Journalists love online forums — they provide publicly accessible colour with which to illustrate a story; lack the need to identify or substantiate the claims of the author; can profess to represent the collective thought of an entire group (without the journalist having to actually contact that group) and if a journalist is feeling so inclined there’s nothing stopping them from writing their own online forum post and quoting themselves.

In November, the Adelaide Advertiser used one lonely online forum quote, “Aliens I tell ya, aliens man. They have found them and don’t want us to know about it. Just like Roswell. I tell ya man, it’s a conspiracy” to suggest the interwebs were “running hot with conspiracy theories of a Government cover-up” about aliens in the Simpson desert.

And in December it seems The Australian followed suit with their reference to the Lonely Planet’s online forum Thorn Tree in the story “Down like Alice the meltdown of a tourist mecca“. In a post on the Inside Lonely Planet Digital blog, author Vanessa Paech wrote:

…our members noticed some suspicious conversation on the Australian branch of Thorn Tree. A new user asks a question about traveller safety in Alice Springs… and the same user helpfully responds with a confirmation of their general concerns? Internet baiting gone awry?

A week after the dodgy double post, Paech noted, The Oz used it to suggest travelers were concerned about safety issues in Alice Springs:

On the Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree travel forum, a woman called Alexa issues safety advice to a fellow traveller thinking of visiting Alice Springs.

“NEVER walk alone at night. It’s an alcohol-fuelled town that has the highest murder rate per capita of any non-conflict region,” she says.

“NEVER get drunk at night and decide to walk back to your accommodation – you’re a target. Catch a cab always.”

Though Alexa’s fears are overstated, tourists’ concerns over crime rates are not without cause.

This is despite the number of posts directly following that debunked the original posts and called the author “Alexa” a “forum troll”.

In a similar vein, the UK’s Sun newspaper was held to scrutiny by The Sun–Tabloid Lies blog last week for misrepresenting posts on an online forum. A front page story headlined “Hate hit list” reported that an online Islamic community was an “Extremist threat to UK Jews”, all off the back of one a commenter who suggested a letter writing campaign to support Palestine. Septicisle, the blogger who pulled the Sun up, said:

To me it just looks like the Sun doing what it always does: twisting the truth as far as it can to create a “story” while not telling outright lies. That it will further inflame hatred against Muslims who were only proposing a letter writing campaign, and also scare Jewish individuals already concerned at the potential for attacks on them because of Israel’s actions in Gaza is just an unfortunate by-product of the Sun’s constant need to keep shifting copies and making money. Nothing else apart from that matters, and if other people get hurt, so be it.

In Japan last weekend the production staff of a TV-Asahi quiz program fabricated a series of blogs, using them as real news sources for questions. The TV station was quickly forced to acknowledge the blogs were fake and apologise after viewers became suspicious.

But journalists aren’t the only professionals who like to abuse online forums. Last October, Greens candidate Tim Lyons was forced to pull out of a city council race after posting a comment in an online local politics forum on the Maribyrnong Leader website under a pseudonym and then lying about it. The Leader said:

The comment supported Western Metropolitan Greens MP Colleen Hartland’s position on the Whitten Oval redevelopment and discussed the value of having a mix of political views on council, including those of the Greens, ALP and independents.

When questioned by The Leader, Lyons initially denied posting the comment, despite the fact that the email and IP addresses used to post the comment both linked to him.

Forums are in part easy to abuse because they’re notoriously difficult to moderate. Social network strategist Laurel Papworth tells Crikey that, while it is critical to manage forums, “the best thing for moderators to do is to create safe forums, where communities can grow and develop and then moderate themselves.”

This is what happened with the Thorn Tree forum. The community immediately recognised there was something amiss with Alexa, debunked her claims and followed up on The Australian‘s story with further links discrediting it.

However The Australian’s online version of the Thorn Tree story has no space for comments — which means there’s no way for digital communities to point out the issues surrounding the use of such a quote and no way to hold the journalist accountable.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey