Face­book swal­lowed Jour­nal­ism

The Insider - - CONTENT - By Emily Bell

This is the tran­script of a lec­ture de­liv­ered in Fe­bru­ary 2016 by Emily Bell at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge, where she is the Hu­man­i­tas Vis­it­ing Pro­fes­sor in Me­dia 2015–16 at the Cen­tre for Research in the Arts, So­cial Sciences and Hu­man­i­ties.

Good af­ter­noon, ev­ery­one. Thank you for com­ing. It is a great plea­sure and hon­our to be in Cam­bridge this week as part of the Hu­man­i­tas CRASSH vis­it­ing lec­ture pro­gramme. I must thank my for­mer Ob­server col­league Pro­fes­sor John Naughton for propos­ing that I do this, and to the Hu­man­i­tas com­mit­tee for bring­ing me here. I would also like to thank St. John’s Col­lege, and in par­tic­u­lar the Mas­ter, Chris Dobson, for their won­der­ful hos­pi­tal­ity.

The first talk in this se­ries has a rather apoc­a­lyp­tic ti­tle — ‘The End of News As We Know It: How Face­book Swal­lowed Jour­nal­ism’. An Amer­i­can col­league at Columbia took one look at the pro­mo­tional flier, com­plete with what ap­pears to be a smok­ing cross, and said, ‘is it a re­li­gious talk?’, to which I could hap­pily an­swer ‘no’. I guess I have com­mit­ted an in­ter­net orig­i­nal sin by in­tro­duc­ing the dreaded ‘re­al­ity gap’ head­line, in that this is not in­tended as a Bi­b­li­cal warn­ing or prophecy about the evils of Face­book or any other plat­form.

How­ever, some­thing re­ally dra­matic is hap­pen­ing to our me­dia land­scape, the public sphere, and our jour­nal­ism in­dus­try, al­most with­out us notic­ing and cer­tainly with­out the level of public ex­am­i­na­tion and de­bate it de­serves. Our news ecosys­tem has changed more dra­mat­i­cally in the past five years, than per­haps at any time in the past five hun­dred. We are see­ing huge leaps in tech­ni­cal ca­pa­bil­ity — vir­tual re­al­ity, live video, ar­ti­fi­cially in­tel­li­gent news bots, in­stant mes­sag­ing and chat apps — and mas­sive changes in con­trol, and fi­nance, putting the fu­ture of our pub­lish­ing ecosys­tem into the hands of a few, who now con­trol the des­tiny of many.

So­cial me­dia hasn’t just swal­lowed jour­nal­ism; it has swal­lowed ev­ery­thing. It has swal­lowed po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns, bank­ing sys­tems, per­sonal his­to­ries, the leisure in­dus­try, re­tail, even gov­ern­ment and se­cu­rity. The phone in our pocket is our por­tal to the world. I think in many ways this her­alds enor­mously ex­cit­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for ed­u­ca­tion, in­for­ma­tion and con­nec­tion, but it brings with it a host of con­tin­gent ex­is­ten­tial risks.

Should we be ac­cept­ing of those risks? Do we ad­e­quately un­der­stand what they are? Are we work­ing hard enough

to in­ter­ro­gate new sys­tems of power which have the scale to chal­lenge gov­ern­ments, but are un­ac­count­able ex­cept to the mar­kets, and in­ten­tion­ally opaque.

What I want to talk about to­day is a small sub­sidiary ac­tiv­ity of the main busi­ness of so­cial plat­forms, but one of cen­tral in­ter­est to many of us. I want to ex­am­ine how jour­nal­ism is changed by the power of the In­ter­net and specif­i­cally so­cial net­works.

Let’s start with a top­i­cal story which does in fact in­volve a Church.

It has been a good week for the public im­age of jour­nal­ism. Spot­light, the fic­tion­alised ac­count of how the Bos­ton Globe in­ves­ti­gated child abuse al­le­ga­tions in the Catholic Church in 2002 and 2003, just won the Os­car for best pic­ture. It is a re­mark­ably good film that makes spread­sheets, Gap cloth­ing, and satchels seem glam­orous. I am sure ap­pli­ca­tions to Columbia Jour­nal­ism School will rise as a re­sult. Jour­nal­ists ev­ery­where have been able to en­joy the vi­car­i­ous glow of Spot­light, even as they slot yet an­other Kar­dashian into the side­bar of shame on the Daily Mail home­page.

