26
Jun 17

What editors worry about today (notes from Newsgeist)

I went at the weekend to a Google Newsgeist conference in Copenhagen. The discussions are under ‘Chatham House’ rules (views can’t be attributed to individuals) but here are some quick and selective notes on what I learnt as a couple of hundred people from all over Europe (and a few from the US) chewed over journalism, technology and news.

  • Top shock value. When online news platforms try out several headlines on the first version of a story to see which one works best, bots can be used to ‘game’ the results of a survey, distorting the result and delivering – say – a headline more sympathetic to an individual featured in the story. The bots were originally developed to twist these experiments in favour of advertisers, but can just as easily be used to bend headlines in favour of anyone with the clout or expertise to deploy bots. If news sites aren’t savvy and careful.
  • Man with numbers. An expert on news consumption in Facebook made this simple point. The news people are shown in Facebook is more balanced than a lot of people imagine. What is unbalanced is people’s consumption of the stories they are shown. They simply ignore what they think they aren’t going to like.
  • Big underlying fear. No one quite knows what to do about this, but they’re afraid of it. Societies which can’t agree about what might or might not be true are at risk. That isn’t the same as societies disagreeing about stuff: democracies do that ceaselessly. But if a society is fundamentally divided on how to establish (with evidence) truth and how to recognise that, trouble follows. America in the age of Trump was on everyone’s mind. ‘We are losing our sense of collective reality,’ as one participant put it. (My views on this in a review of Cass Sunstein’s book #Republic are here). No consensus on the causes: many people think social networks cause or aggravate the problem, others think it has deeper causes such as social, demographic and geographic segregation.
  • New trend. Journalists, and particularly those with technology backgrounds, are beginning to think harder about how algorithms surface information and the long-term, accumulative implications. Those algorithms which lean particularly heavily on emotion (Facebook) were contrasted with Upday (a news app produced by Samsung and Axel Springer), whose designers claim to be balancing the emotion with some reason and use of public interest criteria. Are we witnessing the first attempts to design an editor-in-chief with machine learning?
  • To be continued. Online makes the disguise of information easier, cheaper and almost frictionless. Huge debunking and factchecking efforts have responded to new fears about ‘fake news’. The Google people present agreed that more technical inquiry was needed into whether there might be better ways to ‘hard code’, label or tag information to make it harder to distort or misuse. I talked about the INJECT project (with which I’m involved) which aims to produce software which, among other things, will help journalists add references and backing to what they write with minimum hassle.
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30
May 17

A little (election) manifesto for Facebook

When an issue starts to surface at literary festivals, you can tell that it’s gone middle-class mainstream. Over the weekend, TV celebrity Stephen Fry recommended that Facebook be classified ‘as a publisher’ in order to tackle ‘fake’ news and online abuse.

With an election on in the UK right now, Facebook is the weapon of choice for political parties wanting to spring surprises. The network is being credited with almost magical powers of persuasion and manipulation – largely because few people understand how it works. I live in a marginal constituency in London and printed political nonsense comes through our letterbox every day; I’ve no need to look at Facebook to see people fiddling with the truth.

So how should worry about Facebook be usefully focussed? In a public exchange with Facebook’s Adam Mosseri recently I urged Facebook to think much wider and to worry about helping to rebuild faith in truth in societies where that trust has begun to break down. Unsurprisingly, someone researching platforms asked me what on earth I meant. What follows is based on my reply.

When I talked about a ‘reconstruction effort in civil society’, I was compressing too much into a short phrase. Many journalists were thinking very narrowly about fake news, factchecking and misinformation. That is to say that the concerns about it are perfectly real (as are the solutions which are being tried out and multiplying), but the issue goes wider.

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22
Mar 17

Cut clutter, clarify and care about every word: Robert Silvers, RIP

Much has been written about Robert Silvers, one of two founders of the New York Review of Books, who died the other day. I never met Silvers but almost feel as if I knew him, despite the fact that he almost never wrote in the NYRB as an author. To read the NYRB was to read the minds of many knowledgeable people; one was also reading the mind of Silvers. His mark was on every paragraph.

That was of course because he edited every word. People who create ideas which last simplify and clarify. Listen to Silvers in this interview from four years ago. I can imagine that his voice might, to some, sound ‘elitist’ and arrogant in its certainty. But hear the clarity of purpose – and the watchful care to have that expressed in every word and comma. Lazy writing is lazy thinking, and vice versa.

The only statement of editorial mission the NYRB ever needed appeared in the first issue in 1963:

“This issue … does not pretend to cover all the books of the season or even all the important ones. Neither time nor space, however, have been spent on books which are trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation, or to call attention to a fraud.”

