Progression of a lie: Haaretz, ‘apartheid,’ and Twitter

Mainstream journalists who were quick to share with many thousands of followers were reluctant to admit that they had been wrong -- journalistic ethics nothwithstanding

They say a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. And with communication technology like Facebook and Twitter, this has never been more true than today.

But what happens once the truth is fully dressed? What if, to take the travel analogy a bit further, the lie continues to circulate unhindered because the truth lives in an unpopular, under-served neighborhood, which discriminatory taxi drivers prefer to avoid?

This is what seemed to happen after the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a widely criticized and inaccurate article about a public opinion poll about Israeli attitudes. Journalists on Twitter were quick to spread misinformation about the poll, but did not appear to think the facts that quickly emerged were worth sharing .

Prominent among the many problems with the Haaretz article, written by anti-Israel columnist Gideon Levy, was its outrageous and false headline: “Survey: Most Israeli Jews support apartheid regime in Israel.” As many observers quickly pointed out, the survey contained no such finding — the headline was a complete lie.

Indeed, notwithstanding spin by the author and the false headline, which Haaretz would eventually change after conceding that it “did not accurately reflect” the survey’s findings, a reader looking through the article for evidence of a poll question about support for apartheid would find nothing at all.

CNN and NPR reporters convey a lie

That didn’t stop a number of mainstream journalists from sharing the article’s headline and other fabricated findings with many thousands of Twitter users.

To his nearly 78,000 followers on the social network, Andy Carvin, a “senior strategist at NPR,” sent a link to the Gideon Levy piece along with a version of the inaccurate headline:

CNN’s Ben Wedeman, who has nearly 83,000 Twitter followers, did the same:

Another CNN reporter on Twitter went even further. Ivan Watson, who describes himself as a CNN correspondent based in Istanbul, told his 28,000 followers:

In less than 140 characters, the CNN reporter in Turkey shared not one, but two flagrant lies. Regarding West Bank roads, the survey found the exact opposite of what Watson claimed. A large majority of those polled, 67%, said the security restrictions on certain West Bank roads were “not a good situation,” even if many viewed it as a necessary measure. Another 9% responded that they do not know whether it is a good or bad situation, leaving only 24% who described it as good.

And again, as Noam Shelef of the liberal New Israel Fund pointed out, “claiming the poll demonstrates support for ‘apartheid’ is spin at its worst.” But with the help of Twitter, those lies traveled halfway around the world.

‘Retweets are not endorsements’

Many Twitter users include a caveat on their homepage noting that “retweets are not endorsements.” That is to say, if they bring a particular article or statement to the attention of their readers, it does not necessarily mean they support the message they are sharing.

Not necessarily. But what does it mean if a journalist shares factually incorrect information, if the article they share gets exposed as dishonest and distorted in a number of serious analyses, if somebody on Twitter brings to the journalist’s attention one of those analyses, and if despite all this, the journalist opts not to inform his misled readers of the facts?

With one click from Andy Carvin and Ben Wedeman, the NPR and CNN journalists, 160,000 people received notice that “most Israeli Jews would support [an] apartheid regime in Israel.” And because Twitter is largely about re-sharing, countless additional users would eventually see the journalists’ message. The next day, a Twitter user — the author of this article — brought to Carvin and Wedeman’s attention a detailed rebuttal of the Haaretz article, which left no doubt that the statement they helped spread was patently false. The same Twitter user also suggested they had an ethical obligation to inform their readers of the rebuttal:

Setting the record straight, too, would have required only one click. But the correction was not forthcoming. The failure on the part of both journalists to quickly examine and share the new information that came to their attention is reason for concern. When they put before tens of thousands of people such a serious allegation, and choose not to forthrightly let them know that the content of their tweet was false, it raises the question: Why would they want people to read Levy’s inflammatory story, but not want them to know that the story is full of misrepresentations?

Ethics apply — even on Twitter

Much has been written about journalistic ethics on Twitter. While there may be some debate on specifics, few disagree that journalistic guidelines, not least a commitment to accuracy, should continue to apply to news reporters online.

