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“From my experience in social media I know people comment on news without reading them”

Hace unas semanas Jonathan Montero, estudiante de periodismo en la Pompeu Fabra me hizo esta entrevista sobre redes sociales, verificación y periodismo digital.

Como hace tiempo que no escribo aquí, creo que puede ser de interés para algunos saber cómo es mi trabajo en el periódico,  los retos que nos ofrecen  las redes sociales, o las diferencias entre la falta de exactitud en las informaciones con los ataques sistematizados  online para captar audiencias y cambiar estados de opinión (o fake news).

¡Gracias a Jonathan por su interés y su buena traducción! (y a @luiscarlos por dejarse robar una foto sin saberlo)

What are your roles as head of Social Media and section routines?

My work consists in the distribution of contents in different platforms. I’m also a social editor because my job is also to scan everything that’s published in the newspaper and decide what form it takes on different platforms. Not all topics enter Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. On the other hand, within the work of strategic distribution, the section has the function of “combing” the pieces for social networks.

What’s that supposed to mean?

From headline changes to a different photo edition. It’s about adapting the news to each channel. Journalists write generic information for the media, but then it has to be adapted to be made public on social networks. Texts, images and messages often have to be different, and always seeking to be understood and have more impact. In addition to editing, it is a job of displaying information. The work with images for example is very important because in social networks the image as well as the main topic is relevant.

Could you share with us an example?

Interviews are created in a format very much designed for paper. This photo is fitted between three blocks of text, played with the space and published on paper to a large measure. That person’s face looks good on paper, but if you see that same image on a small mobile screen you won’t recognize that person’s face. When we have a first- person testimony for social networks, we always try to show that person’s face. We can also take another picture of the same session only for it to be shown on social networks thinking of mobile screens. Either we look for another photo or we edit the original in a way that appreciates the face of that person much better. That would be the procedure.

What social networks do you work on?

Right now we are on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, where we have two accounts, one in Spanish and one in Catalan. These accounts don’t just replicate the same thing, they have two different personalities. Beyond its language of edition, it is for a topic of contents. We also have a presence in Telegram with a channel specialized in political information and soon we will start working in WhatsApp. The YouTube channel is managed by another department.

From which of these social networks do you receive more interactions?

Facebook, both in comments and visits.

Is that due to the volume of Facebook users or is there some other reason?

A few years ago Facebook was very hegemonic and still today is the majority social network. However, we will soon see how we ask each other if we have a profile in Instagram because there is a migration of young people to that social network. Anyway, Facebook is the current owner of Instagram and users are not aware, but their data is being transferred from one platform to another.

In your book, you say Facebook is the most popular social network. Six years after the release of this book, is this quote old-fashioned?

Not at all. It’s still the most popular social network. What happens is that others like Instagram or even WhatsApp have had a lot of growth.

Can WhatsApp be considered a social network?

We don’t think of it as such, but it works in the most viral environments and also generates traffic. The media have the problem that they can’t always identify visitors coming from WhatsApp. It’s what we call «Dark Social», a traffic that doesn’t know where it’s coming from. We always have the intuition that there is a lot of traffic coming from WhatsApp. This may be because in messaging applications friends spend things in much safer and more private environments and then feel much more comfortable sharing.

Why is it important for a newspaper to be present on social networks?

Because users spend a lot of their lives there and use them frequently for information. Last summer, for 45 minutes, Facebook fell in the U.S. and the media experienced an increase in traffic. This is because as people could not enter Facebook they went to the media to read news.

What does it mean for users to use social networks as news sources?

People don’t understand that social networks are playing editors for you. We, as a medium, apply a hierarchy of information, but social networks also make their hierarchy with other totally different values. People have the feeling that Facebook has enough to inform them, but in reality there are some algorithms that are deciding for you with other kinds of criteria very different from the informative ones.

However, Twitter is the most attractive social network among journalists.

