*Pic: myrealnameispete, Flickr … ‘For 500 years after Gutenberg, the dominant form of information was the printed page: knowledge was primarily delivered in a fixed format, one that encouraged readers to believe in stable and settled truths …’
Lindsay Tuffin: This is an incredibly important story ... with immense implications for a free and fair society. Please read it ... I’ve picked the most important bits ... but the whole dang thing is worth time digesting properly ...
Social media has swallowed the news – threatening the funding of public-interest reporting and ushering in an era when everyone has their own facts. But the consequences go far beyond journalism
... Twenty-five years after the first website went online, it is clear that we are living through a period of dizzying transition. For 500 years after Gutenberg, the dominant form of information was the printed page: knowledge was primarily delivered in a fixed format, one that encouraged readers to believe in stable and settled truths.
Now, we are caught in a series of confusing battles between opposing forces: between truth and falsehood, fact and rumour, kindness and cruelty; between the few and the many, the connected and the alienated; between the open platform of the web as its architects envisioned it and the gated enclosures of Facebook and other social networks; between an informed public and a misguided mob.
What is common to these struggles – and what makes their resolution an urgent matter – is that they all involve the diminishing status of truth. This does not mean that there are no truths. It simply means, as this year has made very clear, that we cannot agree on what those truths are, and when there is no consensus about the truth and no way to achieve it, chaos soon follows.
Increasingly, what counts as a fact is merely a view that someone feels to be true – and technology has made it very easy for these “facts” to circulate with a speed and reach that was unimaginable in the Gutenberg era (or even a decade ago). A dubious story about Cameron and a pig appears in a tabloid one morning, and by noon, it has flown around the world on social media and turned up in trusted news sources everywhere. This may seem like a small matter, but its consequences are enormous.
“The Truth”, as Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie wrote in Stick It Up Your Punter!, their history of the Sun newspaper, is a “bald statement which every newspaper prints at its peril”. There are usually several conflicting truths on any given subject, but in the era of the printing press, words on a page nailed things down, whether they turned out to be true or not. The information felt like the truth, at least until the next day brought another update or a correction, and we all shared a common set of facts.
This settled “truth” was usually handed down from above: an established truth, often fixed in place by an establishment. This arrangement was not without flaws: too much of the press often exhibited a bias towards the status quo and a deference to authority, and it was prohibitively difficult for ordinary people to challenge the power of the press. Now, people distrust much of what is presented as fact – particularly if the facts in question are uncomfortable, or out of sync with their own views – and while some of that distrust is misplaced, some of it is not.
In the digital age, it is easier than ever to publish false information, which is quickly shared and taken to be true – as we often see in emergency situations, when news is breaking in real time. To pick one example among many, during the November 2015 Paris terror attacks, rumours quickly spread on social media that the Louvre and Pompidou Centre had been hit, and that François Hollande had suffered a stroke. Trusted news organisations are needed to debunk such tall tales.
Sometimes rumours like these spread out of panic, sometimes out of malice, and sometimes deliberate manipulation, in which a corporation or regime pays people to convey their message. Whatever the motive, falsehoods and facts now spread the same way, through what academics call an “information cascade”.
As the legal scholar and online-harassment expert Danielle Citron describes it, “people forward on what others think, even if the information is false, misleading or incomplete, because they think they have learned something valuable.” This cycle repeats itself, and before you know it, the cascade has unstoppable momentum. You share a friend’s post on Facebook, perhaps to show kinship or agreement or that you’re “in the know”, and thus you increase the visibility of their post to others.
Algorithms such as the one that powers Facebook’s news feed are designed to give us more of what they think we want – which means that the version of the world we encounter every day in our own personal stream has been invisibly curated to reinforce our pre-existing beliefs. When Eli Pariser, the co-founder of Upworthy, coined the term “filter bubble” in 2011, he was talking about how the personalised web – and in particular Google’s personalised search function, which means that no two people’s Google searches are the same – means that we are less likely to be exposed to information that challenges us or broadens our worldview, and less likely to encounter facts that disprove false information that others have shared.
