Fake social media accounts: time for stations to assess the risks | radioinfo

Fake social media accounts: time for stations to assess the risks

Saturday 23 August, 2014

Jo Abi explores this tricky subject for radioinfo.
When 2GB weekend host Luke Grant was busted using a fake Twitter account to mock his former Newcastle breakfast show co-host, Labor MP Jodi McKay, there was outrage. But why were people outraged?

Is it the fake Twitter account?

Is it the subterfuge?

Is it the criticism against a politician?

The radio landscape is changing rapidly thanks to developments in social media, so the industry is playing catch-up on how best to use the power of social media to improve their overall success. It's murky ground at best, and it needs to be addressed properly.

Whenever new and emerging methods are used, it takes time for the morals and ethics to be set. Social media is one of those new methods. We often default to outrage if an announcer is caught out using social media in any way that isn’t completely honest.

But is that the best way to respond to changing trends in our industry?

Is setting up a fake Twitter account to plant comments of a particular persuasion any different to a couple of decades ago when we would call our mum, our sister and our aunty to comment on talk topics we were trying to get rolling? Is it any different to using staff to make song requests for a pre-recorded show we plan to play over the weekend? What about when we select particular callers with specific points-of-view during topics, or choose someone who sounds excited to win a competition?

Luke Grant isn’t the first radio announcer to get into hot water over something like this and he certainly won’t be the last. In fact it’s far more widespread than has been revealed so far.

So the question is – what happens next?

Stations should consider how they want to approach social media accounts and develop policies to guide their staff, before someone slips up and causes a scandal that leads to an investigation and external regulation which is exactly what ended up happening when cash-for-comments got out of hand. It took intevention for the practice to be properly addressed and, while it originated in talkback, the changes affected every station, both AM and FM.

Another point to consider is, should the same standards be applied to both AM and FM stations? In my mind, AM is often journalism and therefore expected to operate with more integrity than, say, an FM station that is usually for entertainment.

None of the Commercial, ABC or Community Codes of Practice mention social media. The ABC has developed internal policies to guide its staff, but these do not currently cover the use of anonymous accounts. Most commercial stations have employment contracts that include not bringing the company into disrepute, but there are no specifics about fake social media accounts.

Former AFTRS Radio Director and radioinfo’s founding editor Steve Ahern believes what really matters is how fake accounts are used:

“Lots of industries use fake or generic accounts to ginger up a topic or to monitor what competitors are saying on social media. I think it’s reality and I don’t really have a problem with that, but what matters is what is said, not whether an account is fake or not… I like to apply the old rule of putting your own name in there. If you would be unhappy if someone said this about you, don’t say it. I have a rule in radio, engage the brain first, then the mouth. The same applies to social media - engage the brain first, then the typing fingers!”

Ahern suggests networks may need to consider the use of social media accounts differently depending on what sort of content they have.

“I think entertainment media companies have much more lee-way in this field. Entertainment formats are lighter, more fun, so getting a topic or a competition started with a few ginger social media messages is probably acceptable, as long as you don’t say anything offensive.

“However, I think news media companies should approach it differently. When you’re in the news or talk business it could hurt your credibility if you are caught out using fake social media accounts. Better not to risk it if you’re in the serious news business.

“The codes of practice are silent on this issue, but it's not a matter of an industry wide, one size fits all code in my opinion, each company should decide its own approach. Media companies need to set policies about this so that their staff have clear guidelines,” says Ahern.

Julie Posetti is a former ABC broadcaster and news editor, who now teaches social and broadcast journalism at Wollongong University. She is completing a PhD on the Twitterisation of Journalism and is currently based in Paris as a Research Fellow with the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). Julie says she is comfortable with fake accounts, within certain parameters, but she does have a problem with fake audience interaction.

"I don't have a problem with pseudonymous or fake Twitter accounts per se - some like @ABCInterm even contribute usefully to media debates. However, in an industry facing a genuine crisis of trust, faking audience interaction is a giant risk.

“It's always been ethically questionable to fake audience interaction in my view, but social media makes such practises more likely to be exposed. The audience that can directly engage with broadcasters via social media platforms is a more media savvy audience than the traditional talk radio audience.

“Social media is now entrenched in talk radio practice, but the debates about ethics and professionalism online are still catching up. In my view transparency is best practice and parody or fake accounts only work when they are clear about their status.

“My mantra: apply the 'seven second rule' - imagine there's a dump button and before you hit 'send,' pause for seven seconds to allow time for reconsideration. Broadcast is instantaneous, so is social media. What's different is the way errors and stupid behaviour are instantly shared and magnified, with potentially wider impact."
What do you think?

Should radio people be allowed to use social media in any way they please, or is it unethical to misrepresent themselves using fake accounts?

Jo Abi is a contributing writer to radioinfo and a former radio presenter.

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