Spot­light is a love let­ter to in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism, and it has the dis­tinct ad­van­tage of be­ing mostly true. How­ever, other things were go­ing on at the time at the Bos­ton Globe that tell a dif­fer­ent story about jour­nal­ism. A decade be­fore un­cov­er­ing the abuse scan­dal, the Globe was bought by The New York Times for over $1 bil­lion. In 2013, a decade AF­TER the Globe had picked up a Pulitzer Prize for the story, it was sold again, this time for $70m by the Times to John Henry, the owner of the Red Sox and Liver­pool FC.

So, over twenty years, a hun­dred-year-old news or­gan­i­sa­tion lost over 90 per cent of its value, de­spite scal­ing the pinnacle of both ex­cel­lence and im­por­tance in jour­nal­is­tic achieve­ment. In Septem­ber 2002, just a cou­ple of weeks af­ter the Spot­light team had printed the first se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tions of child abuse lev­elled at priests, Google News launched.

In fact, in the post­script to Spot­light, we are pointed to the para­dox of the ef­fect the web had on jour­nal­ism: the stories reached fur­ther sooner, en­cour­ag­ing more in­ves­ti­ga­tion and dis­clo­sure around the world. The In­ter­net es­sen­tially en­abled the Globe’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion to be­come in­ter­na­tional. Yet, some­where off cam­era in 2003, the pub­lish­ers of the Globe’s jour­nal­ism were wring­ing their hands over the un­cer­tainty of the un­der­ly­ing busi­ness model.

The Bos­ton Globe is not alone in this ei­ther. The Wash­ing­ton Post, where Marty Baron — the Liev Schrieber char­ac­ter in Spot­light — is now edi­tor was also sold in 2013 — to Ama­zon founder and en­tre­pre­neur Jeff Be­zos.

The great pub­lish­ing fam­i­lies of Amer­ica, the Sulzberg­ers who

own The New York Times, and the Gra­hams who owned thePost, sim­ply could not fund the tran­si­tion of two au­gust news brands into a dig­i­tal fu­ture. Here in the UK we know what this feels like. The In­de­pen­dent ceases to print this month, and over the past ten years 300 lo­cal print ti­tles have dis­ap­peared.

The In­ter­net and the so­cial web en­able jour­nal­ists to do pow­er­ful work, whilst at the same time con­tribut­ing to­wards mak­ing pub­lish­ing jour­nal­ism an un­eco­nomic ven­ture.

What has hap­pened to jour­nal­ism in the past five years through the im­pact of so­cial me­dia, has been as big an up­heaval as what hap­pened in the pre­vi­ous fif­teen, when we thought there could be no greater change than the ar­rival of the widely avail­able web.

Two sig­nif­i­cant things have al­ready hap­pened which we have not paid enough at­ten­tion to:

Firstly, news pub­lish­ers have lost con­trol over dis­tri­bu­tion.

It has moved away to so­cial me­dia and plat­form com­pa­nies that pub­lish­ers could not have built even had they wanted to. It is fil­tered through al­go­rithms and plat­forms which are opaque and un­pre­dictable. The news busi­ness has been em­brac­ing this, and ‘dig­i­tal na­tive’ en­trants such as Buz­zFeed, Vox, and Fu­sion have built their pres­ence on the premise that they are work­ing within this sys­tem, not against it.

Se­condly, the in­evitable out­come of this is the in­crease in power of so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies.

The largest of the plat­form and so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies, Google, Ap­ple, Face­book, Ama­zon, and even sec­ond or­der com­pa­nies such as Twit­ter, Snapchat and emerg­ing mes­sag­ing app com­pa­nies, have be­come ex­tremely pow­er­ful in terms of con­trol­ling who pub­lishes what to whom, and how that pub­li­ca­tion is mon­e­tised.

There is a far greater con­cen­tra­tion of power in this re­spect, than there ever has been in the past. Net­works favour economies of scale, so our care­ful cu­ra­tion of plu­ral­ity in me­dia mar­kets such as the UK, dis­ap­pears at a stroke, and the mar­ket dy­nam­ics and an­titrust laws the Amer­i­cans rely on to sort out such anomalies are fail­ing.

Let me ex­pand on th­ese points and de­scribe why this shift has hap­pened so quickly.

The mo­bile rev­o­lu­tion is be­hind much of this.

Be­cause of the rev­o­lu­tion in mo­bile, the amount of time we spend on­line, the num­ber of things we do on­line, and the at­ten­tion we spend on plat­forms has ex­ploded. In the UK, the amount of time we spend on­line has dou­bled in a decade, up to 20 hours a week, up from 10 hours in 2005. At its peak we watched 24 hours a week of tele­vi­sion, when there was lit­tle or no other visual elec­tronic en­ter­tain­ment.

