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