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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15
Jun 13

British political pessimism and where Syria fits in Sunni vs Shia

Two quick reading links for the weekend. Both of these excellent pieces would fall into the category of “explainers” but do it so well that the explanation rises to the level of useful originality.

  • David Gardner’s analysis for the FT of the very dangerous context for the decision by the US to arm the Syrian rebels – or at least to try to arm only some of them. Gardner concentrates on the centuries-old Sunni vs Shia warfare as the driver of events but concludes that outside intervention is preferable to none.
  • Steve Richards dissection for The Guardian of the electoral gloom affecting both major British political parties. He is surely right that this pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cool illustration too.

02
Oct 12

I propose an international embargo on the cliché “risks fuelling”

It was the front page of The Times which made me snap. Yesterday the paper’s Political Editor was reporting the start of the Labour Party conference.

Ed Balls had called for the next mobile phone licence tax windfall to be spent on new houses. This call, the story went on, “risks fuelling Tory claims that, by prioritising more spending over reducing debt, Mr Balls has failed to learn the lessons of the past.” Put less archly and more plainly, the writer means that this claim will probably be made by Tories.

I’ve no reason to doubt it. But the over-use of the “risks fuelling” formula is starting to drive me nuts. It’s hardly the only tired and hackneyed phrase of its type in use in newspapers now. Cliché aren’t new.

It’s also unfair to single out The Times. For the simple reason that everyone is doing it, all over the world. People are fuelling risks every hour of the day. Just google the phrase if you don’t believe me. French magazines publishing cartoons of the Prophet, Norway’s oil development assistance, oil in Sudan, the Prime Minister and Barclays Bank – just now they were all risking fuelling something or other. That was just the first page of my search. Hardly surprising that oil often risks fuelling.

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17
Feb 12

The shift of power from print to digital: a hinge moment

Buried on page 11 of this week’s Spectator was eloquent evidence of a slow but inexorable shift with large consequences: the transfer of power and influence from printed newspapers to digital publishing.

Oh that, you may say. Old news. Isn’t that already blindingly obvious? Doesn’t this blog go on about just that all the time?

Yes, but that doesn’t mean that everyone sees it. Big, slow changes are hard to trace and measure when you’re living in the middle of them. And newspapers still have a central role, clout and readers. But have a look at Charles Moore’s short note about the importance of Conservative Home and its owner, the Tory peer Michael Ashcroft. Moore describes Ashcroft as on his way to being “the Beaverbrook of the internet age.”

I pick this example of because it is hard to imagine a magazine less likely to fall for hype based on a techno-fad than the Spectator. The same applies to Moore, who as a political commentator is interested in power and its use. What he is observing here is a redistribution of political influence caused by the technological revolution of the last fifteen years. Old powers will wane; new ones will use the opportunities to rise. Digital is transformative and not adaptive change.

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