Two years ago the time we spent look­ing at our phones, and the time we spent on desk­top browsers in Bri­tain, was roughly 50/50, two years later, it is 60/40 in favour of mo­bile. This is re­ally sig­nif­i­cant, as the de­sign of our phones, and their ca­pa­bil­i­ties (thank you Ap­ple), favour apps, which foster dif­fer­ent be­hav­iour . Google did re­cent research through its An­droid plat­form that showed whilst we might have an av­er­age of 25 apps on our phones, the usual power laws ap­ply, and we only use four or five of those apps EV­ERY day, and of those apps we use ev­ery day, the most

sig­nif­i­cant chunk of that time is spent in a so­cial me­dia app. And at the mo­ment the reach of Face­book is far greater than any other so­cial plat­form. In Amer­ica this is even more pro­nounced than here. The ma­jor­ity of US adults are Face­book users, and the ma­jor­ity of those users reg­u­larly get some kind of news from Face­book, which ac­cord­ing to Pew Research Cen­ter data means that around 40 per­cent of US adults over­all con­sider Face­book a source of news.

As the time spent within apps in­creases, we see new paths emerg­ing for news de­liv­ery both within so­cial apps and some­times from ex­ter­nal sources. Ev­ery morn­ing, for in­stance, at the mo­ment, a news bot sends links through my Face­book Mes­sen­ger ac­count which I re­spond to. Fi­nan­cial site Quartz has made a news app which apes a mes­sag­ing app. In this re­spect the fu­ture is al­ready here. Face­book, which owns What­sApp and Mes­sen­ger, has a sig­nif­i­cant stake in this too.

To re­cap:

1. Peo­ple are in­creas­ingly us­ing their smart­phones for ev­ery­thing

2. It is mostly through apps, and in par­tic­u­lar so­cial and mes­sag­ing apps, such as Face­book, What­sApp, Snapchat and Twit­ter.

3. The com­pe­ti­tion to be one of those apps is in­tense. Com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage for plat­forms re­lies on be­ing able to keep your users within an app. The more your users are within your app, the more you know about them, the more that in­for­ma­tion can then be used to sell ad­ver­tis­ing, the higher your rev­enues.

Jour­nal­ism and the de­liv­ery of news has be­come an important part of this bat­tle for at­ten­tion on mo­bile, peo­ple are cu­ri­ous about what is go­ing on in the world right now, the sports scores, the weather, what their friends have been do­ing and how Don­ald Trump fared on Su­per Tues­day.

The com­pe­ti­tion for at­ten­tion is fierce. The ‘four horse­men of the apoc­a­lypse’, Google, Face­book, Ap­ple and Ama­zon (five if you add in Mi­crosoft), are en­gaged in a pro­longed and tor­rid war over whose tech­nolo­gies, plat­forms and even ide­olo­gies will win. It is as fierce as news­pa­per ri­val­ries in the 60s and net­work tele­vi­sion in the 70s, but with much more at stake.

In the last year jour­nal­ists and news pub­lish­ers have there­fore un­ex­pect­edly found them­selves the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of this con­flict.

Third party plat­forms re­ally DO want to work with pub­lish­ers.

It all started al­most a year ago, with the launch of some­thing called ‘Dis­cover’ on the pop­u­lar photo mes­sag­ing app, Snapchat. ‘Dis­cover’ is ac­tu­ally very old fash­ioned in con­cept, in that it gave a num­ber of ‘chan­nels’ to brands. Vice, Buz­zFeed, the Wall Street Jour­nal, Cosmo, the Daily Mail, all popped up on Dis­cover. The ar­ti­cles were the same but they were specif­i­cally de­signed for and pub­lished ONTO the Snapchat plat­form, so in­stead of click­ing away to a news pub­lisher’s web­site, you swipe around cat memes and foot­ball scores within Snapchat. Pub­lish­ers get big­ger traf­fic from this, and the­o­ret­i­cally more ad­ver­tis­ing.

Face­book ex­ec­u­tives had al­ready been think­ing of do­ing some­thing sim­i­lar, and im­me­di­ately fol­lowed their ri­vals Snapchat with a con­cept called ‘In­stant Ar­ti­cles’. The idea here is that if you are a pub­lisher, you hook an RSS feed of ar­ti­cles you want to put onto Face­book into the In­stant Ar­ti­cle tools, and your jour­nal­ism, its de­sign and ad­ver­tis­ing seam­lessly ap­pear on a Face­book page, far faster than if some­one on Face­book were click­ing through to your own web­site. And, a bonus here, you keep all the money from the ads you sell, and you get some of the money from

around the ar­ti­cles Face­book sells for you.

