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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20
Apr 17

Two faces of Facebook

This morning’s headlines are about the Facebook’s progress in connecting your brain to their social network. Their scientists, led by the ex-head of the American defence research agency Darpa, foresee the day when you won’t even have to lift a finger to press a ‘Like’ button. You’ll think it and it’ll happen.

The focus on Facebook’s announcement at their F8 developers conference in California is understandable. But my eye was caught by something quite different in what the network’s founder Mark Zuckerberg said. Something which shines a light on what a split personality Facebook is becoming on the issue of its effect on human society.

Zuckerberg talked about pictures and how much easier Facebook would make it to edit them. There’s a coffee cup in a picture of you: the touch of a key will add a whisp of steam or a second cup. You could make it look, he said, as if you’re not drinking coffee alone. Facebook will help us be ‘better able to reflect and improve our life experiences.’

New products would focus on the visual. And that, Zuckerberg said, is ‘because images created by smartphone cameras contain more context and richer information than other forms of input like text entered on a keyboard.’ Boring old words: so tiresome, so time-consuming, so slow.

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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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14
Nov 16

Zuckerberg: news ought to be ‘authentic’ and ‘meaningful’

No great surprise that the election of Donald Trump was a tipping point for opinion about Facebook. Now people are really asking the questions about the influence of social networks and the mix of human intervention and algorithms that power their selection of news.

This is not a post about the causes of the American election surprise and its implications of journalism (there’s an informative survey of opinions here). This is another bulletin on the progress that Facebook is making in absorbing and acting on the fact that it has moral and democratic responsibilities which stem from its colossal informational power.

At the weekend, Facebook’s chief honcho Mark Zuckerberg responded to charges that Facebook had influenced the election outcome, in particular by circulating fake news stories. No surprise either that Zuckerberg guesses not. But he is guessing. And I’d guess that subsequent research may show infuence. We’ll see.

Fake news is an issue, but it is not the heart of the question. The question which matters is how Facebook – the techies, the software and your community – decides what to show you. Anyone with a smartphone can now distribute information, true, false or debatable. The group of people who used try to sift the truth information likely to matter to society (aka journalists) no longer control the distribution of what they produce. Facebook is the first news distribution platform which operates at scale across the whole planet. Plainly that gives it power and influence; we just don’t yet know precisely how that works. Facebook’s responses to the dilemmas raised by this have been hesitant, crabwise, half-admissions that it may have some ‘editorial’ responsibilties and is not only a big, neutral tech-only company.

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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
Jun 15

A few quick takeaways on the Reuters Institute Digital News report

The annual state-of-digital-news report from Oxford’s Reuters Institute, released today, confirmed several known trends: the advance of mobile and video, the decline of print and the sturdiness of television news. Underneath the (unsurprising) headlines were several items worth noting.

1.  The multinational survey finds large differences in trust levels. In Finland, 68% of respondents agree that they “can trust most news most of the time”; that figure falls to 32% in the US. Presenting these figures, the report’s main author Nic Newman said that the higher trust numbers tended to be in countries with public service broadcasters who are required by law to be impartial. This is the conventional explanation given for this finding and there must be some truth in it.

But I think there’s a deeper thing at work. The four countries at the bottom of this table are France, Italy, Spain and the US. Whatever else may separate them, all these are countries where the crisis of the elites has been very marked: a significant proportion of the electorate reject the explanations and accounts of what is happening given by the political class. Trust in the news media, or lack of it, is inextricably bound up with the credibility of the political elite.

2.  The fast growth and strength of digital-born global players. The Huffington Post, one of the big winners in the whole survey, is one of the most accessed news and opinion sites in the US and operates in 14 countries, often in the local language. In the league table of digital-born brands, it is beaten by Yahoo (used by 18%) – but this figure is skewed by large traffic in Japan, where Yahoo has a relatively small stake. Huffington Post is next at 10%, followed by Buzzfeed at 4%.

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