THERE’S NO VALUE IN FAK­ING IT

Sunday Herald Sun - - News -

THE fact that you are hold­ing this news­pa­per or read­ing this on your pre­ferred news web­site shows you are some­one who places a value on con­tent pro­duced by estab­lished me­dia brands. The big­gest threat to the main­stream me­dia is the fact that, in the dig­i­tal age, many con­sumers take their news wher­ever they find it.

Many peo­ple, es­pe­cially the young, scoop up in­for­ma­tion in the same way a whale eats plank­ton, ab­sorb­ing what­ever presents it­self in the feed on their Face­book page or via Google News. So what, some would ar­gue. That’s a com­mer­cial prob­lem for old me­dia with no nega­tive so­cial ef­fect.

The cov­er­age of the worst gun mas­sacre in mod­ern Amer­i­can his­tory shows oth­er­wise. Last Sun­day was a hor­ren­dous day for hun­dreds of peo­ple who were watch­ing a coun­try mu­sic con­cert op­po­site the Man­dalay Bay ho­tel. It was also a bad day for a man by the name of Geary Dan­ley, who lives five states east of Ne­vada in the small Ar­kan­sas town of Bella Vista, who to his hor­ror dis­cov­ered that Google News had him pinged as the gun­man re­spon­si­ble for their mur­der.

For sev­eral hours on Mon­day, if you typed the words “Ve­gas gun­man” into Google, or went to Face­book to check the Google­sup­plied feeds, the name that came up was that of Geary Dan­ley. How Dan­ley came to be named as the per­pe­tra­tor of this mas­sacre pro­vides dis­turb­ing in­sight into the mod­ern phe­nom­e­non of fake news.

More dis­turb­ing is how this episode shows that the new “news” gi­ants, Google and Face­book, are bereft of abil­ity or re­spon­si­bil­ity when it comes to un­der­tak­ing the checks that are stan­dard across the jour­nal­is­tic main­stream. They have farmed the rigours that come with well-run news­rooms out to ro­bots and pro­gram­mers, us­ing al­go­rithms to ag­gre­gate news on the ba­sis of search terms and au­di­ence be­hav­iour. Re­plac­ing the hu­man fac­tor with au­to­ma­tion is of­ten re­ferred to as ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. This week it was lash­ing out at the wrong fam­ily, wrong peo­ple,” Wal­trip said.

This is what hap­pens when you re­place hu­mans with ro­bots and news dis­ci­pline with a string of code writ­ten by a room­ful of chi­nowear­ing IT dudes at the Santa Clara Google­plex. You get news faked and fab­ri­cated by cranks, then stolen and dis­sem­i­nated by or­gan­i­sa­tions that wouldn’t know a news story from a block of flats.

As an ex­per­i­ment last week I typed the words “truth about vac­cines” into Google and the first site it rec­om­mended was run by anti-vaxxers ped­dling dan­ger­ous lies about im­mu­ni­sa­tions. I typed in the words “moon land­ing” and about 12 clicks in hit the mother lode of BS about whether it was faked.

Google’s lame re­sponse to the Dan­ley scandal is to prom­ise to have a look at the al­go­rithms it uses. These peo­ple have got no idea. Nor have the so­cial me­dia plat­forms that ped­dle this tosh.

So­cial me­dia is one of the worst phrases ever in­vented. When I got into this game “me­dia”, to me, meant cred­i­bil­ity. Some­thing that had been judged to be in the public in­ter­est, sourced, checked, bal­anced and put through the devil’s ad­vo­cacy process of an ed­i­to­rial con­fer­ence before be­ing pub­lished.

On­line trash, agen­das, bul­ly­ing, vendet­tas and con­spir­acy the­o­ries … those are not news. I know it’s an un­stop­pable phrase now, but “so­cial me­dia” isn’t ac­cu­rate. It’s a phrase that erodes the cre­den­tials of real me­dia — pub­lish­ing houses that in­vest in jour­nal­ism and put news through proper fil­ters. At Google, the rule seems to be that if it looks like news, it prob­a­bly, hope­fully, is news.

When they do get it wrong, they hide be­hind the cop-out ar­gu­ment that they’re not real me­dia but “sec­ondary” pub­lish­ers, guilty only of dis­tribut­ing the er­ro­neous work of oth­ers. It’s a hell of a busi­ness model and it’s mak­ing the world a less in­formed place. DAVID PENBERTHY IS A SUN­DAY HER­ALD SUN COLUM­NIST @Penbo

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