25
Jan 18

Dear news publishers: how to sift signals from noise about Facebook

Facebook’s two announcements about its ‘news feed’ – that it would make news a lower priority and let users determine quality rankings – triggered an extraordinary explosion of self-pity on the part of the news media. Given Facebook’s reach (2bn users) and the quantity of advertising it has removed from established media, that’s hardly surprising. But much of this indignation is short-sighted. Some advice to newsrooms and those who run them.

  1. Don’t say you weren’t warned. Facebook never guaranteed – as far as I’m aware – any particular income stream to any publisher or that they would not switch their policy and algorithms. As ‘Instant Articles’ came on the scene plenty of wise voices said to publishers: ‘By all means experiment with this, but don’t rely on it. Ever.’ Don’t pretend you didn’t hear this.
  2. But unpredictability is now Facebook’s greatest threat to news media. Instead of trying to blackmail Facebook into returning money you think should be going to you, try something more likely to work. If Facebook wants to make nice to news (and at least part of the company seems to want to), get them to understand early warning of decisions which will affect news publishers’ revenue would be wise.
  3. Beware of striking private deals with platforms. Wider and deeper transparency requirements for platforms (almost certainly enforced by legislation) is the key to making sense and improving the slew of issues around misinformation, election manipulation and other dark arts to which Facebook has lent itself, both willingly and unknowingly. The relationship between a citizen and her/his devices will be central of twenty-first century democracies. How we know what we know (and can trust) is an issue which goes wider than the business agonies of news media. Facebook is first and foremost a gigantic advertising machine but is also now a society machine. Or a politics machine if you prefer. Politics is about how power is allocated in a society. The devices we use to connect and to collect data play an ever-larger large role in that distribution of power. And on the subject of power: try to help Mark Zuckerberg talk about Facebook’s power. The word never comes up in his bland ramblings about ‘community’ and ‘connection’.
  4. Forget any idea that platforms can be forced to pay to prop up mainstream media. Rupert Murdoch took advantage this week of the Facebook fuss to suggest that online platforms should pay news publishers for their content in the same way that cable TV companies pay programme-makers for rights to air their work. Murdoch should send whoever drafted that statement to run something obscure in Tasmania: the parallel is nonsense. Cable companies have nothing to sell to consumers until they have content. Social networks sell advertising space by leveraging network effects between friends. They have no need of news. Given that news has never been more than a low single percentage of Facebook’s total activity and that it set light to a firestorms of controversy, I can easily imagine its executives arguing that they should leave it alone for good.
  5. But that’s not possible. Facebook can’t now avoid being entangled with news. So people in Menlo Park who dream of a news-free network will be disappointed. For now, the network is simply too big and too widely used to sidestep the dilemmas which come with news and all the strong tensions and emotions it provokes. Facebook is part of the infrastructure of free speech. Period.
  6. Let’s bury the phrase ‘fake news’. As an example, British government spokesmen made two announcements this week of initiatives to ‘combat’ (as headline writers like to say) fake news. One change was actually new machinery about detecting misinformation spread by states, a quite different thing. Even making allowance for the fact that the current (Conservative) government is in slow-motion and terminal decline, it is clear that the announcement-makers have no idea what they’re talking about. Quite apart from the problems of defining the news the government doesn’t like because it is ‘fake’, this sort of knee-jerk is liable to reverse long traditions of protecting free speech. A professor of artificial intelligence who goes by the splendid name of Yorick Wilks nailed it: “Someone in Whitehall has lost all sense of what a free society is about if they think government should interfere in determining what is true and false online.” One simple test for evaluating policies about misinformation: is it an exact remedy for a specific harm?
  7. Everyone – journalists and publishers included – has a duty to help Facebook through the philosophical, political and moral issues it has landed in. Treating the platforms as if they are merely technical means of transmission open to exploitation by bad actors is exactly what Facebook, Google and Twitter have begun (at differing speeds) to acknowledge that they are not. Beating up Facebook and gloating over its difficulties is not going to make it go away. These questions of colliding rights (e.g. free expression vs privacy vs right to know) have been giving editors and lawmakers migraines for centuries. Similar countries – across Europe for example – take radically different approaches based on history, culture and experience. Example: the contrasting approach to privacy rights in Spain or France with Scandinavia.
  8. Keep repeating: news isn’t nice. Facebook’s hard problem is the tension between its business model and the public interest value of news. The business model relies on interaction between users and time spent on the network (which Mark Zuckerberg now wants to be ‘time well spent’). That gives priority to emotion and ‘shareability’. Indignation and outrage go viral easily. News published and distributed in the public interest may appeal more to reason than to emotion. It may be unpleasant, complicated. Worse still (from Facebook’s point of view) news may be best conveyed by people who know more than other people, thus undermining any idea that everyone in a social network knows as much as everyone else. News may even insist that you learn what you may not want to know. None of this aligns easily with ‘community’ or ‘connection’, which are so central to Facebook. Tough problem, but not insoluble.
  9. Two things you can repeat to Facebook as often as you like: be transparent and take advice. The network is doing all sorts of research (psychological affects of social media, manipulation risks etc); they share frustratingly little detail. It astounds me that neither Facebook nor Twitter has ever set up advice groups of independent experts to advise them on hard public interest problems. (Google has done so, to good effect). Even better, try to persuade Facebook to combine the transparency and the advice. Allow experts and scholars outside the company to be involved in the research and allow them to talk and write about it. If these questions are really Facebook’s tests for quality of news, they need help to strengthen them. (Powerful academic version of this case from the Dutch scholar Natali Helberger here).
  10. Lastly, stop treating the future of news media as if it’s a zero-sum between journalism on the one hand and platforms on the other. The public don’t see the distinction that clearly (although mainstream media are more trusted). What everyone – users, platforms, news media – has to worry about is how to tell what is reliable from what is not, to verify and authenticate. New problems like the easier faking of video arise all the time. Solving that kind of stuff will take cooperation.

