As more and more people depend on the Internet for communications, here’s an issue that often arises. What happens when we are urged to pull a story?
How we handle it should probably largely depend on why we are urged to pull the story.
If large government or corporate interests are threatening us with a SLAPP lawsuit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, typically launched by people with considerable social power against those with less), we may not be able to fight the battle all on our own.
In less dire situations, there are nuances. Here are a couple of stories that may be relevant:
The well-known site Buzzfeed is believed to have yanked an article critical of an advertiser:
It’s one of the cardinal rules of journalism: Once you publish something, there’s no taking it back (at least not without a correction, and never without including the original material).
Not so at BuzzFeed.
On Thursday, the online outlet took down a post critical of Dove — whose parent company, Unilever, is a major advertiser — leaving a notice that explained, “We pulled this post because it is not consistent with the tone of BuzzFeed Life.” The original post criticizes the beauty manufacturer’s latest ad campaign, which asks women to walk through a “beautiful” or “average” door; the women who walk through the average door are then criticized for their decision.
As Gawker notes, this isn’t the first time BuzzFeed has simply deleted material it finds embarrassing. Last year, BuzzFeed erased more than 4,000 that it said “didn’t age well,” which it promised was a one-time thing. BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith also allegedly made an employee delete a month-old post critical of Axe (as in, the deodorant).
Your Canadian news hound is just waking up from hibernation and has always been well below average, fashion-wise, so will respond mainly by ignoring Buzzfeed hereafter.
Now that stuff is all probably, in the end, a squabble about money.
Here is another type of issue, of possibly greater significance: Last year, a scientist wrote to me because he was concerned that I was publicizing the work of a colleague (I had put up a post about it somewhere). He felt that the colleague’s work was not ready for prime time. The problem was, the colleague’s work was in fact on the Internet already. Otherwise, I could not have linked to it.
The gifted scientist did not seem to understand two fundamental rules of the Internet: When one puts up a document on the World Wide Web, it is already a public document, by definition.
Second, it may attract more attention if deleted because people who are not necessarily well disposed to the scientist’s views might have saved a screen capture. The result is, it may be more damaging to try to remove a document whose basic thesis is at least defensible than to just defend the thesis in later posts. I was able at length to persuade him.
It’s a lesson to all of us: The Internet is forever for everyone, not just for us. So we shouldn’t publish anything we are not ready to defend and then think we can just alter it or take it down.
Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.