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The Internet vs. Humans: Who's Telling the Truth?

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A couple of weeks back, there was a kerfuffle on the Internet about remarks Bob Woodward made after reading some papers written by journalism students at Yale University. Woodward told a panel at the American Society of News Editors that when the students' professor, Steven Brill, asked them to speculate on how Watergate would be covered today, they "wrote that, 'Oh, you would just use the Internet and you'd go to "Nixon's secret fund" and it would be there.'"

Woodward told the panel that the Yalies' unshakable belief in the Internet as "a magic lantern that lit up all events" nearly gave him an aneurysm. He said, "I have attempted to apply some corrective information to them, but the basic point is: the truth of what goes on is not on the Internet. [The Internet] can supplement. It can help advance. But the truth resides with people. Human sources."

The Internet may not be a magic lantern, but Woodward's remarks, which were reported by The Washington Post, certainly lit it up. "The Internet is -- almost by definition -- a network of people, and therefore a treasure trove of human sources," scolded Politico's Dylan Byers. "Woodward (not surprisingly, perhaps) still seems to see journalism as something that lone-cowboy-style reporters do in secret by themselves, rather than a collaborative process that now involves other people," including the audience, fumed Mathew Ingram on GigaOM. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen was even harsher. "I don't even believe this anecdote about moronic Yale students that Bob Woodward used to illustrate how clueless young people are today about journalism," he posted on Facebook. "It sounds made-up or very, very distorted from something one of them wrote."

After some actual reporting by TechPresident's Micah Sifry (he contacted Woodward and Brill) revealed that Woodward had neither made up nor exaggerated a thing about the Yale students, Rosen blogged a long apology to Woodward. So did Sifry, who had "accidentally published" a draft post to his site questioning the veracity of Woodward's statement. How interesting that a debate on the Internet's power as a reporting tool ended with mea culpas from two veterans of cyberspace who shared their opinions with the world prematurely.

I was thinking about all this as I read the coverage of Facebook's $1-billion deal to acquire Instagram. As countless media outlets have noted, news of the acquisition sparked strong reactions on the Internet, with many Instagram users taking to Twitter and Facebook to make their mostly negative opinions of the deal known. This phenomenon became a news event in its own right, with outlets (the Los Angeles Times, the New York Daily News, TheStreet.com, to name a few) running stories basically summing up and quoting tweets about the deal. Even The New York Times' page-one piece on the acquisition relied on tweets to supply some much-needed skepticism to an otherwise celebatory story.

Injected into the Times piece, the complaining tweets read like whining quotes attributed to anonymous sources. The paper names the tweeters but supplies no other descriptive information (e.g., job titles, affiliations, locations) about them, which makes it extremely difficult to judge their credibility. (Based on the info the Times supplied, I couldn't locate them on Twitter.) And while the idea that Instagram users might not stick with Facebook is certainly relevant to the success or failure of the deal, it is not something a few random quotes plucked from the Twitterverse can really tell us. For that, you would need time, and, as Woodward put it, human sources.

Two days after the deal's announcement, Mashable reported that according to social media analysis firm Crimson Hexagon, the Facebook-Instagram deal had only a 12-percent approval rating on Twitter. That certainly serves as a welcome antidote to all the happy talk coming from Silicon Valley's bankers, venture capitalists, and other technology players who have incentive to root for the Instagram bonanza. But is Twitter's skepticism any more reliable than the boosters' euphoria? What can it reveal about the real questions that surround this deal, such as whether the price tag makes any sense, or whether Facebook really needed to do it.

The Yale students believed the Internet would have told them the truth about Nixon; now the media are hoping it will tell them the truth about Instagram and Facebook. But an off-the-cuff opinion instantly posted on the Internet is a changeable and unreliable thing. Just ask Jay Rosen.

Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal magazine.