“Social media, investigative journalism, ethics and security” - Nicola Hughes at news:rewired

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 14 February 2012

As part of news:rewired earlier this month, there were workshop sessions on skills like SEO and datajournalism. Leading one of the sessions was Nicola Hughes, aka DataMinerUK, teaching people how to use social media for search.

Nicola suggests that the internet has two basic modes - “loud” and “noisy”. “Loud” is when everybody is shouting about the same thing, when your Tweetdeck columns are whizzing by so fast that you can’t read anything, when the little pink “API maxed out” warning is blinking in the corner of the screen, and when the web has reached the saturation point of talking about a single news event. This happens with natural disasters, news of the toppling of dictators, or, as on the previous Sunday night, with everybody discussing the merits of the adverts on during the SuperBowl.

“Noisy” is when there is no discernible pattern. When the internet is chattering, when people are following a diverse array of trends and hashtags. When the internet is “loud”, there is only signal. When the internet is “noisy” then you need to pick through the signal.

Nicola gave a few examples of how she has used social media searching. She has a brilliant tale of tracking down a witness to a volcanic eruption using Foursquare check-ins to make sure they were in the right place and then getting them on the phone and live on air for CNN, and another example of following the funding of a series of illegal parties.

She had some really useful tips along the way - for example, using Topsy to see the history of tweets that link to an image. If you spot tweets linking to it from before the event was meant to happen, you can immediately tell that this image was from a previous volcano / snowmageddon / civil disturbance or just faked.

I first met Nicola at a previous news:rewired event, and I’m lucky enough at the moment to have the chance to work with her, as she has joined the Guardian as one of the Knight-Mozilla Fellows. We joined forces in a hack event at Kings Place last year that formed part of that process.

Her blog post from a talk she did at news:rewired previously - “Sorting the Social Media Chaos” - gives a much fuller explanation of her techniques than I could. She has also gathered together a useful list of the tools and resources she uses here: “Social searching

Social media, investigative journalism, ethics and security

After the session, I got involved in an interesting debate about Nicola’s techniques. I saw her described on Twitter as the “digital Sherlock Holmes”, and I’ve certainly never met anybody who uses these kind of tools in quite the way she does. Her motto is not to use the tools in the way they were intended, but to use them for what they can do. She is somewhere between being an investigative journalist and a private investigator - with digital as her weapon of choice.

However, there are some parts of her investigations, for example creating fake personas on social networks, which pose interesting questions about how journalism ethics will have to continue to adapt for a digital age. She has created fake Twitter accounts to tweet keywords associated with drugs, to see who interacts with them, and then used that list of people as the basis for searching for trigger words to propel her investigation onwards. It is incredibly smart.

However, just as the Leveson inquiry is struggling to come to terms with the way that some journalists appear to have been systematically abusing technology to obtain stories for the last fifteen years or so, it occurs to me that we have no system of checks and balances in place for how far news organisations should go with these kind of techniques. We’ve got established guidelines about when it is ok to go undercover in person, but what about when it is ok to go undercover digitally? Or to use machines to fake interaction with people to get connected to them via social media?

There is a second issue that worries me if you think about the kind of techniques Nicola employs, and the kind of skills talked about by Chris Sumner and Alec Muffet at Hacks/Hackers. Chris Sumner described how he had used social media to track down the networks of people involved in a game run by Tony Hawkes, whilst Alec talked about the involuntary electronic exhaust trail we live behind as we go about our normal daily business on the web - especially if we have something to hide. The question that nags in the back of my mind is this: Who is using these techniques against journalists?

There must be people and regimes out there using sophisticated methods like this to track what journalists are doing online in order to expose sources, get ahead of investigations, and, in the worst scenario, to silence them. How prepared are we, and how well do news organisations understand the ethics and security implications of the digital social media space?

This is one of a series of blog posts featuring my notes from news:rewired:
“Did we get something of journalistic value?” - Liz Heron
“The Guardian’s Facebook app” - Martin Belam
“Great for users. Great for publishers. And great for Apple” - Alex Watson
“The Economist’s shift to digital”- Tom Standage
“The alchemy of media business model innovation” - François Nel
“Social media, investigative journalism, ethics and security” - Nicola Hughes
“Less is more - social media at the BBC” - Chris Hamilton
“Watch this (social) space...” - Darren Waters
“Me and my big photo of Mark Zuckerberg” - Nate Lanxon
“Social media optimisation” - Q&A

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