I wrote a similar post yesterday but had so many problems getting it to work right, I accidentally deleted it. So, I decided to rewrite it today for the Carnival of Journalism. This month, the carnival is being hosted by Bryan over at Innovation in College Media.
One of the problems of new journalism is the way the internet brings people together. Sure, we can now find sources using all sorts of social networking sites, message boards, and chatrooms. A quick search on Google can bring up organizations dedicated to topics ranging from knitting to raising money for stem cell research to any number of illegal activities. The thing is, there is too much information out there for journalists to handle, and many reporters take what’s happening in the cyber world at its face value.
Take the world-wide protests of Scientology on February 10 by the group Anonymous.
The Church of Scientology would like the world to view the loosely organized group of individuals known as Anonymous as a bunch of cyberterrorists who are a threat to national security. However, this isn’t the case, mainly because Anonymous isn’t a structured group or club.
The Anonymous video message to Scientology is ominous.
However, so far, the protests and a few Scientology sites crashing have been the extent of the Anonymous reign of terror. Institutions across the world probably wish terrorist attacks by other “terrorist organizations” were as civil as the Anonymous campaign.
In terrorist organizations, members of opposing factions are demonized; however, this is not the case with Anonymous. They chose their day of protest to coincide with the birthday of Lisa McPherson, a member of Scientology whose death was linked to insufficient care provided by the church. And, as much as Scientology would like to warn us about members of Anonymous, Anonymous has issued messages against harming members of Scientology.
The Church of Scientology is gearing up for a difficult fight, where the most they can do is investigate individual attacks against their web space and real space (if anyone bothers to harm a physical location or person). Casting the group as a hate group will also be difficult, because the group isn’t against Scientology but against a church that forces members to continue to buy church products to get ahead to have tax-free status, and against the church’s practice of fervently acting to silence their opponents.
A member of Anonymous I talked to the other day stated it is these businesslike practices and bullying nature of the church that bothers Anonymous as a whole. Like many members of the group, he is in his mid-twenties, is well-versed in the world of the internet and doesn’t want the outside world to know who he is and the part he plays in the organization. (In his own words, he merely keeps up with Anonymous, although he was at the Clearwater protest.) And, like many Anonymous members, he won’t give his name for publication.
In another video post, the reasons for the protest are described much better than I could state them:
In a world where disclosure matters, how do we write convincing and interesting content about an invisible source? How do we cover Anonymous, or a young woman on an eating disorder board who doesn’t want her name showing up in print, or a group of graffiti artists evading the police?
Video helps. Some groups and individuals wear disguises, and there are ways of blocking out faces and distorting voices in pre and post editing stages of filming. However, these present their own ethical problems which individual reporters and news organizations should take into account.
In the case of Anonymous, individual protesters have stated many times they are worried about retribution from the church. In a similar case, I would recommend tracking down a spokesperson who doesn’t mind having their face and voice recorded, if at all possible.
If personal identification isn’t in the cards, put as much detail into their online personality as possible. Screen names and avatars are a good idea, as well as publishing screen shots of actual conversations belonging to a source. It is a very bad idea to write a story only based on an online source who refuses to be named. They may have unknown motives as to why they wish to remain in the shadows. And, while it is possible to find out who is posting what from IP addresses, many people access the internet from school, work, internet cafes, and libraries, which makes correct identification that much harder.
Don’t promise more than you can deliver. If the police come knocking at your door, you may have to give up your source, especially if they are suspected of a crime. Give your source a clear definition of what you can and can’t do for them, then stick with it. Once you’ve proven you’re untrustworthy as a reporter, the trust is gone, period.
Realize that on the internet, a group of people working together isn’t the same as it is in the real world. If a member of Anonymous did resort to physical terrorism, the investigation would have to be focused on individuals, not the organization itself. Because there is no central leadership, there is no one person calling the shots. Instead, one person might post an idea or call to action on a message board, and watch it go viral. This is a lot different than organizing in the past, because members of loosely based groups don’t have to worry about arguments with leaders, proximity problems, or activities taking up their resources. Instead, they’re only expected to help out as much as they want to. One group member might only involve him/herself to the point of responding to forum posts, while another may deluge a site with information until the servers crash. It’s going to be interesting to see how laws and investigations bend to the will of the virtual world as the borders between reality and virtual reality blur in the years to come.