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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Mar 11

The information spaces in Vietnam

When people reflect on the effect of modern communications on a communist state, they tend to think first of China and its efforts to limit information reaching its citizens by digital means. But there is another communist state in Asia wrestling with the same problems: Vietnam, where I spent last week.

Like China, Vietnam has opened up to western business and the many organs of the party have plunged enthusiastically into capitalism. The army is big in mobile phones. This loosening has only worked up a point: inflation is rising, rigid inefficiencies survive and corruption continues.

The local media discusses very little of this. The only sources on what is going on inside the power structure are rumour and decoding the stilted formulas of the official press. There’s a knowledgeable analysis of the media here – but the fact that it’s written under a pseudonym tells you something about the party’s readiness to expel foreign correspondents it doesn’t like.

The state’s power is felt in a lighter and subtler way than in China. You’re in a taxi in one of Hanoi’s battered and dusty streets and suddenly you pass a building which stands out for its neatness: railings freshly painted, gravel swept, armed sentries who look like they mean business. A polished black Mercedes is just passing under the striped barrier. That little glimpse reminds you that inside the government machine is another machine, the party, which actually decides.

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Mar 11

Predictions for journalism’s next 25 years

This blog is currently in Vietnam, not an easy country in which to practice journalism. I will report on that in a few days’ time.

In the meanwhile, here are my predictions for the next 25 years in journalism given to the website XCity.

Jul 10

Assange, Wikileaks and the war logs

Are the Wikileaks Afghanistan “war logs” as big as the Pentagon Papers leak about the war in Vietnam in 1971? At first sight, clearly not.

Daniel Ellsberg

As the Pentagon Paper leaker himself, Daniel Ellsberg, gently pointed out, the Pentagon study had been a high-level, candid history which revealed the extent of government dishonesty about the war. Some analysts of that period concluded that the impact of the Pentagon Papers on public opinion at the time was in the damage the documents did to the government’s credibility, rather than in changing opinions about the war itself. The fact that the documents tended to support the view that the war was unwinnable had less effect than the revelations of large-scale lying to the public: people had already mostly made up their mind about whether the war was winnable or not.

Little of this applies the 92,000 documents in the war logs – as far as we know so far. The picture painted by the logs is rich in detail, but short on surprise. Civilians get killed and the military are reluctant to acknowledge it, secret military units try to kill Taleban leaders (and often fail), Pakistani spooks help the Taleban, the Taleban seem to have surface-to-air missiles (not clear how many or how effective) and, generally, the armies involved don’t give the public the full picture. War is ugly and messy; innocent people are killed. It may be useful for the record to have this confirmed in detail and that detail may well shift opinion further against the war, but it’s hard to describe these as revelations.

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