Google, and Ap­ple, who both view Face­book with ex­treme sus­pi­cion, were not happy with this land grab for pub­lish­ing, and started their own ini­tia­tives. Ap­ple News launched in Septem­ber, as a fast news ag­gre­ga­tor, with­out the so­cial com­po­nent of news feed, and Google, which is es­sen­tially in com­pe­ti­tion with both Ap­ple AND Face­book, launched some­thing called ‘Ac­cel­er­ated Mo­bile Pages’, which rolled out a cou­ple of weeks ago. AMP, for short, means that if you are a pub­lisher and don’t want Snapchat or Face­book to be the only way users see ar­ti­cles quickly, you can use Google’s AMP to op­ti­mise them for you on the mo­bile web. Not want­ing to be left out, Twit­ter also launched its own ‘mo­ments’, an ag­gre­ga­tion of trend­ing ma­te­rial on the plat­form to tell com­plete stories about events. All this sounds very promis­ing doesn’t it? Re­sources from so­cial me­dia be­ing de­ployed to help grow au­di­ences for news com­pa­nies, and con­se­quently rev­enues? Up to a point, yes.

It is very good news that well re­sourced plat­form com­pa­nies are de­sign­ing sys­tems which help news dis­tri­bu­tion. But as one door opens an­other one is clos­ing.

At the same time that pub­lish­ers are be­ing en­ticed to pub­lish di­rectly into apps and new sys­tems which will rapidly grow their mo­bile au­di­ences, Ap­ple an­nounced it would al­low ad block­ing soft­ware to be down­loaded from its App store.

In other words, if as a pub­lisher your al­ter­na­tive to go­ing onto a dis­trib­uted plat­form is to make money through mo­bile ad­ver­tis­ing, any­one on an iPhone can now block all ads and their in­vid­i­ous track­ing soft­ware. Ar­ti­cles which ap­pear within plat­forms, such as Dis­cover on Snapchat or In­stant Ar­ti­cles on Face­book are largely though not to­tally im­mune from block­ers. Ef­fec­tively, the al­ready very small share of mo­bile dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing pub­lish­ers might be get­ting in­de­pen­dently from mo­bile, is po­ten­tially cut away. (As an aside, one might add that pub­lish­ers had it com­ing from weigh­ing down their pages with in­tru­sive ads no­body wanted in the first place.)

There are three pos­si­bil­i­ties for com­mer­cial pub­lish­ers.

One is to push even more of your jour­nal­ism straight to an app like Face­book and its In­stant Ar­ti­cles where ad­block­ing is not im­pos­si­ble but harder than at browser level. As one pub­lisher put it to me ‘we look at the amount we might make from mo­bile and we sus­pect that even if we gave ev­ery­thing straight to Face­book, we would still be bet­ter off’. The risks though, in be­ing reliant on the rev­enue and traf­fic from one distrib­u­tor are very high.

The sec­ond op­tion is to build other busi­nesses and rev­enues away from dis­trib­uted plat­forms. Ac­cept that the vast num­bers looked for in reach are not only not help­ing you, but are ac­tively damaging your jour­nal­ism, so move to a mea­sure­ment of en­gage­ment rather than scale.

Mem­ber­ship or sub­scrip­tion are most com­monly thought about in this con­text. Iron­i­cally, the pre­req­ui­sites for this are hav­ing a strong brand iden­tity which sub­scribers feel affin­ity to­wards. In a world where con­tent is highly dis­trib­uted this is far harder to achieve than when it is tied to pack­aged phys­i­cal prod­ucts. Even in the hand­ful of cases

where sub­scrip­tion is work­ing, it is of­ten not mak­ing up the short­fall in ad­ver­tis­ing.

The third is of course to make ad­ver­tis­ing that doesn’t look like ad­ver­tis­ing at all, so ad­block­ers can’t de­tect it. This used to be called ‘ad­ver­to­rial’ or spon­sor­ship, but now is known as ‘na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing’, and it has grown to nearly a quar­ter of all dig­i­tal dis­play ad­ver­tis­ing in the US. In fact dig­i­tally na­tive com­pa­nies like Buz­zFeed, Vox and hybrids like Vice, have dis­rupted the fail­ing pub­lish­ing model by es­sen­tially be­com­ing ad­ver­tis­ing agen­cies — which are them­selves in dan­ger of fail­ing. What I mean by this is that they deal di­rectly with ad­ver­tis­ers, they make the kind of vi­ral video films and gifs we see scat­tered all over our Face­book pages, and then pub­lish them to all those peo­ple who have pre­vi­ously ‘liked’ or shared other ma­te­rial from that pub­lisher.

