Is your impartiality compromised by who you follow on Twitter?

I can’t call it a raging debate, because that would be an exaggeration. But it is certainly a topic which has divided opinion.

Much is made of the BBC’s presence on Twitter. It has clearly emerged as the micro-blogging service – if we still call it that – of choice for everyone. You’ll never hear a presenter on Radio 1 say “Add me as a friend on Plurk!”, for example. The reasons for this were carefully outlined in a Freedom of Information Act response last month.

But choices over individual social networks aside, how are certain actions on Twitter perceived?

Take ‘following’. What does it mean? We know what it means in a technical sense, of course: the simple premise of getting a certian person’s updates in your timeline.

But how you interpret what the plain act of ‘following’ someone actually means arguably has an important knock-on effect to consider, particularly for journalists and news orgs keen to emphasise their impartiality.

For instance, if the number of followers an account has determines its success and influence, then does following a person imply support? Or at least provide it regardless? Are we helping their cause/party/product/views?

I’d argue not – in the same way that 100,000,000 people watching Rebecca Black on YouTube doesn’t constitute even 1 million fans. She’d be so lucky.


But imagine this. Say @BBCLauraK – that’s the BBC’s Laura Kuessenberg, poltical correpsondent – was to follow a particularly controversial politics blog’s Twitter account. Something very right-wing. A bit racist, perhaps.

Does that reflect poorly on her?

For blogs, reputation is everything – and so when this blog’s Twitter profile lists one of the BBC’s top correspondents as a follower, does that add legitimacy to the content?

Are people thinking “Oh it must be a good blog, the BBC follow it”?

I don’t think so. It’s a source, and devilish as the content may be, it is most probably newsworthy, and for Laura not to be across it would just be bad form.

But hold on. What if someone was to analyse everyone that Laura followed and discovered that she had more right-wing tweeters in her network than left-wing, would that then suggest bias? An altogether trickier question.

A similar debate was raised when the BBC’s role on Facebook was being discussed a couple of years back.

Whatever you do, the advice was, don’t put any political views. Certainly don’t officially set it in your profile. Even if you’re not on the reporting frontline, or even in journalism at all, you should refrain.

Why? Because the data is too readily available. It’s too easy for someone to run a search on everyone who lists ‘BBC’ as an employer, and then see how the percentages work out – is the BBC as ‘lefty’ as everyone says it is? We’d soon get something approaching proof.

The ‘secret’ follow

But back to Twitter, and, maybe, a potential solution to all this.

Anyone lucky enough to go on Sue Llewellyn and Claire Wardle’s Making the Web Work for You course will know about the idea of ‘secret follows’. That is, following those who don’t know they’re being followed and, even more handily, following people without them appearing on ‘following’ list.

It’s simply done – just simply add a load of contacts to a list, and then make that list private. Hey presto, a secret way to follow all those questionable people without them, or anyone else for that matter, realising.

I think this method is quickly being regarded as the compromise. Sure, it’s not quite as convenient, but a quick added column on Tweetdeck will soon make it seem as seamless as the rest of it.

But personally, I’m not sure what we should be hiding.

If I have an account that follows the BNP, EDL and whoever else, I don’t see how that can be seen as impacting my impartiality – in precisely the same manner as reading the Daily Telegraph doesn’t make me a Tory. It’s information, end of discussion.

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