- False news tweeted by a crypto site roiled markets this week.
- The incident highlights the changing nature of news and who will pay for it.
- Google has shifted the incentive structures of media, says one SEO expert.
Robert Holloway is DL News’ ombudsman. Opinions expressed are his own.
Journalists are always under pressure to be first with the news. That pressure has always been there, “ever since the start of journalism,” said Malcolm Coles, a search engine optimisation expert in London.
“That’s partly due to the inherent trait in journalism to be the one who breaks the story,” he told me by phone from London. “What’s different now are the rewards you get for being first.”
“Google News rewards you by giving extra visibility to your story; if you are the first person picked up by social media, your story gets more widely circulated.”
These dynamics may have been at play on October 16.
That’s the day that crypto site Cointelegraph tweeted that the US Securities and Exchange Commission approved BlackRock’s application for a Bitcoin exchange-traded fund — news that crypto investors have anticipated and hoped for for a long time.
If approved, it would make it easier for retail investors to trade with the digital asset.
Within minutes, the tweet ended up appearing in mainstream news feeds. But, it should be noted, most — if not all — other crypto media sites resisted the pressures to do so.
Bitcoin’s price surged some 10% to $30,000, but fell again after BlackRock said the information was untrue.
While he has no doubt that reporters and editors have a duty to prioritise accuracy over speed, Peter Cunliffe-Jones, a visiting researcher at Westminster University, London, noted the powerful incentive to do otherwise since the emergence of social media.
“Advertising revenue that would previously have gone to media organisations, operating to editorial codes of conduct, has often switched to those able to attract the biggest audiences, regardless of quality,” he told DL News.
‘For the publisher, the main way they can boost revenue is to get more people reading articles, which leads to the pressure to be first. Being first means more page views, which means more ad slots are being filled and seen, which means more revenue.’— SEO expert Malcolm Coles
Coles explained that this has led to “a kind of divorce” between the publishing and the advertising sides.
“For the publisher, the main way they can boost revenue is to get more people reading articles, which leads to the pressure to be first. Being first means more page views, which means more ad slots are being filled and seen, which means more revenue,” he said.
Most systems are automated, he said. “The ad slots are filled in real time, based on the site and the reader, which is why a lot of the ads on crypto sites are about crypto.”
Almost all crypto sites depend on advertising for revenue.
“The industry is somewhat bar-belling,” said Trista Kelley, DL News editor in chief.
“On one end are traffic models that want your eyeballs at all costs — on the extreme side we’d see headlines like ‘Is Meghan Markle a terrorist?’ And at the other end is what we would call good journalism, a lot of which is paywalled. The in-between is hollowing out, filled by nonprofits like ProPublica or donation models like The Guardian,” she said.
“Crypto has long been on the traffic end. And it still remains to be seen if anyone will pay for crypto news.”
Websites employ SEO consultants to ensure that both the content and the technical set-up of the website maximises visibility in Google.
But, Coles cautioned, “SEO shouldn’t override journalism best practice. You’re just gossiping or acting as someone’s mouthpiece if all you do is republish something.”
Cunliffe-Jones, a veteran journalist and researcher of disinformation, noted the danger in trusting social media.
“The companies doing most to promote false information to the wider public this century are the major online and social media companies,” he told DL News.
This created “new means for both private individuals and institutions to distribute information and, in most cases, relatively little to moderate what is posted on grounds of falsity,” he added.
Social media has had an enormous positive impact, notably in promoting freedom of speech. Too often, it also has a very ugly side.
The power and reach of social media can be both good and bad. Journalists should be aware that while social media offers them a powerful tool, it must be wielded with care.
To its credit, Cointelegraph promptly deleted the tweet, apologised to its readers and promised to share with them the results of its internal investigation into what went wrong.
Within hours, it issued an admirably frank and clear explanation.
Its social media team had “posted a message on X without prior editorial approval,” it said. The tweet was “false, the result of misinformation”.
In contrast, Cointelegraph’s editor in chief Kristina Lucrezia Cornèr told a panel discussion in Dubai, broadcast live on X:
“This is what happens when we are having constant pressures to be the first with every news,” she said. “This is not a problem of journalism per se; it is a problem of the society, and of the technology. I’m talking about Google. I’m talking about social media where if you’re not the first, you’re the last; there is no second, third, etcetera, and this is a big problem.”
Her remarks contradicted her company’s editorial guidelines.
Cointelegraph’s statement said that “in an effort to publish the developments as soon as possible,” an employee “posted the report to X without prior confirmation of the source’s veracity from the editor.”
This, it added, “violates social media process, in which source confirmation and editorial approval are required before posting.”
Meanwhile, journalists throughout the crypto space scoured other sites and social media to understand what was going on.
Indeed, within half an hour of tweeting the false news, the editorial team at Cointelegraph were discussing how to undo the damage.
When it comes to speed, problems arise, of course, only when the information is false.
Cunliffe-Jones, a board member of the International Fact-Checking Network, remarked that “there are multiple motives for spreading fake news. One is to make money. But in many cases people spread it because they think it’s true.”
There is not enough space here to analyse the reasons for misinformation, why it spreads and how to protect against it.
Those questions will be tackled in another column.
Do you have strong views about the use of social media in reporting? You can share them with me at firstname.lastname@example.org