Tugging on the Reins

October 12, 2009 at 12:40 am

I love the Web as much as the next guy. But too many times, I’ve had to answer questions about statements from the Web that had no semblence to reality. Or I’ve had “facts” cited that were picked up from the Internet and used without any questioning. I’ve always felt that the day would come when this incredible tool for sharing, archiving and finding information would become even better by pushing some sort of responsibility on it.

The public is used to the news media. If you see something in the New York Times, the Star Ledger or even the Mount Olive Chronicle, odds are that someone has at least attempted to do some fact checking. Advertising managers also know that there are repercussions for allowing ad claims to get too out of hand. And on both sides of that divide, credibility is a primary concern to those in traditional media.

Two recent legal developments seem force Internet writers to be a bit more responsible for their actions. In August, a New York judge told a model that she could find out the information about a blogger who had anonymously called her a skank. (http://tinyurl.com/m35ek3) That will allow her take legal action against that person if she so desires.

And, more recently, the FTC clarified its rules on telling the truth in advertising. It declared that those endorsing a product or service had to disclose their relationship, if any, with the maker of the product or the provider of the service. They specifically used the example of  bloggers who endorse products, and said they must disclose their connection with that product, whether that be compensation or some other relationship. (http://tinyurl.com/yb2xrx7)

I, for one, think these are good ideas. Yes, I know: The marketplace of ideas should be able to counterbalance whatever hurtful or erroneous information is out there. I have no doubt that it eventually would, but all too often, people seeing that bad information and using it to make decisions or judgements won’t have those balancing ideas at the same time, and will wind up making bad decisions.

And I’ve also read the argument that the New York decision could mean open season on bloggers who are critical. Some common sense has to be used here. Don’t we have the same issues in print media? If someone has the time, money and inclination, can’t they sue a newspaper or TV station for some mild criticism?

I can tell you from experience that the threat of a libel suit makes some editors and reporters think twice about criticizing someone. It should. But I don’t think it has a “chilling effect” on traditional media, nor do I think it will have a severely dampening effect on blogs. Honest criticism is a healthy part of our First Amendment rights and critical to our democracy. If it makes a blogger think twice before they call someone a “skank” or publish false and malicious information, good. It should.

And if the FTC ruling makes a blogger a little more transparent about how he or she got the product or service they’re talking about, well, that’s fine with me as well. Bloggers, like their traditional media counterparts, will have to decide whether accepting a free product or service, or not acknowledging fees for their work, is worth the ding in their crediblity.

Nothing but good comes from combining the incredibile resources of the Web with more traditional editing and vetting techniques. Seems to me it can only make the Internet stronger for research and information sharing. And forcing writers to take responsibility for what they write and being transparent about who they write for is, again, the right way for things to be.

Until we can count on the “marketplace of ideas,” we’ll continue to need to tug on the reins of the Web and allow additional reasonable regulation of the Internet.

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Entry filed under: Dealing with social media, Ethics in Public Relations. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

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