The log­i­cal an­swer reached by many pub­lish­ers to much of this is to build their own pres­ence as a hedge to con­trol, and in­vest in their des­ti­na­tion apps. But as we have seen, even your own app has to be com­pli­ant with the dis­tri­bu­tion stan­dards of oth­ers in or­der to work. And in­vest­ing money in main­tain­ing your own pres­ence,comes at a time when off­line ad­ver­tis­ing (par­tic­u­larly in print) is un­der pres­sure, and on­line ad­ver­tis­ing is not grow­ing ei­ther. The crit­i­cal bal­ance be­tween des­ti­na­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion is prob­a­bly the hard­est in­vest­ment de­ci­sion tra­di­tional pub­lish­ers have to make right now.

Pub­lish­ers are re­port­ing that In­stant Ar­ti­cles are giv­ing them maybe three or four times the traf­fic they would ex­pect to get from other ar­ti­cles that were avail­able on the web but not pre­sented via In­stant Ar­ti­cles. The temp­ta­tion for pub­lish­ers to go ‘all in’ on dis­trib­uted plat­forms, and just start cre­at­ing jour­nal­ism and stories that work on the so­cial web, is get­ting stronger. I can imag­ine we will see news com­pa­nies to­tally aban­don­ing pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity, tech­nol­ogy ca­pac­ity and even ad­ver­tis­ing de­part­ments and del­e­gat­ing it all to third party plat­forms in an at­tempt to stay afloat.

How­ever, this is a high risk strat­egy: you lose con­trol over your re­la­tion­ship with your read­ers and view­ers, your rev­enue, and even the path your stories take to reach their des­ti­na­tion.

With bil­lions of users and hun­dreds of thou­sands of ar­ti­cles, pic­tures, and videos ar­riv­ing on­line ev­ery­day, the so­cial plat­forms have to em­ploy al­go­rithms to try and sort through the important and re­cent and pop­u­lar and de­cide who ought to see what. And we have no op­tion but to trust them to do this.

Even Twit­ter, which pre­vi­ously pub­lished a ‘raw feed’ of your fol­low­ers’ tweets, lat­est first, has started to em­ploy al­go­rithms to cal­i­brate this.

Only last week in the US a num­ber of high pro­file right wing blog­gers com­plained that they were suf­fer­ing from some­thing called ‘shadow ban­ning’. Ef­fec­tively, they thought their Tweets were not get­ting the re­sponse rate or at­ten­tion they would nor­mally be­cause Twit­ter had se­cretly ‘muted’ them to the rest of the net­work. Twit­ter de­nied that this was the case, but as other right wing com­men­ta­tors have lost their blue ticked sta­tus or been banned en­tirely on the grounds of ‘hate speech’ there is an un­easy feel­ing even among those on the left, that in terms of pol­i­tics we are es­tab­lish­ing new tighter bound­aries about ac­cept­able speech, which might please us when they favour our views, but sti­fle us when we dis­agree. No plat­form­ing on plat­forms will be as hot and con­tentious a topic as it is on cam­puses.

In truth we have lit­tle or no in­sight into how each com­pany is sort­ing its news. If Face­book de­cides for in­stance that video stories will do bet­ter than text stories, we can­not know that un­less they tell us or un­less we ob­serve it. If Snapchat wants to of­fer much more favourable terms of ac­cess to its plat­form to pub­lish­ers it likes than oth­ers, then it is al­lowed to do so and there is no re­quire­ment for fair­ness.

Out­side ex­ist­ing laws, there is no re­straint or com­punc­tion on any plat­form to re­strict cer­tain types of con­tent and to pro­mote oth­ers, as this is an un­reg­u­lated field. There is no trans­parency into the in­ter­nal work­ing of th­ese sys­tems, as to open them up would make them, say the com­pa­nies, un­us­able as spam­mers and com­peti­tors could un­der­mine them.

How much should we care about th­ese shifts and what should we do about them?

There are huge ben­e­fits to have a new class of tech­ni­cally able, so­cially aware, fi­nan­cially suc­cess­ful and highly en­er­getic peo­ple like Mark Zucker­berg tak­ing over func­tions and eco­nomic power from some of the staid, po­lit­i­cally en­trenched and oc­ca­sion­ally cor­rupt gate­keep­ers we have had in the past. But we ought to be aware too that this cul­tural, eco­nomic, and po­lit­i­cal shift is pro­found. And un­til re­cently largely undis­cussed.

We are hand­ing the con­trols of important parts of our public and pri­vate lives to a very small num­ber of peo­ple, who are un­elected and un­ac­count­able.