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06
Mar 17

Dear Google, your algorithm went walkabout

In the past couple of years Google has moved more and more openly into creating editorial content, albeit material assembled by computers and not by people. One algorithm experiment in this line reveals a terrible muddle about truth.

The version of machine-created material most often seen in a Google search is the box which flips up on the right hand side of a screen to summarise what Google knows about the main subject of a search. I asked Google for the nearest branch of the restaurant chain Wahaca to my home in London:

For this kind of search, such panels work just fine. I get links to Wahaca locations on the left and a summary of the things I’m most likely to want to know about Wahaca neatly laid out on the right. This is the sort of thing that search does well with what the early pioneers of online called ‘ease of do’. Exact factual information, in a split second.

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20
Feb 17

Mr Zuckerberg’s education has further to go

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24
Oct 16

News on Facebook: clever people still not (quite) getting it

Six weeks after unleashing a small tornado of criticism for mistakenly taking down a legendary news picture, Facebook’s top honchos have responded to the criticisms they attracted and switched policy.

Their global ‘community standards’ will be adjusted to allow exceptions for ‘newsworthy’ material. So say Justin Osofsky and Joel Kaplan, two Facebook Veeps, in a blog post. This is the key paragraph and the entire description of the tests they will use:

‘In the weeks ahead, we’re going to begin allowing more items that people find newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest — even if they might otherwise violate our standards. We will work with our community and partners to explore exactly how to do this, both through new tools and approaches to enforcement. Our intent is to allow more images and stories without posing safety risks or showing graphic images to minors and others who do not want to see them.’

On the surface, this is fine and I’m glad that Facebook has learnt from its recent experience. But the surface is the problem. If the Facebookers don’t dig under he surface of these brief, bland phrases soon, they will rapidly find themselves up to their armpits in more controversies. Last weekend’s flare-up was a reported internal row over whether or not Trump-supporting posts should be taken down because they qualify as hate speech. At the rate Facebook seems to be thinking about these dilemmas at the moment, there will be plenty more of this to come.

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27
Sep 16

A few clues to how Facebook should think about news

Among the mainstream online/print news media, anxiety about Facebook has turned to aggression. The attacks are the product of fear.

Facebook is a large enough corporation to generate headlines almost every day. But the row over the social network taking down a historic, and still powerful, picture taken in 1972 during the Vietnam War handed the pundits who worry about the future of journalism a golden opportunity.

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-11-50-23Facebook was beaten up for good reason: taking the picture down was idiotic and asking for trouble. But the ferocious aggression is not about Facebook’s failure to tell the difference between kiddie porn and a legendary piece of photojournalism. It’s about Facebook hoovering up advertising revenue which once went to pay for newsrooms.

A great many journalists aren’t thinking straight about Facebook (notable exception here). In an attempt to clarify, this post is in the form of advice to Facebook. That’s because I don’t think sniping at Facebook is working (although I’ve had a go at its executives before now myself). Least of all do I think that publishers can seek protection from social news distrbutors from governments. With the distribution of news now decoupled from the organisations which generate news, power now lies with the distributors. Facebook’s daily news audience is at least 600,000 people and growing; it’s the most popular news-sharing site in America.

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16
Mar 15

Little rays of sunshine…journalism in Spain and voting registration

As an antidote to grim March weather, here are two stories to lighten gloom. Struggling to keep up with new media, older people burble that digital social networks carry nothing but trolls and trivia. Many (older) journalists remain sternly pessimistic that their work can survive its bumpy transition to new technologies whose users seem so little interested in serious news and opinion.

At a supper last week organised by Tech City Insider, I had the good luck to sit next to a bearded, energetic man called Michael Sani. He began life as an actor and teacher and founded one of the campaigns trying to improve the falling voter registration rate among young people.

The campaign is called Bite the Ballot and early this year it organised a week-long registration drive. There wasn’t much choice that promoting the apparently-boring cause of registering to vote had to be done on social networks. Besides being the natural online conversation of the 18-24 age group that Sani and his volunteers were aiming at, getting people to relay your message by making it go viral is cheap. Which was good because bitetheballot didn’t have much money.

Long story short: 441,000 new voters were registered in that week. That set a world record for the numbers of voters (as a proportion of the potential electorate) put on the list in a week, outstripping America’s Rock the Vote drive in 2004. New voters registering had a 72% completion rate doing the 5-page form, which might also be a record. The campaign projected pictures onto Big Ben, went to community centres, worked Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat…and spent a grand total of £200.

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