Pariser’s plea, at the time, was that those running social media platforms should ensure that “their algorithms prioritise countervailing views and news that’s important, not just the stuff that’s most popular or most self-validating”. But in less than five years, thanks to the incredible power of a few social platforms, the filter bubble that Pariser described has become much more extreme.
On the day after the EU referendum, in a Facebook post, the British internet activist and mySociety founder, Tom Steinberg, provided a vivid illustration of the power of the filter bubble – and the serious civic consequences for a world where information flows largely through social networks:
I am actively searching through Facebook for people celebrating the Brexit leave victory, but the filter bubble is SO strong, and extends SO far into things like Facebook’s custom search that I can’t find anyone who is happy *despite the fact that over half the country is clearly jubilant today* and despite the fact that I’m *actively* looking to hear what they are saying.
This echo-chamber problem is now SO severe and SO chronic that I can only beg any friends I have who actually work for Facebook and other major social media and technology to urgently tell their leaders that to not act on this problem now is tantamount to actively supporting and funding the tearing apart of the fabric of our societies … We’re getting countries where one half just doesn’t know anything at all about the other.
But asking technology companies to “do something” about the filter bubble presumes that this is a problem that can be easily fixed – rather than one baked into the very idea of social networks that are designed to give you what you and your friends want to see.
Facebook, which launched only in 2004, now has 1.6bn users worldwide. It has become the dominant way for people to find news on the internet – and in fact it is dominant in ways that would have been impossible to imagine in the newspaper era. As Emily Bell has written: “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.”
Bell, the director of the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia University – and a board member of the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian – has outlined the seismic impact of social media for journalism. “Our news ecosystem has changed more dramatically in the past five years,” she wrote in March, “than perhaps at any time in the past 500.” The future of publishing is being put into the “hands of the few, who now control the destiny of the many”. News publishers have lost control over the distribution of their journalism, which for many readers is now “filtered through algorithms and platforms which are opaque and unpredictable”. This means that social media companies have become overwhelmingly powerful in determining what we read – and enormously profitable from the monetisation of other people’s work. As Bell notes: “There is a far greater concentration of power in this respect than there has ever been in the past.”
Publications curated by editors have in many cases been replaced by a stream of information chosen by friends, contacts and family, processed by secret algorithms. The old idea of a wide-open web – where hyperlinks from site to site created a non-hierarchical and decentralised network of information – has been largely supplanted by platforms designed to maximise your time within their walls, some of which (such as Instagram and Snapchat) do not allow outward links at all …
The increasing prevalence of this approach suggests that we are in the midst of a fundamental change in the values of journalism – a consumerist shift. Instead of strengthening social bonds, or creating an informed public, or the idea of news as a civic good, a democratic necessity, it creates gangs, which spread instant falsehoods that fit their views, reinforcing each other’s beliefs, driving each other deeper into shared opinions, rather than established facts.
But the trouble is that the business model of most digital news organisations is based around clicks. News media around the world has reached a fever-pitch of frenzied binge-publishing, in order to scrape up digital advertising’s pennies and cents. (And there’s not much advertising to be got: in the first quarter of 2016, 85 cents of every new dollar spent in the US on online advertising went to Google and Facebook. That used to go to news publishers.)
In the news feed on your phone, all stories look the same – whether they come from a credible source or not. And, increasingly, otherwise-credible sources are also publishing false, misleading, or deliberately outrageous stories. “Clickbait is king, so newsrooms will uncritically print some of the worst stuff out there, which lends legitimacy to bullshit,” said Brooke Binkowski, an editor at the debunking website Snopes, in an interview with the Guardian in April. “Not all newsrooms are like this, but a lot of them are.”
Many journalists have lost their jobs in the past decade. The number of journalists in the UK shrank by up to one-third between 2001 and 2010; US newsrooms declined by a similar amount between 2006 and 2013. In Australia, there was a 20% cut in the journalistic workforce between 2012 and 2014 alone. Earlier this year, at the Guardian we announced that we would need to lose 100 journalistic positions. In March, the Independent ceased existing as a print newspaper. Since 2005, according to research by Press Gazette, the number of local newspapers in the UK has fallen by 181 – again, not because of a problem with journalism, but because of a problem with funding it.