We might well trust Mark Zucker­berg more than we trust David Cameron or Ru­pert Mur­doch, but should we build a sys­tem pred­i­cated on del­e­gat­ing civic re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to the pri­vate sec­tor?

In the US we see Google devel­op­ing a driver­less car and in­stalling fiber net­works in cities such as Charlotte and Austin. Th­ese are key pieces of in­fras­truc­ture owned by pri­vate in­ter­ests, yet they will in the fu­ture col­lect the data re­lat­ing to ev­ery part of our lives as we drive and wan­der around our re­spon­sive cities. We need reg­u­la­tion to make sure that all cit­i­zens gain equal ac­cess to the net­works of op­por­tu­nity and ser­vices they need.

We also need to know that all public speech and ex­pres­sion will be treated trans­par­ently, even if they can­not be treated equally. This is a ba­sic re­quire­ment for a func­tion­ing democ­racy.

For this to hap­pen, there has to be at least some agree­ment that the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in this area are shift­ing. The peo­ple who built th­ese com­pa­nies did not set out to do so in or­der to take over the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of a free press. In fact they are rather alarmed that this is the out­come of their en­gi­neer­ing suc­cess.

Only last week Mark Zucker­berg was talk­ing to a for­mer CRASSH vis­it­ing lec­turer and Axel Springer CEO Mathias Dopfner. Dopfner asked Zucker­berg a ques­tion: ‘Are you a pub­lisher, or a dis­tri­bu­tion plat­form?’ Zucker­berg an­swered : ‘Def­i­nitely a dis­tri­bu­tion plat­form’, asked why he didn’t wish to be­come a pub­lisher, Zucker­berg re­sponded ‘Be­cause we are a tech­nol­ogy com­pany...’ ex­plain­ing that the new part­ner­ships the com­pany is build­ing through prod­ucts like in­stant ar­ti­cles were to ad­dress pre­cisely the fact that Face­book is em­phat­i­cally not a pub­lisher.

When pressed on the role of Face­book in defin­ing free speech, Zucker­berg said :

‘ While we gen­er­ally be­lieve in free speech and giv­ing ev­ery­one as much abil­ity to speak as pos­si­ble, in prac­tice there are lots of bar­ri­ers to that, whether it’s le­gal re­stric­tions, tech­no­log­i­cal re­stric­tions, or you can’t share what you want if you don’t have ac­cess to the in­ter­net. And there are so­cial re­stric­tions where some­one could be sup­press­ing some­one else’s free­dom to ex­press them­selves. So our North Star

is that we want to give the most voice pos­si­ble to the most peo­ple’.

Defin­ing what con­sti­tutes th­ese of­ten con­flict­ing bar­ri­ers, is in it­self an act of edit­ing and there­fore ul­ti­mately a po­lit­i­cal act. Face­book for in­stance has been very ac­tive in Ger­many in re­mov­ing an­tirefugee sen­ti­ment and threats to­wards that com­mu­nity from its pages, as it sees it as hate speech. In the US, Zucker­berg per­son­ally an­nounced that gun stores would not be al­lowed to ad­ver­tise on Face­book, even though in many states they are legally al­lowed to trade.

In many ar­eas, the speed with which so­cial plat­forms have taken on the roles of pub­lisher has meant that the com­pa­nies them­selves are strug­gling with is­sues which the free press has grap­pled with on a daily ba­sis over the course of the past two hun­dred years. Peo­ple up­load news­wor­thy events to Face­book, who don’t even think of them­selves as jour­nal­ists, and what rights do they have?

Face­book and oth­ers might like to con­sider adopt­ing one model from the press which I be­lieve has been ef­fec­tive, that of a public edi­tor or an om­budsper­son, or panel which in­de­pen­dently in­ves­ti­gates ac­count­abil­ity. Twit­ter has re­cently con­vened a vast panel of ex­perts to form a Trust and Safety Coun­cil, a will­ing con­ces­sion to the in­creas­ing chal­lenges to how Twit­ter mod­er­ates the terms of dis­course and in­clu­sion on its plat­form.

In the courts in Amer­ica at the mo­ment, we have the FBI chal­leng­ing Ap­ple over ac­cess to a mo­bile phone used by one of the San Bernardino shoot­ers. Yes­ter­day, a Face­book ex­ec­u­tive was ar­rested af­ter What­sApp, its mes­sag­ing ser­vice, re­fused to com­ply with a court or­der in Brazil. Last week en­ter­tain­ment and plat­form com­pa­nies in Amer­ica were in­vited to a meet­ing at the White House on the sub­ject of how to counter ter­ror­ism.

