The Social Media Debate: Wikipedia

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Social media has the whole world excited and that is especially the case with Communication professionals. The endless possibilities of web 2.0 applications puts the boundaries on communication where one’s own creativity ends.

But what are the implications for PR in particular? Has social media helped put the public back into public relations? Have two way conversations and content sharing replaced one-way publicity driven communications and media manipulation?

That was the subject of an early Spring debate during one of my last visits to Westminster’s Harrow campus as part of the university’s postgraduate course in PR. Optimism did not, however, spring from everybody in the classroom.

Content sharing, Facebook comments and Twitter conversations – one side argued, is the very incarnation of Grunig’s idea of symmetry in PR.

On the other hand, organisations and governments are not always interested in starting a debate with their audiences and sometimes even manipulate the content, the conversations and the free flow of information online – the others claimed.

And while I tend to agree that social media is the best thing that happened to Communication since man walked out of the cave, I must admit that I was swayed into backing the more cynical of my classmates.

They reminded me of two very good examples of Internet manipulation – Wikipedia and fake comments.

Wikipedia is free to edit by anyone. This means that any intern can fire up his Chrome, log into their Wikipedia account and omit embarrassing information in the article discussing his or her host organisation. More often than not, this will be done by someone with more responsibilities than making coffee and printing daily agendas, but the principle remains the same.

Of course, Wikipedia is not a social media network, but does that mean that we should close our eyes for the obvious and ignore the ugly just for the sake of the argument? Wikipedia is as much an icon of the Internet revolution, as is Facebook and Twitter, and if content there could be so easily manipulated, does that mean that it should be tolerated just because it’s anonymous, and doesn’t lead to arrests?

The premise that the Internet is the ultimate source for freely available, freely circulating information, does not counteract the fact that said information can be untruthful or manipulated. And when PR professionals do it, it jeopardises the entire industry’s integrity, not to mention that it drives the argument for two-way communication into a brick wall and only reinforces the notion of media manipulation, because if Wikipedia is not social media, it most definitely is media.

Read an interesting blog post by Philip Morgan from CIPR on the subject of Wikipedia conflict of interest editing here.

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