But journalists losing their jobs is not simply a problem for journalists: it has a damaging impact on the entire culture. As the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas warned, back in 2007: “When reorganisation and cost-cutting in this core area jeopardise accustomed journalistic standards, it hits at the very heart of the political public sphere. Because, without the flow of information gained through extensive research, and without the stimulation of arguments based on an expertise that doesn’t come cheap, public communication loses its discursive vitality. The public media would then cease to resist populist tendencies, and could no longer fulfil the function it should in the context of a democratic constitutional state.”
The impact on journalism of the crisis in the business model is that, in chasing down cheap clicks at the expense of accuracy and veracity, news organisations undermine the very reason they exist: to find things out and tell readers the truth – to report, report, report.
Many newsrooms are in danger of losing what matters most about journalism: the valuable, civic, pounding-the-streets, sifting-the-database, asking-challenging-questions hard graft of uncovering things that someone doesn’t want you to know. Serious, public-interest journalism is demanding, and there is more of a need for it than ever. It helps keep the powerful honest; it helps people make sense of the world and their place in it. Facts and reliable information are essential for the functioning of democracy – and the digital era has made that even more obvious.
The truth is a struggle. It takes hard graft. But the struggle is worth it: traditional news values are important and they matter and they are worth defending. The digital revolution has meant that journalists – rightly, in my view – are more accountable to their audience. And as the Hillsborough story shows, the old media were certainly capable of perpetrating appalling falsehoods, which could take years to unravel. Some of the old hierarchies have been decisively undermined, which has led to a more open debate and a more substantial challenge to the old elites whose interests often dominated the media. But the age of relentless and instant information – and uncertain truths – can be overwhelming. We careen from outrage to outrage, but forget each one very quickly: it’s doomsday every afternoon.
As the academic Zeynep Tufekci argued in an essay earlier this year, the rise of Trump “is actually a symptom of the mass media’s growing weakness, especially in controlling the limits of what it is acceptable to say”. (A similar case could be made for the Brexit campaign.) “For decades, journalists at major media organisations acted as gatekeepers who passed judgment on what ideas could be publicly discussed, and what was considered too radical,” Tufekci wrote. The weakening of these gatekeepers is both positive and negative; there are opportunities and there are dangers.
As we can see from the past, the old gatekeepers were also capable of great harm, and they were often imperious in refusing space to arguments they deemed outside the mainstream political consensus. But without some form of consensus, it is hard for any truth to take hold. The decline of the gatekeepers has given Trump space to raise formerly taboo subjects, such as the cost of a global free-trade regime that benefits corporations rather than workers, an issue that American elites and much of the media had long dismissed – as well as, more obviously, allowing his outrageous lies to flourish.
When the prevailing mood is anti-elite and anti-authority, trust in big institutions, including the media, begins to crumble.
I believe that a strong journalistic culture is worth fighting for. So is a business model that serves and rewards media organisations that put the search for truth at the heart of everything – building an informed, active public that scrutinises the powerful, not an ill-informed, reactionary gang that attacks the vulnerable. Traditional news values must be embraced and celebrated: reporting, verifying, gathering together eyewitness statements, making a serious attempt to discover what really happened.
• Simon Warriner in Comments: You are right, Linz. This is an important story, and an important issue. Real journalism costs real money, and if it cannot be done in the commercial realm then it needs to be funded through the collective mechanisms of government. To get that to happen we need a representative government that is, first and foremost, concerned with serving the common good. Hands up those who can see one of those anywhere close?
• Prem Saraswati in Comments: It is now too late, the proverbial horse is down the road and in the next county. This article omits the major impact of the Neo-Conservative agenda world wide and led by Uncle Rupert to misguide and dumb down the first world in the pursuit of more and more wealth domination by the elite of societies everywhere. It is then no wonder that people are turning en masse away from mainstream traditional journalism.