ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.
Last weekend, after the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistan People's Party named her 19-year-old son Bilawal to succeed her as party leader. Given Bilawal's age, reporters around the world ran to their computers to find out details about him. They figured he had an account on Facebook, the online social networking site that's especially popular among students. This was a place to mine clues about his hobbies, interests, thinking.
It turns out someone had created a new fake Facebook profile for Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. And several media outlets picked up the information on it. What followed was a lot of column space, trying to figure out who got the right Facebook profile and who got what was the handiwork of an online prankster. Social networks like Facebook and MySpace are blurring the lines of what is and what isn't reliable personal information.
Sree Sreenivasan is a professor of New Media at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York.
Thank you very much for speaking with us.
Professor SREE SREENIVASAN (New Media, Columbia School of Journalism): Nice to be here.
SEABROOK: What happened with Bilawal Bhutto Zardari's Facebook profile?
Prof. SREENIVASAN: Journalists got fooled by an online prankster, and that happens fairly often these days. And it's so much easier to fool people because the production values of these hoaxes have gotten better and better because of the tools have made these hoaxes easier to make. Now, a couple of things play a role in this, including the fact that journalists were looking desperately for information about this young man.
And the fact that here was something easy to grasp, a Facebook profile in this case, was there. And so you've kind of jumped on it. We've seen over the last few years that whenever there's a big crisis people, rush online to get some sense of control, and getting information even if it's bogus in the end makes people feel like they have some control. And especially for journalists, that sense of having control and getting ahead of the story is - are important to them.
SEABROOK: You teach young aspiring journalists. How do you tell them that journalists should approach things like Facebook?
Prof. SREENIVASAN: In the same way that we have been talking about approaching things like the Internet, that you have to be skeptical, you know, in everything you see online. If it's too good to be true or too bad to be true, it probably isn't.
SEABROOK: We should point out, though, that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari did have a Facebook profile, and there are several news organizations that figured out which one was the correct one. I mean has the game of journalism changed in terms of checking your facts, making sure that which Facebook page is the real Facebook page and so on?
Prof. SREENIVASAN: Well, one of the things we learned here is, yet again, the importance of connecting with your primary sources and double checking directly. And in this case, you know, he was not giving interviews, so you were not able to check him. So then, you go around the person and kind of the circle of people who know him and on Facebook, they would have been friends. You go and double check and see - are these people who are also at Oxford? Are they connected in some way? Do they have connections? What is he saying? All of those things, you would want to keep, you know, checking around and looking.
SEABROOK: Sree Sreenivasan is a professor of New Media at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York City.
Thank you very much, sir.
Prof. SREENIVASAN: Thank you.