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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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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Nov 17

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




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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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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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Feb 17

Mr Zuckerberg’s education has further to go

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Dec 15

The age of polymorphous media

For my sins, I spend a proportion of my professional life listening to journalists moaning about what is at risk and what has been lost in the digital era. I’ve come gradually to the conclusion that what they mourn most of all is the loss of simplicity.

Journalism expanded in the late 20th century in conditions which were historically exceptional and which, in retrospect, look miraculous. Print had stable advertising and circulation income; the capital costs of presses acted as an automatic barrier to new competitors. Terrestrial television had either taxpayer subsidy or advertising. For journalists, life was simple: they only had to worry about competition from the nearest rival.

In some competitive markets this made life tough, but not complicated. That agreeably simple era has been replaced by a chaotic and fast-changing system for news and opinion which is volatile, unpredictable and polymorphous. In other words, the present is like every other period of journalism’s history except the late 20th century.

If you’re running, working in or thinking of investing in a business involving journalism, here are five things worth keeping in mind in 2016: Continue reading →


Nov 14

More on journalism’s value and the tricky business of trust

Serious people debating journalism in the digital age want to think more about trust. Trust in serious journalism is important and essential, but for reasons I’ll try to explain, it’s the wrong focus for efforts to adapt journalism to disruption. The better benchmark is value.

If journalists are to keep telling us what’s actually happening in an information-saturated world, they need, among other things, be trusted as reliable. Trust is a necessary – but not sufficient – condition for journalism to rebuild. Here are a few reasons why worrying about trust is both vital and a distraction:

  • Digital democratises publishing by replacing one-to-many news distribution with many-to-many. Less attention and trust will be placed in large institutions churning out news when people can take news as recommended by people they know.
  • Consumers of news are naturally and rightly wary of news publishers of any size who are in the midst of a business model crisis: editorial values get changed. Objectivity and neutrality are questioned as they have not been for a century. The extreme example: the British newsrooms where market share loss made editors so desperate they began hacking phones and bribing sources on a wide scale.
  • The tough economics of digital publishing have led to “native advertising” which frequently blurs the distinction between editorial and paid promotion. No surprise that users of these sites are growing mistrustful.
  • Trust is only indirectly connected to solving the business model problem. In the print era, Britain read a lot of newspapers per head (regularly in the world top ten). The BBC had high trust levels but papers did not and never did have. (In this brief Storify, Emily Bell of Columbia tries to get this across).
  • Lastly, isn’t the fact that people don’t take everything the news media say at face value as a good thing? Some scepticism is healthy.
  • In free societies, trustworthiness isn’t something that can organised. Outlets which want to be trusted have to compete to earn that reputation. And there will be arguments about how to judge reliability.

I’m in favour of everything which is being bandied about as likely to build trust with digital tools: Continue reading →