Op-Ed: Social media is the new fifth estate

Posted Oct 17, 2013 by Robert Weller
If Jean Valjean were alive today his story might well end up on social media. Iraq's weapons of mass destruction certainly would have been a prime target.
Julian Assange gives a speech to the Sam Adams Award ceremony.
Julian Assange gives a speech to the Sam Adams Award ceremony.
When Joe McCarthy launched the Red Scares someone like Anonymous might have put the spotlight on him.
Both from the top, to the bottom, news is reaching people on sites not controlled by the mainstream media, or even the local media.
People are learning, day after day, that stories they care about are being ignored, or given short shrift, by the media they had trusted.
This week a rape story in Missouri and a social bullying-suicide story in Florida are being kept alive by social media. Google Maryville Missouri rape or Lakeland Florida cyberbullying.
Of course, social media is not perfect, any more than the mainstream media that preceded it.
Sometimes it contributes to bullying, and other outrages.
Fortunately, these excesses can be tracked. Pretty much everyone knows that unlike a paper trail, an Internet record is virtually impossible to hide.
There is no doubt social media helped the nation learn about the Tyler Clementi social bullying-suicide in New Jersey in 2010. Social media was a factor in causing the death, and that came out.
Social media also played a role in getting out the more conventional story this month about the hardships of the government shutdown.
The danger for the bureaucrats, cops, district attorneys and editors, is that once a story comes to life on Facebook, Twitter or one of the dozens of other sites, it cannot be killed.
The half-life of a story on Google is similar to plutonium. Web sites are even created to highlight a cause.
Some see this as an alternative or antidote to tabloids driving stories like the Amanda Knox murder trial.
Given the willingness of the U.S Supreme Court to bar campaign spending limits on the rich, the Web is likely to become an even more important source.
This does not even take into consideration the vulnerability of government to the “Fifth Estate,” groups like WikiLeaks. Instead of making it easier to hide information, the growth of data banks has made it easier to reveal what is really going on behind closed doors.
Although the media has devoted considerable attention to what is being said on social media at the same time a reader trying to contact an editor is likely to have to go through all sorts of electronic voodoo like “captcha” and phones are answering by machines.