A recent controversy about fake Twitter comments being run onscreen during a news show has raised questions about the reliability of instant viewer feedback. From live SMS polls to tweeted views to texted queries, many of the methods used to increase the “buzz” of viewer-interactivity in real-time can be misused unless adequate filters are put in place.

On his ‘India at 9' programme on December 16, CNN-IBN's Editor-in-chief Rajdeep Sardesai discussed the question ‘Should lobbying be legalised?'

IBN sources say the question of the day is usually posted on the channel's website around noon. On this particular day, however, the question was posted at 5.07 p.m., according to the time-stamp on the website. Since there were not enough responses posted, an IBN staffer quickly concocted his or her own comments and aired them on screen, attributing them to five different Twitter IDs, according to IBN sources.

A suspicious viewer checked out the IDs and discovered that while three accounts were non-existent, the others had posted no tweets at all. He indignantly posted about this at dalalmedia.posterous.com (which, incidentally, has just two blog-posts), from where it spread within the blogosphere and among twitterati.

Mr. Sardesai initially responded to questions on Twitter, saying: “The comments that were picked up from ibnlive.com. should have been attributed to the web, not to twitter.” As the IBN website does not contain any of these `particular comments, his listeners remained sceptical. However, an apology posted on the website later admitted that “This viewer feedback was wrongly attributed to Twitter accounts. We deeply regret the error and apologise for the same. We will take all steps to ensure that this is not repeated.”

Mr. Sardesai echoed this apology when contacted by The Hindu. “It was an unfortunate lapse that should not have happened. We have put in place systems to ensure it doesn't happen again,” he said, in a welcome example of the accountability needed to maintain the credibility of the news media.

Some bloggers have portrayed this as an example of media manipulation, noting that all five of the “fake” comments supported the legalising of lobbying — despite the fact that a majority of the comments now on the IBN website reveal that the public is against any such legalisation.

Mr. Sardesai vigorously refuted such suggestions, pointing out that the course of neither the debate, nor his final “Editor's Take” reflected the opinions of the “fake” comments in any way. “The problem is not lobbying, it's the misuse of authority and discretionary powers. Middlemen will always exist in a corrupted and opaque system that privileges influence-peddling. You can legislate lobbying, but can you legislate morality?” said the Editor's Take during the show.

It is clear that TV news editors are aware of the potential for misuse present in instant feedback. Several reputed channels have cut back on these gimmicks in recent years, despite the desire to display interactivity with their viewers. Times Now does not run SMS polls at all, according to Arnab Goswami, Editor-in-Chief of the channel.

Mr. Sardesai said he would consider revealing the total number of SMSs received during the poll run on CNN-IBN's 10 p.m. show, rather than just posting percentages, which can give a distorted picture of public opinion. Instead of “live” feedback supposedly received during the course of a show, the channel now uses only feedback that has been previously posted on its website or sent to its Twitter ID, so that there is time to put a filter in place before comments are aired.

“In principle, manufactured tweets are no worse than manufactured letters to the editor, which are an old trick of the trade for newspapers and magazines. But it doesn't help media credibility in the season of the Radia tapes,” notes media critic Sevanti Ninan, who runs the media watchdog site thehoot.org.

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