Hil­lary Clin­ton and oth­ers have been public in want­ing to en­list so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies in ‘fight­ing ISIS’. Many feel this a very un­com­fort­able piece of pol­icy the­ater, but is it the place of so­cial plat­forms to be co-opted?

In­deed, plat­form com­pa­nies have re­sponded with both Twit­ter and Face­book clos­ing thou­sands of ISIS- re­lated Face­book and Twit­ter feeds and ac­counts. Zucker­berg and Twit­ter founder Jack Dorsey have found them­selves tar­gets of ISIS pro­pa­ganda.

Ter­ror­ism is the most salient ex­am­ple, but what might be next? Will the Gov­ern­ment want to pro­mote cer­tain mes­sages about its for­eign pol­icy, but keep oth­ers quiet? Should al­go­rithms be re­gion­ally tar­geted to pro­mote favourable stories about cer­tain pol­icy ini­tia­tives? Does all gov­ern­ment pro­pa­ganda get treated equally?

Plat­forms which con­trol the terms of ex­pres­sion, ad­ver­tis­ing and even the speed of dis­tri­bu­tion, in­ter­na­tion­ally as well as within the US, have in­her­ited the same pres­sures ed­i­tors and pub­lisher were sub­jected to be­fore them. One rea­son for deny­ing the role of pub­lisher is that it keeps away a whole host of ex­pen­sive du­ties tra­di­tion­ally as­sumed by those who dis­trib­ute in­for­ma­tion to the world.

One of the crit­i­cisms thus far lev­elled against plat­form com­pa­nies, is that they have cherry picked the prof­itable parts of the pub­lish­ing process and sidestepped the more ex­pen­sive busi­ness of ac­tu­ally cre­at­ing good jour­nal­ism. If the cur­rent nascent ex­per­i­ments such as In­stant Ar­ti­cles lead to a more in­te­grated re­la­tion­ship with jour­nal­ism, it is pos­si­ble that we will see a more sig­nif­i­cant shift of pro­duc­tion costs, par­tic­u­larly around tech­nol­ogy and ad­ver­tis­ing sales fol­low.

The rein­ter­me­di­a­tion of in­for­ma­tion which once looked as though it was go­ing to be fully democra­tised by the progress of the open web is

likely to make the mech­a­nisms for fund­ing jour­nal­ism get worse be­fore they get bet­ter. Look­ing at the prospects for mo­bile ad­ver­tis­ing and the ag­gres­sive growth tar­gets Ap­ple, Face­book, Google et al have to meet to sat­isfy Wall Street, it is fair to say that un­less so­cial plat­forms re­turn a great deal more money back to the source, pro­duc­ing news for the most part is likely to be­come a non-profit pur­suit not an en­gine of cap­i­tal­ism.

To be sus­tain­able, news and jour­nal­ism com­pa­nies will need to rad­i­cally al­ter their cost base. It seems most likely that the next wave of news me­dia com­pa­nies will be fash­ioned around a stu­dio model of man­ag­ing dif­fer­ent stories, tal­ents, and prod­ucts across a vast range of de­vices and plat­forms. As this shift hap­pens then post­ing jour­nal­ism di­rectly to Face­book or other plat­forms will be­come the rule rather than the ex­cep­tion. Even main­tain­ing a web­site could be aban­doned in favour of hy­per dis­tri­bu­tion. The dis­tinc­tion be­tween plat­forms and pub­lish­ers will melt com­pletely.

Even if you think of your­self as a tech­nol­ogy com­pany, you are mak­ing crit­i­cal de­ci­sions about ev­ery­thing from the ac­cess to plat­forms, the shape of jour­nal­ism or speech, the in­clu­sion or ban­ning of cer­tain con­tent, the right for cer­tain op­er­a­tors to be con­sid­ered pub­lish­ers and oth­ers not.

Lead­ers of tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies need to recog­nise that fact.

“‘With great power comes great re­spon­si­bil­ity’ as the French Na­tional con­ven­tion had it in 1793 af­ter the rev­o­lu­tion.

The broader ques­tion for so­ci­ety is whether so­cial plat­forms and big tech can be trusted to pro­vide the trans­parency re­quired, and what mech­a­nisms we can use to en­force this.

The me­dia sec­tor in the UK has been tra­di­tion­ally very heav­ily reg­u­lated, yet there seems to be a com­plete ab­sence of public de­bate around th­ese most important is­sues. If we can ex­pend the amount of time we have on com­pletely over­haul­ing the self-reg­u­la­tion of the press yet some­how man­age to leave out dom­i­nant dis­tri­bu­tion plat­forms, then it sug­gests that gov­ern­ment ei­ther doesn’t un­der­stand the case for public scru­tiny, or isn’t in­clined to act in our best in­ter­ests.