It is the most journalistic social network by its last-minute nature, of short messages that resemble but are not headlines. Journalists find it easier and more interesting to gather information, to follow the latest news and to discover things. Facebook operates around a rather private, personal and familiar sphere that cannot be indexed by search engines, while Twitter has much more public information to research and scratch. That’s made it a much more journalistic tool.

Is it dangerous to use social networks as sources?

The truth is that social networks are no more dangerous than other sources. I believe that the same standards of journalism must be maintained with regard to contrasting information. Now there is a lot of talk about verification and hoaxes, but a few years ago this subject was already being written about. Having the skills to search, trace and verify identities is important. The sources in social networks are good, they are very useful but it is necessary to complete them with other type of sources. The telephone continues to exist, you must continue to call by telephone, go out into the street and be a direct witness to the facts. I think social networks are useful for a few things, but they have to be strengthened and we have to make sure the identity of the people who post in their profiles and who are really on the site where they say they are.

The question then is whether the media apply these standards.

The geographical factor influences. The further the information is from you, the more difficult it is to verify it. If you work with a photograph from an agency you don’t know in a remote country you have the problem that you don’t understand the language and you probably don’t know the photographer. It can be checked the same way, but sometimes it takes time. I think you have to be suspicious in general.

Now there’s a lot of talk about fake news, for example.

I believe that on the Internet we have to distinguish between surprising and little contrasted information [hoaxes] and fake news. There are news that seem wonderful, surprising and funny, too good to be true. You don’t know whether it’s true or not and it has its dangers when it comes to make journalism with them. That’s one thing. But fake news are another concept very different to me.

Could you explain your view?

Fake news are manipulations thought to influence the decisions of the people, spread by organized groups. I once wrote a thread on Twitter about this topic in the United States and how these techniques were being applied in Europe. These groups enter markets where they create words that begin to generate searches, and through these searches, they attract people who are prone to mistrust the media. These are new techniques that take advantage of the weakness and lack of knowledge of many people who want to make people believe strange things or mistrust the official lines.

Do these groups do this in a systematic way?

They use very sophisticated and twisted manipulation techniques searching mass audiences. Once this concept is created, they begin to attract audiences through it or through very controversial issues that are part of the agenda. I think we have to differentiate between false news organized to influence public opinion and not contrasted and incredible news that serve rather a divertimento.

Could you give us an example of hoax to differentiate it from fake news?

A Twitter tweet was viralized by a user who claimed that The Guardian had written in an article that Spain was going back to the Middle Ages. That tweet was a reader’s interpretation of an article in English, but the rest of the users started commenting on it as if the newspaper had literally said that. And the reality is that The Guardian had not said such a thing. From my experience in social media I know people comment on news without reading them. And that’s where hoaxes start. Sometimes, the lie consists of poor accuracy, incomplete information and not having understood a text in a proper way.

So that’s the difference.

That user, with his tweet, [maybe] didn’t want to tell a lie. He was giving his opinion. The problem was that the others interpreted it as if The Guardian had said that. It had to be verified even by Maldito Bulo because people were turning crazy when they hadn’t even read the original article. And even if it had been written in Catalan or Spanish, the same thing could have happened. People who don’t want to understand, just don’t understand anything. This also reminds me when La Vanguardia was accused of manipulating a photograph of the demonstrations of 12th October in Barcelona.


Last October 12th, on the occasion of the Spanish Hispanic Day, thousands of people demonstrated in Barcelona against Catalan independence. La Vanguardia, one of the most important newspapers in Catalonia, illustrated the chronicle of the demonstration with an image of the avenue where the demonstration took place.

The author of the original picture, Emilio Morenatti from the Associated Press agency, used a telephoto lens that caused an optical effect on the depth of field in the final photograph. La Vanguardia, who was not even the author of the photograph, was quickly accused on Twitter of manipulating the photograph with Photoshop in order to make believe that there were more demonstrators on the street.

