On June 19, in Trinidad and Tobago, mainstream media and social media collided. The Trinidad Express, published a follow-up story about allegations that threatening emails to journalists had been traced to the home computer of the Prime Minister's advisor, quoting comments about the issue from the Facebook wall of Kathryn Stollmeyer-Wight without her permission – or the permission of her Facebook friends.
Kathy found out about the breach only when a friend posted the link to the Express story on her Facebook page at 2:35 AM on June 20. About six hours later, when Kathy had time to digest what happened, she posted this status update:
I object to the EXPRESS newspaper using a thread on my page to publish my comments & the replies of my friends without my permission, or theirs. More shame. Woke up this morning to one of the ugliest negatives about FB I have ever encountered. Such a pity as FB has been such a joy. Well, I gone now for sure.
The post generated 17 likes and 96 comments, most of which expressed support for Kathryn, disappointment over the standard of local journalism, and a debate over what was – and wasn't – private.
The incident raises a host of related questions:
- Do they know how to manipulate settings to ensure the highest degree of privacy available?
- Does Facebook itself have a responsibility to users to clarify issues of privacy and content?
- Do users themselves have a responsibility to advise their friends on what privacy settings they apply to their pages?
- Is anything really private once it is online?
In an intriguing and somewhat ironic reversal of the normal flow of information on the web, an Express report made liberal use of Facebook comments from one user’s page. That Facebook user, known to be an activist for commonsense, humanitarian issues, posted a link to the paper’s story on the Sasha Mohammed issue. The paper’s reporter, a colleague of mine, harvested some of the comments for his story and promptly reaped the scorn of those quoted, their friends and a whole bunch of folks on Twitter.
At stake, if I read the social media outcry from that incident correctly, is the fuzzy difference between a private comment and a public one on a network built on public access, complex privacy controls and a social experience.
More than a month after the story broke, Kathryn Stollmeyer-Wight is still on Facebook and the Trinidad Express is still publishing quotations from people's Facebook walls, albeit without identifying names.
I interviewed her about the whole affair, and here's what she had to say:
Janine Mendes-Franco: How long have you been on Facebook and what do you primarily use the social networking site for?
Kathryn Stollmeyer-Wight: I have been on Facebook for as long as I remember…five years? Initially I think it was just to keep in touch with friends and family, then I saw it as a way to network, beginning with encouraging young people to register to vote. I was not a supporter then of any particular party, but I felt strongly about us taking our civil responsibility seriously. Especially young people.
JMF: What was your initial reaction to the Express story and and what did you want to do about it?
KSW: HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN? Aren’t there any laws in place to prevent this? How could a ‘reputable’ newspaper operate in such a dishonest fashion? I felt I had let my friends on the thread down by exposing them without their permission to the public! Will this affect their jobs? After all, the government is a big employer! Then angry! I was furious. HOW DARE THEY, without our permission, use our words and SELL the publication? I felt violated, almost as if someone had come into my home and stolen my diary. I wanted to call the editor, but honestly, my first thoughts were to do damage control with my friends…they must be surely blaming me?
When I began to view this personally, my words on this thread mentioned my father’s murder 21 years ago. I thought of my brothers, their reaction if they read this article…I cringed in shame and horror.
JMF: Once the news became more widespread about wall comments being made public without permission, what was the reaction of your Facebook friends who were also quoted?
KSW: They were very understanding of my position, no one blamed me, or so they said. One asked me to look in my friends list and to be careful who I have there. Then I read a thread one of them was on. The others on this particular site (who did not know me) questioned my ‘friends’ for ‘selling’ us out. One insinuated that because I had over 2,000 friends I was trying to be popular and couldn’t possibly have vetoed the list. It was almost as if I deserved what happened! There was a subtle ‘warning’ to watch out for me! The ignorance regarding the ability to get into anyone’s profile was surprising…me, not computer savvy really, knew how easy that was to do.
Kavita Chankar, one of Kathy's friends who was quoted, contacted me separately and had this to say:
KC: I was shocked that a comment I made on a friend's wall would be used by the media without our consent. I wanted [an] immediate retraction and apology…I also wanted to know HOW [the reporter] obtained this information.
