Mathew Lowry

The story of the Mr Bean “hack” of the Spanish Presidency website got me thinking.

Not the story itself, which is just an amusing diversion. But Joe Litobarski’s excellent analysis led me to compare the way the story was covered by the mainstream media and by bloggers such as himself and Julien Frisch, who first brought it to many people’s attention (including the media) via social media.

The story shows one reason why old media is in the mess it’s in.

The media, institutionalised

If people still trusted mainstream media, there wouldn’t be a need for citizen journalists and peer-to-peer information exchanges in the first place. It’s precisely because old media act the way they do that there is room for new media to flourish.

Why don’t we trust mainstream media? The answer is found in surveys like Edelman’s trust barometer, which have consistently and clearly shown for many years now that people now lump traditional media in with ‘The Institutions’ (governments, banks, politicians, etc.), despite the fact that the media are supposed to be outside the institutions, looking in, digging about and generally being a pain to those supposedly in charge.

Why is that? what happened?

Mr Bean as microcosm

So let’s take a look at the Mr Bean story. Joe writes:

I happened to be watching this story as it first developed and began spreading across the internet … it was through bloggingportal (via our RSS Tweetfeed) that El Mundo linked to Julien … As soon as El Mundo ran the story it wasn’t long before the rest of the mainstream picked it up …

When I was an intern with OpenDemocracy I would sometimes follow stories as they developed like this. I would see them break and then read twenty or thirty articles from different publications about the same event. It was fascinating to see how the truth got bent and distorted by all of those re-tellings and re-re-tellings.

But the killer sentence comes next:

The best explanation of what actually happened during “Beangate” can be found on Marcelino Madrigal’s blog (in Spanish).

Not on all those media – like the FT, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, The Guardian, Reuters, AFP, Fox News, Sky News, The Huffington Post …

As Joe’s summary shows, both mainstream media and bloggers got some facts wrong when the story broke. In fact, some people blamed bloggers for spreading false information. Others blamed mainstream media for not checking their facts.

The difference is that then the mainstream media forgot about the story and left their articles – often containing faults – online.

Traditional and social media: some critical differences

So this whole story reminded me of a couple of critical differences between mainstream media and social media (there are others):

  • social media publishers are more ready to admit their mistakes: if they get it wrong they republish an updated post (clearly showing the original mistake, as well the corrected info) and they tell people about it using RSS and twitter. Paper newspapers generally publish a small line somewhere a week later on page 32, and – if you’re lucky – quietly update the article and fake the publication date.
  • the social media conversation digs up the truth – Joe’s post clearly shows how a community of people, self-assembled around the conversation, digs out the truth and broadcasts it. The abovementioned honesty ensures the message spreads clearly.

We’ve all seen blog posts which are reposted with corrections, using strikethrough to cloearly show where and how the information has been changed, and accompanied by tweets and RSS alerting people to the change.

When did you see either behaviour in the online version of a mainstream newspaper or broadcaster?

So what we have now is a mainstream media that notices the initial social media buzz – during which there can be errors – but has lost interest by the time the blogosphere has actually dug up the truth.

No wonder people prefer the insights they find from each other, online. Given the way mainstream media cover the EU, this has got to be an opportunity the EU just cannot afford to miss. That won’t stop it trying.

{Perhaps this also explains why people who don’t consume social media are so negative about it – all they hear from the mainstream media is that ‘the bloggers got it wrong’.}

Charlie Brooker on the media and the powers-that-be

But this entire post is just an excuse to embed the following video which really explains why people don’t trust the media anymore. It’s by the ever-excellent Charlie Brooker.

The most relevant bit runs from around 04:20 until 06:00 (interviewing Peter Oborne), but do yourself a favour and start watching from 01:44 (language warning).

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

It’s good, albeit UK-focused, but it’s also rather depressing.

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  1. I think many mistakes started with a superficial lecture of my blog article in which, clearly saying that this was a statement by a non-IT expert, I mainly pointed to web discussions and two links that could be found there.

    I then said that clicking on the results provided two different results, one with Mr Bean and one with the alert window containing “hi there”, of which I made screen shots.

    Most old media already mixed these together, claiming that Mr Bean would have said “hi there”, which sounded much funnier than having two different sites.

    Then I continued saying that this was “apparently” some kind of externally embedded code, which was my interpretation of XSS (cross-site scripting) – without saying that this had been a “hack”, because I had no idea of the exact technical background of what I witnessed.

    I also wasn’t claiming that this was on the front page of the presidency website, nor that Mr Bean replaced Zapatero.

    All this has been written by many in the old and new media who hadn’t even seen the real screens I made my screen shots from because they had been removed around 11 o’clock, before the big press jumped on the story without checking the details. Non of the old media even mentioned “XSS” nor tried to explain what this means (I linked to Wikipedia).

    Looking at this ex post, I think I could have written my post a little bit more precisely, but this is something you realise only after you are mis- or overinterpreted.

    Yet most of what happened is based on successive exaggeration, mixing up of facts or making facts up out of hear-say, using a funny picture to create a buzz instead of creating a condition to solve a problem, which was a real XSS problem as noted by the Presidency itself. And the buzz was jointly re-enforced between new and old media.

    So I finally agree with what you write: We in the social media can continue to discuss the issue 1 1/2 weeks later, trying to understand how things went and why, but for the big guys in the big media it is enough to create the mess and then leave the cleaning to the rest.

  2. Thanks for the insight, Julien, and the pithy response, Martin.

    Apart from uniqueness, there’s another race going on – to not be left behind. Which is why media repeat and remix each other’s stories a la Chinese whispers.

    The media cycle is in a too-fast race – to the bottom. Hence the need for more in-depth digging, which seems to be left to volunteers. Sad state, really.

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