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How the media’s Twitter obsession allowed Russian propaganda to invade the free press

Twitter is an excellent tool for journalists to keep their fingers on the pulse of their audiences. Except, of course, when it isn’t.

According to recent information on the role of Russian propaganda in shaping the 2016 election, several well-known news outlets quoted tweets in news stories from Twitter users who were not, in fact, part of their audiences. The tweets in question actually came from a Russian troll farm and were not representative of the views of American citizens.

As a result, American news organizations published Russian propaganda as part of their reporting on news relating to the election.

Think about that for a minute. The Washington Post, McClatchy, Vox and CBS all unwittingly published propaganda from a foreign government in the months prior to a national election.

This would have been unthinkable 30 years ago. It has prompted media outlets to re-evaluate their policies on including tweets in articles and broadcasts, and it should.

The Internet allows people to hide behind usernames, anonymity and fake accounts. While anonymity is important to the first amendment and should be protected, the same rules that govern anonymous sources in traditional media should govern them when using social media.

Editors should no longer hide behind the explanation of “It’s a public social media post” to justify including a post by a source that isn’t known to the reporter or can’t be verified. If a blogger wants use that as justification for producing compelling clickbait, more power to them, but verification of sources should be the line in the sand that separates online journalism from basement bloggers.

Most media organizations wouldn’t dare quote an anonymous user from their own comments section in a story, but let that same anonymous person post their uninformed screed on social media, and suddenly media professionals are enamored by it. The Russian government knows this. The Kremlin-affiliated propaganda farms are well aware of the American media’s obsession with all things Twitter and they successfully used that to exploit some of our most valuable institutions.

Twitter is an amazing tool for journalists, and it should be used to find stories and to aid in reporting. However, like all tools, it must be used responsibly. We can’t just throw 50 years of media practices and ethics out the window because social media is the hot and flashy new toy that all the cool kids are talking about.

As journalists, we need to remember that social media posts are not just publishable gifts from the gods. They are the words of sources who need to be verified before we can risk the reputation of an entire news organization by publishing or broadcasting them. Twitter isn’t an acceptable source in and of itself, unless we are quoting someone who is on Twitter’s payroll. The source of the information isn’t Twitter, it is the individual user, and if we can’t verify that this is even a real person, we don’t need to include it in a news story.

On the topic of gathering information and quotes from social media, we could actually learn a lot from an old Russian proverb: Trust, but verify.

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