 

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09
Jan 18

A short handbook on opening up the hi-tech giants

During the final months of 2017 a lot of public and private attention was being directed at opening up the secrets of the algorithms used by social networks and search engines such as Facebook and Google. They have edged cautiously towards opening up, but too little and too late. The attacks on their carelessness have mounted as their profits have climbed.

The public pressure came from voices (including mine) arguing that inquiries into misinformation/disinformation in news were all very well but missed the main point. Attention is also being paid to this in private negotiations between the social networks and news publishers.

These discussions have included the suggestion that the networks might make much more detailed data on how they operate available to the publishers, but not to the public. This kind of private deal won’t work if it’s tried. The functioning of the networks is crucial to publishers, but it matters to a lot of other people as well.

You may think that your elected representatives are on the case: there’s an inquiry into disinformation in news in the UK parliament. German and French politicians are bearing down on the online giants. But not much will change until these legislators and pundits look at the detail of how social networks function. I suspect that the German and French attempts to regulate these platforms will, however well-intentioned, misfire. Regulation of self-expression is inherently difficult because of the collision with rights of free speech.

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02
Nov 17

Facebook has hit a wall – the people running the company don’t know it yet

 

 

 

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16
Oct 17

Curb your enthusiasm for hi-tech giant-killing: start with transparency

Demands to regulate hi-tech companies like Google, Facebook and Apple are being heard at deafening pitch almost every day. This rush by the political herd on both sides of the Atlantic to make new laws (or to enforce the breakup of these corporations) is no better focussed or thought-out than the extraordinary degree of latitude which the same political classes were prepared to allow the same online platforms only a couple of years ago.

The cry for regulation and the laissez-faire inertia of the recent past have a common origin: ignorance. The cure for ignorance is knowledge. And knowledge of exactly what these companies do and don’t do must be the foundation of any further action to get them to shoulder their moral and civic responsibilities. If laws are needed to prevent harm, let them first compel transparency. Any politician pushing that line has my vote.

When Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook rejected claims of Russian online interference in the US presidential election as ‘pretty crazy’, he was either lying or ignorant of what had been happening on Facebook. He has of course admitted he was wrong since (awesomely well-researched narrative by Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic here).

But suppose that Facebook is open to inspection by national agencies or commissions which supervise elections. That would not necessarily mean open to public inspection, but perhaps to bodies whose duty is to check electoral fairness and compliance with the law. Why would that be so hard?

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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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12
Dec 14

Nick Denton: a quotation to add to the collection

NDentonWLeitch_033110.jpgI think it is hallway of the Chicago Tribune building which is decorated by quotations on journalism and the freedom the press carved into the stone walls. Many are inspiring, most are sonorous and a few are pompous.

I have a new candidate for this collection. Its language is in the informal style of the 21st century rather than the more formal wording of earlier eras. Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, wrote a 4,000-word memo to his staff this week brutally critical of both himself and some senior members of the groups’ staff (background here). This paragraph leapt at me:

“Editorial management’s mission for next year is simple. Here’s your budget. Break some stories. Expose the story behind that story. Say what others cannot or will not. Make us proud. This is the one of the greatest editorial openings of all time. Don’t fuck it up!”

Gawker has a claim to be the most successful online journalism start-up on the planet (despite the fact that some journalists don’t think it’s good journalism). What Denton’s rallying cry illustrates so well is that in the digital era much changes, but not everything does. Adjust the prose style and that paragraph could have been written or spoken by any galvanising editor of the past three centuries. It belongs on a wall somewhere.

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12
Nov 14

“Shield laws” are back – but watch the drawbacks

The annual conference of the Society of Editors heard two arguments this week for “shield laws” to protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources including a pledge from the Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, that a future Conservative government would amend the Human Rights Act to give more “specific protection” to journalists.

There is a good account here of the speech by Gavin Millar QC, a very knowledgeable expert, and Javid’s speech is here. All this is well-intentioned and understandable: shield laws already exist in several American states. For a whole series of reasons stemming from recent disclosures, the protection of sources in the digital age is a big concern.

But there’s a big difficulty with shield laws, however tempting they might sound at first hearing. They require journalists to be a defined category of people. Once upon a time, that might have been easy: they were people who worked on the editorial content produced by printed newspapers and broadcast channels. Important disclosures are made by journalists; but they are also made by people who aren’t inclined to call themselves that.

Now, it’s not so easy. Anyone with a smartphone can “publish” to audiences large and small, simply by hitting a “share” button. Who counts as a journalist? In the aftermath of the Leveson Inquiry into phone-hacking and related wrong-doing, civil servants tied themselves into tangled knots trying to define “news publishers” who would be included in a new regulatory system.

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