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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Dec 15

Politicians and Twitter: not the apocalypse

twitterPolitical commentator Steve Richards argued in the Independent yesterday that “political leadership is impossible in the age of social media”. He gave a gripping tweet-by-tweet account of how Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to impose his will on the Labour Party of Syrian airstrikes had been undone by dissent spread on Twitter.

Richards concluded that the leadership of political parties, as previously understood, can no longer be done then parties will change shape. This is quite the wrong lesson to draw.

The Labour Party is in a neurotic mess and it would be in one if Corbyn had been elected its leader in the age of the quill pen. The party’s membership is out of line with a significant segment of its MPs. Until one of these bodies brings the other into line, the mess, the rebellions and the tweets will not stop.

Communications media have changed often, switching the conditions and context in which politicians operate and requiring new skills in the armoury of anyone intending to lead. Come to that, political parties have changed across time as the gains to be made by bossing MPs have grown.

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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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Jan 14

This blog: a quick instruction manual

Since this blog is resuming after a break, here’s a fast guide on how not only to find stuff in it but also related things about journalism that I’ve written or clipped.

Fast wheel

All the posts on this blog get tweeted from @georgeprof and linked on a static Facebook page. For me, Twitter is about link-sharing and I pass on and retweet links about journalism, media and, occasionally, daft fragments which catch my fancy. The most active piece of this blog is “What George is reading” (right-hand column) because that’s linked to what I clip in Delicious. Delicious has a chequered history and upsets its users on a regular basis; but how anyone writes a book today without it or its near equivalent I don’t know. Very few days go by without something new popping up in that slot. On a normal day there will be several new links.

Slow wheel

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Jun 13

A new trick for old dogs and reporters using Twitter

Or at least it was new to me when I heard this yesterday. News reporters in “legacy” media who are besieged by predictions that technology is eating their livelihood can be forgiven for being sceptical about techno-hype which lauds new gizmos for being ingenious without actually asking if they do anything useful.

Here’s a smartphone app that might help solve a problem which has been faced by anyone who has ever been parachuted into an unfamiliar area on a breaking story. How do you find people with knowledgeable opinions on the event/issue/disaster, and find them quickly?

I heard about this at the World Editors Forum from Justin Arenstein, who instanced the use of layar.com to find quotable people with the example of reporters arriving in a small South African town to report the failure of the local authority to keep the public water supply flowing. Layar, a Dutch startup which is in the “augmented reality” (or AR) business, overlays extra information on what your smartphone sees and is often used by travellers to discover more information about, say, a building. The bit that caught my attention is called “Tweeps Around”.

With the app turned on, you can walk down the street or scan a room and your phone will find people who have been tweeting. It will, Justin said, locate the phone of the tweeter within a distance of three or four feet – easily accurate enough for a knock on the door and request for an opinion. The sending of a Twitter message in the first place, a public act, eliminates any concern that they’re going to object to at least being asked to expand on their tweet.

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Jan 12

It’s Groundhog Day on the “sources going direct” question

Rupert Murdoch rarely says or does anything which doesn’t cause dismay somewhere. So it has been with his appearance on Twitter.

The octogenarian’s pithy provocations, unmediated by spin-doctors, have been enough to start yet more worries about the future of journalism. People were apparently in all seriousness sitting around at a seminar in the Columbia Journalism School considering the question of “sources” who “go direct” (to the audience, that is). The language itself is unintentionally revealing: how dare these people cut out the middleman and communicate directly with people? The seminar anxiously wondered if this would be “good for journalism”.

That will depend on how well journalists adapt to a transformative change. On the evidence of that discussion at Columbia, it’s going to end in tears in America. Digital communications allow people to publish to people; the oligarchic power of news publishers and broadcasters holding the technology, capital and licences has begun to dissolve. The value added by people calling themselves journalists changes and evolves every time something big changes in the way we can communicate.

In the beginning, “news” was about getting some basic information quickly to people who wanted to know it. There wasn’t much of it. As the supply increased, the value became making it reliable. Nowadays, with what was once in short supply being in glut, the value lies in extracting useful sense from the rush of data coming past you. For my money, journalists can now add value in four areas: verifying stuff, making sense of it, being eye-witnesses and in the specialist art of investigative reporting (this argument laid out more fully here).

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