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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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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09
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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01
Oct 15

Corbyn, the law of unintended consequences and fixed terms

A modest political reflection prompted by the Labour Party conference which ended yesterday. I’m beginning to think that David Cameron, the UK’s Conservative prime minister, and Nick Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats were in coalition with Cameron 2010-15, laid a trap which is only now closing. The effect of an obscure piece of legislation which fixes a five-year term for each elected parliament, passed by the Cameron-Clegg coalition in 2011, is poised to do terrible things to the Labour Party, which remains in opposition.

The Labour Party has elected, under new rules which give ordinary members much greater power, a bearded man of the left who has no experience of running anything. Jeremy Corbyn is going to spend the next few months at least fighting battles inside his own party over policies on everything from Saudi Arabia to nuclear power stations. Only yesterday his declaration that he would never, as Prime Minister, allow the use of nuclear weapons was contradicted from the party’s conference rostrum by his newly-appointed defence spokesman.

Labour is in this spectacular mess because its grassroots members rebelled against the party’s hierarchy and culture. But its members and their leaders are comforting themselves that they have time to sort all this out before it really begins to matter. Even if it takes a couple of years for the left and right of the party to agree, you can hear themselves saying to eachother, the election will still be three years away. Andy Burnham, one of the leadership candidates Corbyn defeated, can be heard saying just that in this convoluted and defensive interview.

I don’t think politics works like that. An extended interval of incoherence will register with voters, even if followed by a better-led approach in years or months just before an election. Labour’s rank and file, at a loss to know what to do with Corbyn at the helm, are taking refuge in an illusion.

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26
Jan 15

Greece: the signal that the era of manager-politicians has ended

Blair_ClintonThat headline does not refer to the fact that there is now going to be a tense negotiation between Greece and the powers of the eurozone and, most probably, currency turbulence in Europe. The election which has brought Syriza to power in Athens marks something a little broader: the end of a political phase, a change of mood.

Political periods are not always defined, however much paid-up members of political tribes (or parties) might wish it, by elections and changes of government. We are currently living through a moment of change which is proving hard for political journalists to capture because the people they most frequently talk to are politicians. And it is politicians who neither sense nor understand the shift of feeling about politics.

Those who have tried to describe this have often said that there is a revolt against elites under way. Who could argue that Syriza’s rapid rise in Greece (and the equally extraordinary collapse of Pasok, the once-dominant Greek socialist party) has been driven by resentment of a political class seen as indifferent, corrupt and out of touch? And of course established parties everywhere suffer because living standards have been hit.

But the target of this anger is also a political style: the managerial leader. The end of the Cold War dissolved a framework of political belief based around the rivalry between collective solutions (socialism, communism etc) and those of more liberal, laissez-faire kinds (liberalism, conservatism etc). Politicians then emerged who, confusingly, picked policies from either side. They paid due deference to ideas and principles, but their appeal was not based on them. They found political labels old-fashioned and restricting.

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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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10
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 →