anything they want. If a person wants to learn a new language, they can simply download an app. If they want to work out how to repair their own car, they can watch a video online.
And, if they want to become a journalist, they can simply buy a smartphone or start a blog. That is the vision of the internet age; that in order to call yourself a “professional” there is no longer any need to jump through the antiquated hoop of acquiring, honing or mastering a particular skill.
By refusing to acknowledge that true expertise requires more than just access to information, citizen journalists failed to adopt the ethical standards and codes of responsibility that had long been entrenched within the profession of journalism.
Citizen journalism rapidly became citizen speculation, with bloggers and self-proclaimed reporters increasingly reporting their own, ill-researched versions of the truth.
A manhunt in Boston
While there have been numerous examples of citizen-driven reporting failing to accurately capture the truth, the now infamous story of the Boston manhunt remains one of earliest, and clearest examples of why accurate reporting cannot be entrusted to the internet mob.
Following the detonation of two pressure cooker bombs during the Boston marathon in April 2013, Twitter, Reddit and the wider blogosphere went into a frenzy of speculative reporting.
Relying on a combination of hearsay, speculation and photoshopped imagery, bloggers and citizen journalists identified the culprit as Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who had been missing since March 2013.
As the internet mob jumped on this unfounded speculation Sunil’s family was subjected to a barrage of threats, questions and abuse. As the news spread that Twitter and Reddit had identified a potential suspect, US talk radio host Greg Hughes tweeted: “Journalism students take note: tonight, the best reporting was crowdsourced, digital and done by bystanders.”
Sunil was of course innocent. As was Salah Barhoum, the second bystander who was unlucky enough to be identified as the culprit by the internet mob.
This incident was the first of many examples of citizen journalists opting for hearsay over in-depth research and dangerous speculation over hard facts.
Without the editorial expectations or legal consequences involved in working for a traditional news outlet, citizen journalists ran riot with the truth. What started as a democratisation of the media ultimately resulted in a near total blurring of fact and fiction online. News and opinion became one and the same thing.
Fake News is the future
Following numerous examples of disastrous amateur reporting online, many assumed that citizen journalism simply wouldn’t survive. As noble as its ambitions had been, the reality was that it took more than just access to a smartphone to turn someone into an effective journalist.
Rather than citizen journalism learning from traditional media outlets however, the opposite happened. A growing number of traditional journalists began to mimic the approach of those reporting online.
In an age when clicks and shares define an organisation’s bottom line, many of the sites now associated with the rise of “Fake News” began to realise that a strong narrative is more compelling – and by extension more important – than the fusty values of the fourth estate.
Citizen journalism helped prove to these organisations that receiving an immediate answer was more important to the average internet user than hearing a long-winded debate. Facts gave way to a first-on-the-scene mentality, a mentality that is now spreading throughout ever more of our political and journalistic discourse.
Citizen journalism helped to define the new era of amateur internet reporting. It taught us that being involved is more important than being an expert; that being first is more important than being thorough; and that being sharable, is more important than being right.