The chapter on “social media” in NPR’s Ethics Handbook tells reporters, “don’t behave any differently online than you would in any other public setting.”

[T]he general standard is simple: Tweet and retweet as if what you’re saying or passing along is information that you would put on the air or in a “traditional” news story. If it needs context, attribution, clarification or “knocking down,” provide it.

In an interview with the Center for International Media Ethics, journalist and professor Steve Buttry argued:

Nothing is more important than accuracy and verification. That doesn’t change with using Twitter. Journalists get deceived by dishonest sources or give undue credibility to sources who don’t know what they are talking about in in-person interviews and telephone interviews. And they make those errors on Twitter, too.

In the interview, CIME wrote, “Buttry suggests reporters treat Twitter as they would any other form of media, adding that the same good journalistic sense that is applied to in-person, phone or email reporting should also be applied to Twitter reporting.”

Good journalistic sense should have led Wedeman and Carvin, whose Twitter pages make clear their affiliation with CNN and NPR, respectively, to seek substantiation before passing along the inflammatory charge that most Israelis support apartheid. They would have found, as noted above, that such substantiation does not exist — not in the poll, and not even in the body of the Haaretz article — which is why Haaretz was forced to correct its headline. Good journalistic sense certainly should have prevented Ivan Watson, CNN’s correspondent in Istanbul, from adding embellishments of his own about Israelis “liking” restrictions on West Bank roads, when in fact the opposite is true.

It was on October 23 that Carvin, who apparently has somewhat of a reputation for Twitter diligence, and Wedeman, who has previously revealed jaundiced views about Israel both on Twitter and on, posted Haaretz’s misinformation to their Twitter accounts. On October 24, they each received a message on the social network informing them that their information was false and suggesting they have a journalistic obligation to update their readers.

But as the days passed, and the journalists continued to post unrelated information to Twitter, their readers received no notice about the actual findings of the misrepresented poll. Even on October 28, when Haaretz admitted fault by changing the headline and publishing a clarification, their Twitter followers were kept in the dark.

Nearly a week after they were first contacted, CAMERA sent a follow-up email to Carvin and Wedeman, asking for on-the-record comment:

I’m writing an article about journalists who shared on twitter Gideon Levy’s “apartheid” story, but never bothered to similarly share with their readers the subsequent, substantive disproof by a number of observers or the correction by Ha’aretz. Even Levy himself has admitted error.

As a reminder, I did tweet to your attention evidence that Levy was profoundly mischaracterizing the survey, but unless I’m mistaken, you opted not to share any such evidence with your twitter followers.

Your comments on this are welcomed.

Carvin quickly responded that he was in the middle of a hurricane and would look into the issue later. But when he was first notified of the inaccuracy, the storm was still far off in the Caribbean.

Wedeman responded that “retweets do not amount to an endorsement.”

Shortly after CAMERA informed them that there would be an article about the issue, the two journalists posted to Twitter a link to an article by Gideon Levy, most of which was devoted to reiterating his accusations of Israeli racism and attacking those who exposed his falsehoods, but which also included a grudging apology for his misinformation. Wedeman’s post gave no indication that the link had anything to with the falsehood he had earlier shared.

Carvin’s retweet stated, confusingly:

Gideon Levy agrees with Israelis would accept apartheid only if their preference for two states cannot be realized.

Hardly a clear indication that his earlier charge about the poll was false.

The two journalists never made a clear statement on Twitter that the headline they shared was inaccurate and had been corrected, and neither journalist shared with readers a third-party critique of Gideon Levy’s story in Haaretz.

Ivan Watson seemed to have even fewer qualms about misinforming his readers. He was told via Twitter on November 1 that both of his statements were patently false. As of this writing, he has not informed his Twitter followers that he was wrong, has not linked to a critique of the article, and has not indicated in any way that Haaretz and Levy corrected their article.

About the Author
Gilead Ini is a senior research analyst at CAMERA, where his writing on media coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict highlights how one-sided and inaccurate reporting can distort understanding of the Middle East. You can follow him on Twitter at @GileadIni.