Mark Jennings Warning On The Future Of News Will The Internet Kill Journalism?

 

Caption: Fake News in Facebook promoted the election of Donald Trump.

Mark Jennings offers practical and realistic analysis on the parlous state of New Zealand News Media. This is the slightly abridged text of Jennings’ giving the John O’Shea memorial address to the SPADA conference this week.

I’d like to look at two major themes that have impacted the media this year. One is international and one is domestic.The first is the now widely held view that the world’s media is so out of touch that it completely misread Brexit and Donald Trump’s rise to power and has become irrelevant to a large part of the population.

Mark Jennngs warns about the power of Facebook
Mark Jennngs warns about the power of Facebook

The second one is, what’s led to the two biggest media organisations in this country feeling they have to merge to if they are to keep producing the sort of journalism that matters. In my view, there are many factors that are common to both these topics. It wasn’t that long ago that technology and the internet looked like they were going to be mainstream media’s greatest allies, in what I think is its key role, providing timely information and context to a wide audience.

The combination of technology and the internet promised so much. Looking back, I think it was a sweet spot in media history, a great time to be a journalist and I think the public was well served too. Profitability and competition spawned a whole range of new products and product innovation. I’d like to fast forward to  the rise of Google and Facebook

Could Mark Zuckerberg become editor in chief.
Could Mark Zuckerberg become editor in chief.

– particularly Facebook. The traditional mainstream media has lost control of its distribution platforms. 50 percent of Americans now get their news from Facebook. I don’t know the figure for New Zealand but my gut tells that is probably similar. There are two big problems with this.The first one is money. If you are not buying a paper, reading the advertisements in it, or watching the ads on a free to-air news broadcast or paying to access material on line, then the content provider is going to go broke. As we know, that’s what’s happening around the western world including New Zealand.

It’s not a quick death though, it is a slow and painful one, as Facebook and Google suck more and more money out of the market.News providers cut staff, lower quality, steal each other’s material and now try to trick the public into clicking onto nonsense stories in the hope of staying in business. All mainstream news media now distribute their content via Facebook. They don’t make much money out of it but they don’t really have a choice.
What the mainstream media has done, perhaps unwittingly, though, is to legitimise Facebook as a news source.

 

So here is the second problem. News on Facebook is often, as we now know, not real news.Itis  fake news. During the US presidential campaign, there were times when fake stories from fake news sites got more engagement from audiences than mainstream sites. The Daily Beast tracked some of the stories “Denzel Washington backs Trump in the most epic way possible” the headline read. Denzel is now team Trump. The story was shared 10,000 times from a single source; it had 80,000 likes in half a day. Other stories:

Michelle Obama exposed for the pervert she really is
FBI agent investigating Hilary Clinton found dead
Hilary Clinton is to be indicted
Pope Francis has endorsed Donald Trump

All these stories were false or fake – but they were shared over and over. And the fakery has continued after Trump’s victory. A site called End The Fed ran a story saying Ford had shifted its truck production from Mexico to Michigan. It was shared 15,000 times. Other sites picked up this story and it was shared up to 20,000 times. Now here is the real irony in all this – at the very same time as this fake story was going viral, Ford’s CEO announced that his company was doing the exact opposite. Reuters reported that the Ford Motor company is moving ahead with its plans to shift production of small cars to Mexico from Michigan. When the Daily Beast pointed this out – the story from Ford which is entirely true – it had just 233 shares.

The town of Velez iin Macedonia was the source of many fake stories
The town of Veles iin Macedonia (popn 45.000) was the source of many fake stories

It also turns out that much of this fake news emanated from Macedonia.

TBuzzfeed reported that teenagers in the Macedonian town of Veles (population 45,000) had created a 140 Trump sites. They earned easy money off Facebook advertising by targeting gullible Americans with sites like TrumpVision 365.com and DonaldTrumpNews.com.

So how does it work? Well, according to Buzzfeed, most of the posts are plagiarized from fringe or right wing sites in the US. The teenagers write a sensationalized headline and post it to their site. They then share it on Facebook. The more people that click through from Facebook the more money they earn from ads on their website.

