Modern Plagiarism?

It might be easier than ever to find out what’s going on in the world, or discover old facts you would never have dreamed of knowing otherwise, because of the internet – but despite its overwhelming advantages, there are some negatives that are slowly becoming more influential on our wider culture.

Technology is a double-edged sword in that although making new content and news is as simple as it has ever been, copying that content and claiming it as your own is too.  Entire works of writers can be swiped with a simple copy and paste.  Some websites even take out the middle-man and steal things for themselves.  It’s a massive problem in a world where intellectual property, ideas and the expression thereof, is every bit as precious as what exists physically.

Nothing exemplifies this catch-22 better than social media.  We can share information with hundreds of people and then it can take off and find new audience at a terrifying pace.  Facebook claims to have 1.25 billion users every month, assuming everyone is linked into this giant web through even just one friend then it’s possible that your post on Facebook could eventually be seen by one in every five people on the planet.

When it comes to news, social media does something that other organisations can’t  compete with.  It offers a quick and easy way for people to publish their own stories, however trivial they may be, but also allows for a free and unfettered exchange of analysis and debate over it.  Something as simple as a photo from a party can be big news amongst a group of people.  It may not matter to anyone outside the people that were there, but the photo can show something that is important and new to someone – and that’s what news is at its heart.  All this can be sent around thousands of people in short amounts of time.

Sharing your own news is something that only social media can really do, but that’s only half the story of its’ posts.  The majority of people now get their news via social media, and through those Facebook shares and retweets is a certain sense of plagiarism.  People are not reporting the news, but passing it on.  There’s nothing wrong with it if you are crediting the original source, of course, but with the ease of composing and sharing information and claiming it as your own then it’s clear where the problem comes from.  The hard work of those reporting, researching or analysis goes unrewarded.  Even in a framework where making the true creator of something known is just a link away, people forget to give credit where credit is due.  It’s not something that social media can change, but it’s something that the internet in general is culpable for.  It’s too easy to share news without thinking.

The flaws of social media are inherent to the internet and the ever more exposed world in which we live.  The fact is that modern media as a whole is built off of reporting news second-hand or, at worst, plagiarism.  Newspapers now work largely as one synonymous mass, with exclusives being so for all of a few hours before a write-up of the write-up appears online.  News reports on internet phenomenon are common now, despite being wholly unnecessary.  Journalism used to fill a gap where the original story was inaccessible to the masses, but with the original source just as close to hand – is it still as important?  News reports on things like reddit threads and top ten celebrity videos aren’t journalism, but more traffic direction; pointing the way for denizens of the internet to find something new.

Perhaps the worst offenders for this on the web are Buzzfeed.  It’s a website entirely geared towards creating (using the term loosely) content designed to go viral through people’s interest.  But instead of making anything from scratch their focus is taking other parts of the web and putting it in list form.  Collecting news in one place so that people can find it might be a good thing, but my issue with Buzzfeed is their blatant theft of images and videos from other sites to use as their own, often without credit.  What other sites do can be justified, it’s more convenient for users and the original owners are still being recognised for their role, but Buzzfeed lazily bypasses that second step and takes more of the recognition, and eventually ad revenue, for themselves.  Taking note of their image they have hired several major players in online news, including Ben Smith from Politico, with an attempt to create a more traditional journalism element to their site.   Buzzfeed co-founder John Peretti was also one of the founders of The Huffington Post, which for the most part is one of the finest online-only news sites around, so the move could well have paid off. The fruits of their labour are hard to find though, and certainly don’t adorn their homepage.  Without any serious merit or original work, Buzzfeed is the epitome of low-quality news online to me.

EDIT (26/7/14): Buzzfeed today fired one of their editors Benny Johnson over allegations of plagiarism with “40 instances of sentences or phrases copied word for word from other sites” according to the Huffington Post.  It’s a tip of the iceberg situation I feel, but it’s good to see some action being taken against even some of the most high-ranking personnel within the company.

So is all of this really plagiarism, or is our idea of journalism now changing in a way as to accept it to a degree?  Before journalists had to be the ones that were there, passing on first and second hand accounts of major events.  Now that the people involved in such events have such an easy avenue of getting their stories out there, news-breaking journalism is becoming increasingly harder.  Think of the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound back in 2011.  The first news about it came from Twitter, as the residents of Abbottabad tweeted about the helicopters that had swooped in to their town.  Even the Pakistani military had a slower response.  Those who first released the information into the wider world were the real reporters.

I don’t think for a second that journalism is going away, but just that it has become a much broader term.  Anyone with a space online can be a journalist, with or without a website.  I think that’s a brilliant opportunity, and it’s the reason why I’m here.

The internet’s loose self-policing does take some measures against plagiarism, but it acts more as a deterrent than a punishment.  Being the owner of the biggest search engine on the web, Google has a major role in determining which sites people visit and which ones fall by the wayside.  Their web crawlers, that scour the internet to see what’s out there, have the power to decide whether a page should be found or not, and one of the key factors they take into consideration is whether the page offers new content.  If the page is similar to another that already exists, then chances are that Google will pass it by.  It’s not a bad system, but it heavily favours the major players.  More established websites get crawled more often and are given more weight, so should one of them take content from a lesser site then Google might struggle to decide who had it first and will normally side with the big boys.  There is some resistance to actual plagiarism on the internet, but there’s no way of it being policed properly.

Overall it’s definitely a good thing that news is so easy to come by and comes from many different sources.  Twitter and Facebook can break a story of almost any level more quickly than traditional news wires ever could, and for that they deserve credit.  But the internet has and will continue to see deterioration in journalistic standards.

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