«Unbelievable theories appeared on Twitter when in fact the photo wasn’t even from the newspaper. People don’t even understand how the photo agency system works. Ignorance reaches the point of wanting to see monsters that don’t exist. In this sense, social networks have become a quagmire», explains Silvia Cobo.

The three main characteristics of the Internet, according to your book, are hypertexts, multimedia language and interactivity. Are they also the characteristics that define quality in online journalism?

For me, quality journalism is the one that spreads contrasting information. This I think is the most important thing. More traditional journalism is still important after all.  Online journalism also allows you to link to the original sources so that you can check the veracity of the information yourself.

Do you mean it is more transparent?

Rather I believe it is simply to indicate your sources, that they are reliable and that they have been confirmed by a second source. These are the most traditional rules of journalism and I think online journalism needs more traditional journalism in this sense. If we also allow access to the original sources we enrich the information. Hypertexts in this sense make the big difference between print and digital journalism because readers can now also access sources.

If the reader scans and does not read, how can online newspapers exist if they are text-based?

Internet language is very visual. That’s why list-based information works very well, for example. The idea is to make the information lighter and multiply the reading points. Of course it’s still being read, but people consume much more superficially. That also depends on your time and the time zone.

Another aspect to comment on digital media is SEO positioning.

It is a very important source of traffic for the media, even more so than social networks. And you don’t talk about it as much as you should. The good thing is that at least the keys to good positioning on the web have not changed over the years: keywords, metadata, links… If information has been shared on networks, now it also earns points for a good SEO.

Is convergence a necessary process in online journalism?

I think it’s inevitable because for example with our mobile phone we can record audio, videos, write and take pictures. Now we have more tools, but I don’t think we can do it all at once because I’m not an orchestra journalist. I may be able to take pictures with my mobile phone, but a photographer will make them better than me.

Critical voices argue that convergence is a maneuver by companies to increase their productivity.

I don’t exactly see it that way. I see it as a process that allows you to do more things as a journalist. We have also integrated our newsrooms and our journalists work at the same time for the web and paper. [She points out to a journalist who is writing on his desk] That colleague for example is writing his news for the web, which will then come out on paper tomorrow.

Has journalism lost its role as an intermediary?

I don’t think so. A civilian cannot go to a Town Hall all day to follow a plenary session. You also need to have some knowledge of the law and what they’re talking about and the background. It’s one thing for you to witness a fact as you walk down the street. But journalism isn’t just about being a witness. It’s about spending your time doing things that normal people can’t do. Here we have journalists who read 500-page court sentences and know about justice issues and have an agenda of contacts. Who can do that in the normal world?

That may be what people call “citizen journalism”.

It’s a concept that makes sense in those places where there’s no organized journalism, where no one witnesses serious things happening. I wouldn’t even call it citizen journalism but being a witness of things that happen. Journalism involves routines, rules and not being an activist for any cause, but explaining a fact, who it affects, its background and its future. Sometimes citizen journalism is confused with activists denouncing things no one else was explaining. That has indeed a value, but I wouldn’t call them reporters. Information processes are more complex.

Is there little talk between students about creating a personal brand?

Right now it is very important to have a personal brand to stand out from the rest. Above all, people who are freelance journalists is useful so editors get to know you and hire you. The media are also looking for people who have moved in certain fields, who feel comfortable and who don’t find it strange. I think is also an opportunity to show what you know about the current state of journalism. For example, I meet people who don’t know what’s happening on social networks or don’t even have an account. It is necessary to understand what’s going on in the digital world.

Do you think students come out of their Bachelor Degrees with enough knowledge and online culture to become digital journalists?

Well, I don’t have enough knowledge to answer that but what I appreciate in the internship scholars who come here is that they are only interested in writing and most don’t have much interest in social networking. Right now you have to understand well how to distribute the information because if no one is going to find out after what you have written, what value does it have? Perhaps they need to value more the role of content distribution and understand how important concepts such as social networks, SEO and direct traffic are. And my feeling is that they don’t value it as something journalistic. I think there is also a lack of references in this field.

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