Was The Facebook Hacker Story Irresponsible Journalism?

This article originally appeared as a guest post on All Facebook.
 
The media scandal du jour relates to how WikiLeaks leaked all this classified information about the war in Afghanistan, but let’s not overlook this extremely irresponsible piece of reporting that MSNC published earlier this week about an alleged Facebook privacy breach.

Why is it irresponsible? Well, before I break it down for you, let’s take a few journalism lessons from Robert Scoble, who explains why Flipboard (an iPad application that turns RSS feeds into a magazine-like layout) is superior to the one-item-after-another streams of information that we’re used to browsing on the Facebook news feed, Twitter, etc. He writes:

“I remember that early eye tracking research showed that pages that had a single headline that was twice as big as any other headline were more likely to be read. Same for pages with photos. If you put two photos of equal size on the page, it would be looked at less often, or less completely, than a page that had a photo that was at least twice as big as any other.
I won a newspaper design contest in college because of this my designs made sure that they included headlines that were twice as big as any other and photos that were twice as big as any other.”

MSNBC used these exact techniques to spin an oh-so-scary story about an alleged Facebook privacy breach.
lies1(2)This first screen shot is what I could see on an average (15″) monitor “above the fold.” (You can click the image to see it in actual size.) Note the massive font used for the headline and the four tiny images. Keep in mind that some internet users don’t know how to scroll (really, I’m not kidding), so by not showing a broken line of text at the bottom of the page, many people won’t know that the rest of the article is even there, let alone how to get to it.

lies3If you endeavor to read past the headline, you’ll notice that they “end” the story with more scary talk from the alleged “hacker” and hide the final three paragraphs behind this completely absurd “Show More Text” link, which serves no purpose other than to obscure the truth, which is in the final (that’s right, the very last) paragraph of the article:

“No private data is available or has been compromised. Similar to a phone book, this is the information available to enable people to find each other, which is the reason people join Facebook. If someone does not want to be found, we also offer a number of controls to enable people not to appear in search on Facebook, in search engines, or share any information with applications.”

So, if I were to email MSNBC and tell them that I was “a researcher” or “a white-hat hacker” and I had discovered a huge scam — “You see, these conspirators from Yellow Pages have been collecting and amassing all this private data and delivering it to everyone’s doorstep!” — they would think I was completely insane. Well, change “Yellow Pages” to “Facebook” and “delivering it to everyone’s doorstep” to “making available for download” and I think you see my point.

msnSo how did MSN get away with posting this completely absurd story? To understand that, we need to look at their demographic. I went to Alexa.com to find out. As I had guessed, their readers lean toward females of the Baby Boomer generation and up. The same people who don’t know how to change their default settings in their default browser (IE6) on their default operating system (Windows XP) to anything other than MSN.com. Big suprise? No: MSNBC is preying on innocent victims by using psychological tricks to create phobias for things that they don’t understand. And there’s nothing scarier than the fear of the unknown.

bowling-for-columbineThe premise that the media is out to scare us all into staying home and buying more security systems/guns/etc. is not news; Michael Moore built a really compelling case against Big Media’s fear tactics in Bowling for Columbine in 2002. However, an interesting question to ask in 2010 is:

if Big Media is prone to Big Lies and Misinformation, can social media serve as an antidote?

In other words, can investigative reporting by “citizen journalists” help suss the truth out of all the lies?

To help answer the question, I turned to the 875+ comments on the article. To do some highly unscientific semantic analysis, I read a small sample to look for keywords were common in a neutral-to-favorable comment (information, private/privacy, security, people/friends, public) vs. what keywords where prevalent in a highly negative response (wrong, attention, fame, fraud, scam, boring, crap). Then I ran all the comment text through a histogram tool.

histogramUnfortunately, the results of my study show that most comments were favorable by a ratio of over 5:1. However, it all goes back to to the demographic. After glancing at the TechCrunch coverage on this, it seems about 60-70% of the commenters call bullshit, which seems to be in line with a younger, male-dominated, tech-savvy demographic.

So what do you think? Can commenting/voting/Tweeting uncover the truth obscured though it is by the news outlets that report it? Or will we all just continue to propagate the monkey excrement that the mass media keep throwing at us?

Leave a comment to tell us what you think!