Wrong. ‘Me­dia’ is not just in­ter­net al­go­rithms — as this man found out

The Sunday Times - - OPINION - David Pen­berthy

THE fact you are hold­ing this news­pa­per in your hand or read­ing this on your pre­ferred news web­site shows that you are someone who places a value on con­tent pro­duced by es­tab­lished me­dia brands.

The big­gest threat to 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 the Google news items scat­tered through­out their web­sites of choice.

So what, some would ar­gue. That’s a com­mer­cial prob­lem for old me­dia. Be­yond the bot­tom lines of me­dia com­pa­nies and the num­ber of staff on the ed­i­to­rial floor, it has 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 in­no­cently 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.

For sev­eral hours on Mon­day, if you typed the words “Ve­gas gun­man” into Google, or went to Face­book to check the Google-sup­plied feeds, the name that came up was that of Geary Dan­ley.

How Mr Dan­ley came to be named as the per­pe­tra­tor of this mas­sacre pro­vides dis­turb­ing in­sight into the mod­ern phe­nom­e­non of fake news — and in­ter­est­ingly, fake news of the right-wing kind, de­spite Pres­i­dent Trump’s con­stant as­ser­tions on Twit­ter that fake news is the pre­serve of the lib­eral me­dia.

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 prop­erly run news­rooms out to ro­bots and pro­gram­mers, us­ing al­go­rithms to ag­gre­gate news on the ba­sis of search terms and au­di­ence be­hav­iour.

This re­place­ment of the hu­man fac­tor with au­to­ma­tion is of­ten re­ferred to as ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. This week it was con­firmed as dan­ger­ous and defam­a­tory stu­pid­ity.

The back­ground is this. Geary Dan­ley is the ex-hus­band of Queens­land woman Mar­ilou Dan­ley, who was in a re­la­tion­ship with the Ve­gas gun­man, 64-year-old Stephen Pad­dock. When Mar­ilou Dan­ley’s name emerged as a per­son of in­ter­est in the early cov­er­age of the Ve­gas mas­sacre, a hand­ful of con­ser­va­tive blog­gers con­ducted searches on her, lead­ing them to her ex-hus­band of the same sur­name.

They found that Geary Dan­ley, who di­vorced Mar­ilou in 2014, was as­so­ci­ated with left-wing groups with names such as “Thank You Obama” and oth­ers op­pos­ing Don­ald Trump as a fas­cist and a bigot. From this, the blog­gers sur­mised Geary Dan­ley must have been the gun­man and he had cho­sen his tar­get know­ing that coun­try mu­sic fans would be pre­dom­i­nantly white con­ser­va­tives.

Once they started post­ing their con­spir­acy the­o­ries, and the clicks started com­ing in, Google’s ro­bots did what they al­ways do. They sim­ply scoured the web for trend­ing search terms and names.

Within a few min­utes of this crap be­ing up­loaded, Geary Dan­ley, who hasn’t seen his ex for years and didn’t know she had hooked up with a psy­chopath called Stephen Pad­dock, was No.1 on Google as the per­pe­tra­tor of the great­est gun out­rage mod­ern Amer­ica has seen.

Google reck­ons it acted promptly to delete all this rub­bish, but it lasted for hours, long enough for the Dan­ley fam­ily of Arkansas to start re­ceiv­ing death threats. Flanked by his daugh­ters, Dionne Wal­trip and Diedre Peircy, a shaken Mr Geary stood silently as his el­dest girl is­sued a state­ment on his front porch, plead­ing to be left alone.

“The peo­ple are hurt­ing and they want to lash out and they are lash­ing out at the wrong fam­ily, wrong peo­ple,” Mrs Wal­trip said.

This is what hap­pens when you re­place hu­mans with ro­bots, and ac­tual news dis­ci­pline with a string of code writ­ten by a room­ful of chino-wear­ing IT dudes at the Santa Clara Google­plex. You get news that is 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 this 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 Geary 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 . . . these are not news. I know it’s an un­stop­pable phrase, but “so­cial me­dia” isn’t ac­cu­rate. It’s a phrase that erodes the cre­den­tials of real me­dia, which in­vests in jour­nal­ism and puts sto­ries through proper fil­ters. At Google, the rule seems to be 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 less in­formed.

So­cial me­dia vic­tim: Geary Dan­ley, whose name came up in Google as the Las Ve­gas shooter be­cause he is the ex-hus­band of Mar­ilou Dan­ley, the part­ner of killer Stephen Pad­dock.

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