One press­ing is­sue is how we should frame the cur­rent maul­ing of the BBC in this con­text. If it has a busi­ness model which is largely im­mune from death by Snapchat, and it has a rich his­tory of think­ing about how tech­nol­ogy and con­tent can com­bine for the public good, it seems par­tic­u­larly short­sighted to be putting it un­der ex­is­ten­tial threat at the present mo­ment. Think tanks, pol­icy cen­ters, reg­u­la­tors, and yes - even re­porters should to my mind be pick­ing away at this com­plex new par­a­digm, and the BBC’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties ought to be cen­tral to the de­bate.

It would be a mis­take, in my opin­ion, not to in­clude plat­form tech­nolo­gies as a core part of imag­in­ing how we want our public sphere and so­ci­eties to work — in the same way that we would con­sider the BBC, the press and other util­i­ties in this pic­ture.

We have heard the BBC ex­press its de­sire to be­come a plat­form, with­out much in­di­ca­tion that the or­gan­i­sa­tion re­ally has a clear un­der­stand­ing of what

this means. But it would be so in­vig­o­rat­ing to see a public ser­vice or­gan­i­sa­tion help de­fine stan­dards for dig­i­tal pub­lish­ing which can help all jour­nal­ism, wher­ever it takes place, be­come sus­tain­able and sup­ported in a frag­mented and dis­trib­uted world.

There is a role for cen­ters of ex­cel­lence, like Cam­bridge and this pro­gramme, or the Tow Cen­ter at Columbia, to foster and pro­mote the ex­change of ideas around civic tech­nol­ogy and com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

What hap­pens to the cur­rent class of news pub­lish­ers is a much less important ques­tion than that of what kind of news and in­for­ma­tion so­ci­ety we want to cre­ate and how we can help shape this.

As of now th­ese ques­tions are still in flux and are likely to re­main dy­namic for some time. When In­dian reg­u­la­tors re­cently ruled that Face­book’s ‘Free Ba­sics’ pro­gramme was es­sen­tially il­le­gal, it pro­voked a cul­tural con­ver­sa­tion as well as an eco­nomic one. ‘How can you deny the poor­est peo­ple in your com­mu­nity in­ter­net ac­cess?’ was the pro Face­book ar­gu­ment, ‘Do we re­ally want our next 100 mil­lion cit­i­zens com­ing on­line to do so through an edited ver­sion of the in­ter­net con­trolled out of Palo Alto?’ was the re­sponse.

I have seen ar­gu­ments around halt­ing the roll out of low-cost con­nec­tiv­ity through pro­grams like Face­book Free Ba­sics, called ret­ro­gres­sive. Maybe, but I don’t be­lieve there is any­thing ret­ro­gres­sive about gov­ern­ments and public bod­ies re­ally in­ter­ro­gat­ing what kind of con­nected world we want to live in.

I am sen­ti­men­tal about the roar of the presses, the filthy of­fices and nico­tine habits of the Spot­light era, but those trappings of jour­nal­ism are prob­a­bly best con­signed to the dust­bin of his­tory.

Many of us are how­ever le­git­i­mately con­cerned that jour­nal­ism, in all its forms, does not emerge from a pe­riod of tech­no­log­i­cal change where it is weak­ened, where the pro­tec­tions and re­sources avail­able to pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of jour­nal­ists are not avail­able to the next.

Just as jour­nal­ism com­pa­nies are think­ing about how they shift the pro­duc­tion to­wards a dis­trib­uted model, so plat­form com­pa­nies need to think about their own in­ter­nal or­gan­i­sa­tion to sup­port jour­nal­ism and acts of jour­nal­ism. With­out a com­mit­ment to re­li­able in­for­ma­tion, so­cial me­dia ul­ti­mately comes un­stuck as an eco­nomic force.

I would like Mark Zucker­berg, Jack Dorsey, Larry Page, Tim Cook and which­ever man, or hope­fully wo­man, is the next com­mu­ni­ca­tions bil­lion­aire, to re­ally con­sider them­selves pub­lish­ers, not sim­ply ‘a tech­nol­ogy com­pany’. I would like them to take se­ri­ously the fragility of good jour­nal­ism and what steps are needed to make sure it thrives.

Maybe next time Mark Zucker­berg is asked if he is a plat­form or a pub­lisher he will an­swer ‘what is the dif­fer­ence?’

Thank you, Emily Bell

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.