Drawing the line between Twitter and Facebook

Christopher Caldwell had a typically thoughtful column in yesterday’s Financial Times, about the case of the Washington Post sportswriter, Mike Wise, and his Twitter experiments.

Mr Wise has built a reputation as one of America’s top basketball reporters. He has a radio show. He does interviews. And – fatefully – he stays in contact with his readers through Twitter. On Monday, Mr Wise “tweeted” three fake news stories. One concerned how long a suspension Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would receive for alleged off-field misconduct. Mr Wise wrote: “Roethlisberger will get five games, I’m told.” The Miami Herald, The Baltimore Sun and NBC’s Pro Football Talk blog all cited the tweet.

Mr Wise then revealed that the story was a hoax – or, to put it charitably, a piece of freelance sociological fieldwork. Mr Wise had been critical of online “aggregators” who do not source their own stories or check facts independently. He explained, in an apology posted on Twitter, that he had been trying to “test the accuracy of social media reporting”.

The Post, however, didn’t see the joke and suspended him for a month. The paper’s argument was that his position as a senior writer in a major newspaper effectively meant that Mr Wise was not free to do what you or I might be free to do.

Mr Caldwell explores the complexities of the case. He points out that, in the first place, Wise’s “test” wasn’t exactly well-designed. What he wanted to test was the willingness of online aggregators to repeat allegations/stories without bothering to check them. But you might say that many people would think it reasonable to pass on without checking something they’ve got from a respected and knowledgeable source. In my case, for example, I’d be less concerned to check something from Nick Robinson’s blog than a rumour that I’d read in one of the UL political blogs. And I guess that if I were interested in American sports then I’d feel the same about Mr Wise.

But what of the Post‘s argument: that it has a right to demand certain kinds of behaviour from its journalists even in their private, or semi-private lives? It sounds a bit like the requirement that police officers should be circumspect in their off-duty behaviour. Here’s Caldwell again:

The real stakes of Mr Wise’s prank do not concern social journalism. They concern the broader matter of what belongs to institutions and what belongs to their members (or employees), and what each is entitled to demand of the other. Politics is always reminding us that this line is very hard to draw. When Newt Gingrich signed a multimillion-dollar book contract after the Republicans won the midterm elections of 1994, attention focused on Rupert Murdoch’s ownership of the publishing company that was paying him. An equally pertinent question, though, was whether Mr Gingrich was worth all that money because he was Newt Gingrich or because he was the presumptive Speaker of the House. If the latter, then he was arguably selling something that did not belong to him. The same goes for Barack Obama’s signing a multi-book contract after his election as Illinois senator in 2004.

Mr Wise appears to understand what he did wrong in just these terms. “I made a horrendous mistake,” he wrote, “using my Twitter account that identifies me as a Washington Post columnist.” Since it was a personal account, some might say that he hurt no one but himself. This is a line of thinking that the Post rightly moved to squelch. Mr Wise is thought of as a Washington Post columnist whether he identifies himself that way or not. This entitles the paper to make certain demands. The sports editor, Matthew Vita, circulated a copy of the Post’s new-media guidelines, which read, in part: “When you use social media, remember that you are representing The Washington Post, even if you are using your own account … All Washington Post journalists relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens. Post journalists must recognise that any content associated with them in an online social network is, for practical purposes, the equivalent of what appears beneath their bylines in the newspaper or on our website.”

But what if ‘social media’ become the dominant way in which social life is lived in the future? The Post probably wouldn’t feel entitled to complain if Mr Wise had tried his ruse in his local pub or golf club. It’s the fact that he did it in an arena that is ambiguously both public and private that causes the problem. So…

The internet and the new media are commonly described as a liberating, individualising force. In many respects, though, they are replacing informal relationships with surveilled ones. Mr Wise was wrong to put up his phoney tweets. The Post was within its rights to discipline him. But it is hard not to worry about the principles laid down in the process of doing so. The net result of the internet may be to invite the boss into what used to be the stronghold of one’s private life.

Come to think of it, though, this is a case where there’s an interesting difference between Facebook and Twitter. The latter is definitely a ‘public’ space — unless one explicitly protects one’s tweets, and I guess Mr Wise doesn’t. The Post might have had more trouble if he’d conducted his experiment in Facebook, where only his ‘friends’ would have seen it. Hmmm…

Anyway, this was a terrific column, by a terrific columnist.