As one of Facebook’s former editors posted, and I quote, “Sadly the news feed optimises for engagement. As we have learned in this election, bullshit is highly engaging. A bias towards the truth isn’t an impossible goal. But it is now clear that democracy suffers if our news environment incentivises bullshit.”  Facebook’s boss Mark Zuckerberg initially claimed that it was a crazy idea to suggest fake news stories played a part in Trump’s victory and blamed low voter turnout.

But the pressure has been mounting on Zuckerberg, including from Facebook’s own staff. In fact, the employees formed a task force to question the role of their company in promoting fake news.

Last weekend he announced several projects to take misinformation seriously, including stronger methods of detection and verification. He said Facebook would work with third parties and journalists, yes, journalists, on fact-checking and would explore putting warning labels on content that had been flagged as false. Zuckerberg has also said that Facebook will try to prevent fake news sites from making money through its advertising system.

Up until now, Facebook has claimed it is a technology company and not a publisher, therefore it is not responsible for whether articles are true or false.

But does this actually ring true? This year we have seen Facebook remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the little girl fleeing a Napalm attack during the Vietnam War because she was nude. They also removed a breast cancer awareness video for the same reasons.

I believe Facebook is a media company, not a technology company and it is responsible for and should to be held to account for All the content in its digital pipeline, not just when it suits it.

It feels to me that Facebook acts like a publisher when it wants to but maybe not when money is at stake. Trump’s digital director Brad Parscale told a reporter after the Election, “Facebook and twitter were the reason we won this thing.” He added that 90 million US dollars went to digital advertising and most of that went to Facebook.

Other commentators blame Facebook’s culture and the type of people it has hired for its lack of editorial sensibility.

Perhaps just as worrying and dangerous as fake news is the emergence of filter bubbles. Filter bubbles happen where algorithms guess what information users would like to see based on past click behaviour and search history. Filter bubbles leave users of social media inside an echo chamber of similar views.

Trump’s digital guru, Brad Parscale, refers to them as “lookalike audiences.”

What we have seen in the US and we are starting to see here in New Zealand is now being referred to as virulent tribalism. Effectively people never get to see or hear information that disagrees with their viewpoints or prejudices. 
Is it likely we will see fake news and filter bubbles play a role in next year’s election campaign? The answer unfortunately is yes.

The rise of social media platforms has had a severe impact on mainstream media in this country.So much so, that our two biggest media organisations, NZME and Fairfax, say they need to merge if they are to continue producing quality journalism.

My analysis of the situation is they are looking for more runway, in other words if they stop competing with each other they will have longer to work out a new business model. It’s public knowledge that the Herald wanted to bring in a paywall but feared losing most of their traffic to Fairfax’s Stuff site if they did.
The merger, which given the Commerce commission’s preliminary ruling now seems unlikely, would seriously impact media diversity and I don’t think it would help Stuff Me (as it is called) survive in the long term.

Yes, the plane would rumble down the runway for longer but eventually it crashes. A merger wouldn’t stop Facebook, Google and Twitter taking all the money.

So what are the solutions? And if we are to have a fully functioning democracy and an informed public debate in this country then we are going to need a solution. Paywalls are a possibility. More people are beginning to recognise that we need to pay for good journalism – but I suspect there will never be enough of them. Google and Facebook could volunteer to help. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Last week Google announced that it is supporting 124 media projects across 25 European countries with 24 million Euros as part of its Digital news initiative fund.

Interestingly a lot of the money is going to fact-checking projects.
Partly, this is in the wake of Brexit and the Scottish referendum where “facts” turned out not to be facts but a politician’s opinions. Wouldn’t it be nice if Google funded something similar here before the next election. The other solution, and it would be a controversial one, would be to place a tax on Facebook’s and Google’s revenues generated in this country and redirect at least some of this money back into local media.

unknown-6Public money is already allocated to media companies through NZ On Air.
It does a good job but is now swamped with applications, far more than it can possibly fund. It needs more money.Imagine what it could do help journalism in New Zealand if it had an extra, say, $20 million.

That sounds like a lot of money, right? Well, consider this. Last year Google’s revenue was US$74 billion. That easily exceeds the entire tax take in New Zealand. Add in Facebook and the combined revenue figure comes to more than a hundred billion New Zealand dollars. It is my submission that these two giants should stop avoiding tax around the world and make sure that the internet does not kill good journalism.

 

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