Public or Private?

Social networking sites like Facebook and Bebo are awash with video and pictures uploaded by the general public.

News organisations are grappling with what they can and can’t use from the sites, but there is no agreed standard and recent months have seen them make a litany of mistakes.

In January, Steve Herrmann, Editor of the BBC News website, pondered the problem on the BBC Editor’s blog.

“When is it acceptable for us to make use of personal pictures and video available on the internet? In the past, personal pictures of members of the public who become the subject of news stories (particularly tragic events) have usually only been available if supplied by family or friends.”

Social networks have changed all this. Many users of these sites upload personal images, some of which are newsworthy, most of which are not, and some of which are fake. The problem is that social networks blur the line between public and private.

In the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007 journalists tried to communicate with users of social networking sites and the popular blogging tool LiveJournal in an attempt to talk to people involved in the event.

In the comments under one particular blog post published on the day of the massacre, journalists from CBC, NPR, Boston Herald, MTV, ABC, The Guardian, In Touch and Triple J can be seen vying for an interview with a student blogger. This has since become known as “digital doorstepping”.

The practice of lifting images and video from these websites is known as “scraping”. In November 2007 the Daily Mail scraped a Facebook group for images of “ladettes who glorify their shameful drunken antics” and they quickly found the forum they wanted.

“More than 150,000 girls have signed up to Facebook’s online forum “30 Reasons Girls Should Call It A Night”, where they openly discuss the various states of inebriation – and undress – they have found themselves in.”

The newspaper published a selection of images taken from the nearly 5,000 they found. And they named the young women in the pictures.

However, all is sometimes not what it seems and a number of newspapers have been fooled by fake Facebook pages. In January, French newspapers fell for the fake Facebook page proclaiming a 28 year-old French man by the name of Arash Derambarsha as the “Worldwide President of Facebook”.
In late December 2007, a fake Facebook page of Bilawal Bhutto, the son of assassinated politician Benazir Bhutto, fooled many news outlets including Toronto’s Globe and Mail and Agence France Presse. The newspapers quoted fake statements purportedly from Bilawal Bhutto himself including this:”I am not a born leader. I am not a politician or a great thinker. I’m merely a student. I do the things that students do like make mistakes, eat junk food, watch Buffy [the Vampire Slayer] but most importantly of all . . . learn. My time to lead will come but for now I’m the one asking questions, not the one answering them.”

Although 400,000 UK users left Facebook between December and January, a 5% drop, the site still boasts some 8.5 million users. Bebo claims to have around 10 million users. The sheer numbers of people using these sites is phenomenal. Some argue that the blurring of public and private worlds might eventually mean society evolves an entirely new attitude to the idea of privacy. And as the BBC’s Robin Hamman points out on his personal blog what this means for journalism is not yet clear: “With more and more journalists and researchers using the internet to find first-hand accounts and background material for stories, indeed with some journalists starting to consider social networking sites and blogs part of their reporting patch, it’s an issue that’s unlikely to go away.”


Deborah Bonello in Mexico City writes about how she and her partner were held up at knife point on Valentine’s Day: “It was then that I saw someone coming up the hill towards us. He was wearing a black lucha libre mask… He was also clutching a small knife… Our assailant was clearly very nervous. He was breathing heavily and the hand in which he held the knife shook violently.”

Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe our recent addition to the blogs page Zimbabaloola describes how inflation feels in the run up to Zimbabwean elections in March: “Our house, (a nice house, smart part of town, pool, pretty garden, etc) cost us 2,500 dollars in August 1999. In forex terms that was about 57,000 US. 2,500 dollars is now worth 0.04 of a US cent. That’s 0.0004 of a US dollar. That’s what 50,000% inflation means on the ground.”

Rob Crilly is a freelancer based in Nairobi and he’s been blogging about the recent problems in Kenya and how he needs different drivers for different areas in the new Kenya: “[My Kikuyu drivers] will not take me into Kibera, Africa’s biggest slum. Turn the wrong corner and they risk being lynched for being supporters of President Mwai Kibaki – also a Kikuyu. Likewise the western Rift Valley where their kin have been turfed out of homes in towns such as Kericho and Eldoret.”

Meanwhile, Julius Strauss, who gave up the life of a foreign and war correspondent to live in the frozen north, recently left his wilderness ranch in Canada to spend the winter in Anchorage. He writes: “My rental at Ted Stevens [International Airport] was small, pokey and frigid. It had been washed and left in the car park so that the doors and the boot were frozen. Only when I hit the highway the next morning did I realise what a thrill this little beast would be to drive. Here, in the Arctic in mid-January, it was wearing summer tyres.”