HOW TECHNOLOGY DISRUPTED TRUTH: PART 3

Recently, the British newspaper The Guardian ran a long story on the impact technology is having on our perception of truth.

It was a thoughtful, informative piece that pointed out how social media are not only disrupting but corrupting journalistic integrity and honesty world-wide. We are seeing that happen in the United States with an unrestricted and uninhibited social media brimming with fabrications, smears, deceptions, and outright lies. Regrettably, those stories are posted and forwarded to millions of people as “truth.”

The story was reported and written by Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of Guardian News & Media. Because it was such a long story, I am running it on my blog in five parts. I have opted to leave British spelling and style intact.

Here is Part 3.

Social media has swallowed everything

By Katherine Viner

Facebook, which launched only in 2004, now has 1.6 billion 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 on 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.

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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Publications curated by editors have in many cases been replaced by a stream of information chosen by friends, contacts, and family, processed by secret algorithms.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.

Many people, in fact, especially teenagers, now spend more and more of their time on closed chat apps, which allow users to create groups to share messages privately – perhaps because young people, who are most likely to have faced harassment online, are seeking more carefully protected social spaces. But the closed space of a chat app is an even more restrictive silo than the walled garden of Facebook or other social networks.

Hossein Derakhshan Photograph: Arash Ashoorinia for the Guardian
Hossein Derakhshan Photograph: Arash Ashoorinia for the Guardian

As the pioneering Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan, who was imprisoned in Tehran for six years for his online activity, wrote in the Guardian earlier this year, the “diversity that the world wide web had originally envisioned” has given way to “the centralisation of information” inside a select few social networks – and the end result is “making us all less powerful in relation to government and corporations”.

Of course, Facebook does not decide what you read – at least not in the traditional sense of making decisions – and nor does it dictate what news organisations produce. But when one platform becomes the dominant source for accessing information, news organisations will often tailor their work to the demands of this new medium. (The most visible evidence of Facebook’s influence on journalism is the panic that accompanies any change in the news feed algorithm that threatens to reduce the page views sent to publishers.)

In the last few years, many news organisations have steered themselves away from public-interest journalism and toward junk-food news, chasing page views in the vain hope of attracting clicks and advertising (or investment) – but like junk food, you hate yourself when you’ve gorged on it.

The most extreme manifestation of this phenomenon has been the creation of fake news farms, which attract traffic with false reports that are designed to look like real news and are therefore widely shared on social networks. But the same principle applies to news that is misleading or sensationally dishonest, even if it wasn’t created to deceive: the new measure of value for too many news organisations is virality rather than truth or quality.

Of course, journalists have got things wrong in the past – either by mistake or prejudice or sometimes by intent. (Freddie Starr probably didn’t eat a hamster.) So it would be a mistake to think this is a new phenomenon of the digital age. But what is new and significant is that today, rumours and lies are read just as widely as copper-bottomed facts – and often more widely, because they are wilder than reality and more exciting to share.

The cynicism of this approach was expressed most nakedly by Neetzan Zimmerman, formerly employed by Gawker as a specialist in high-traffic viral stories. “Nowadays it’s not important if a story’s real,” he said in 2014. “The only thing that really matters is whether people click on it.”

Facts, he suggested, are over; they are a relic from the age of the printing press when readers had no choice. He continued: “If a person is not sharing a news story, it is, at its core, not news.”

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 on 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.

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“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.”

We should be careful not to dismiss anything with an appealing digital headline as clickbait – appealing headlines are a good thing, if they lead the reader to quality journalism, both serious and not.

My belief is that what distinguishes good journalism from poor journalism is labour: the journalism that people value the most is that for which they can tell someone has put in a lot of work – where they can feel the effort that has been expended on their behalf, over tasks big or small, important or entertaining.

It is the reverse of so-called “churnalism,” the endless recycling of other people’s stories for clicks. The digital advertising model doesn’t currently discriminate between true or not true, just big or small.

As the American political reporter, Dave Weigel wrote in the wake of a hoax story that became a viral hit all the way back in 2013: “‘Too good to check’ used to be a warning to newspaper editors not to jump on bullshit stories. Now it’s a business model.”

Tomorrow:  Chasing down every cheap click

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