We were all outraged. When I initially looked at the comment associated with me in the article it did not resonate. When I went back to the thread I saw that the comment attributed to me was not made by me. However, in the so-called retraction that appeared some days later, they did not mention the erroneous quote.
Shortly thereafter I began to review my contacts. Those who I was not in contact with or did not know well were deleted. It has made be cautious about what I post, but at times I think, it is a free country I can say what I want on my Facebook page, within reason.
A decision to stay on Facebook
JMF: Your initial post on your Facebook page after finding out was that you were considering leaving the social networking site. Why? And what changed your mind?
KSW: No one is going to take away an avenue from me that has done so much good (I network with various charities and Facebook gives results). Why should I allow that? Another negative? I enjoy and use Facebook for information, for laughter, for life. How can I allow this ‘ugly’ stranger to control my day?
JMF: Was legal advice sought and if so, can you tell me what the status is?
KSW: Yes of course. The two lawyers [who were consulted] reported the same thing. No laws in place. A civil suit action could be pursued, but they both felt that just wasn’t worth it.
Svenn [Grant, another Facebook contact who was quoted in the story] by then suggested writing MATT (the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago), and I felt that was at least something that may produce some discourse, and MAY auger well for the future. Now I know not!
JMF: What lessons has this experience taught you?
KSW: Sadly, it has reinforced the fact that we do not have many proper journalists in this country. We have people who can ‘write’ a copy. In this case, copy and still make mistakes! It has reminded me that POWER is a hellava thing, and once one is not taken to task or court, a newspaper such as the daily express (lower caps intentional) can abuse your privacy and dismiss this travesty of its own making as unimportant. Indeed, can do so again, even though I understand they have not used full names the second time around.
The fact that the editor has not even called to apologize just shows from newsroom copier to the top, we are lacking in moral guidelines. It has certainly taught me to think twice before I type. You never know when your words can be STOLEN, whether you think it innocent or not.
Kavita Chankar said that she did have the opportunity to speak to the newpaper's editor:
KC: Immediately after this took place, it was a holiday in Trinidad. I however, called and left a message on Omatie Lyder’s voicemail. I called back the day after the holiday and was able to speak with her. She said that it was clear the author did not have permission to use our names and a retraction would appear in the next day's newspaper. I wanted a personal apology with respect to the comment attributed to me. I felt it was shoddy journalism and not at all in keeping with the high standards I expect from media personnel.
JMF: Has the experience changed your perception of social/new media vs. traditional media?
KSW: I think I now trust social media more!! Certainly I look to social media for the ‘real macoy’ in a number of ways. I see a huge need for us to address [what] passes for journalism in this country. I saw it before (I was involved in a political campaign twice) but when it's personal, it truly hits home.
The alleged reporter, who is also a proficient blogger, Andre Bagoo, quoted the comments of former flight attendant Christopher Nathan from a Facebook group without his permission – at least according to Kathryn Stollmeyer-Wight – who was Nathan's co-worker at the airline when it was called BWIA West Indies Airways Limited.
In an interview with Nicholas Laughlin on Global Voices last year, Bagoo was asked about the role citizen media has played in contributing to mainstream media stories:
NL: Have you ever got a lead for a story or a piece of key information from a Trinidadian blogger or other citizen journalist?
AB: Most certainly, yes. The Internet (with sites like Facebook and Twitter) forms one of the richest sources of tips and information for the modern reporter. If you're serious, you cannot afford to ignore it
The line between private and public, privacy laws and ethics may be becoming all the more blurred. The outcome of these incidents, given the lack of local laws governing ownership issues and replication of online content, leaves more questions than answers. Mark Lyndersay's assessment seems to be on target:
I do think there are some things that should be part of the normal expectations of web consumers and contributors. If you take material from a website, ask first. If you don’t ask, give clear credit and links back to the source material. Quote from text to make your point, but avoid wholesale replication of entire stories, most creators think of that as hijacking their material, or scraping.
If the social Internet is a cocktail party, don’t be the guest trying to buss the bar while stuffing finger food into your pockets.