Unfriended

So here’s a bit of news from Australia, where legislation has been published to make Google and Facebook pay news publishers. The main response to this has been from Facebook who decided to show their displeasure and, presumably convince everyone that they are too important for legislators, by blocking links to news websites in the country.

This didn’t go quite to plan:

But when Facebook implemented its ban, an online bookstore, charities, and even a domestic violence support service saw their Facebook presences erased. Australia’s national Basketball and Rugby bodies also saw their pages sent to the sin bin.

According to Facebook, this is because the law doesn’t spell out clearly enough, for them, what is news and what isn’t.

This leaves Facebook in the interesting position of telling advertisers it offers superior micro-targeting services, while telling the world it is unable to tell the difference between a newspaper and a bookshop.

When I saw this story, I was close to posting the above quote and leaving it at that. But then I read on and, while the reporter notes that:

Having woken up to a news-free Facebook, your Australia-based correspondent can report that that sky has not fallen in and it remains possible to be well-informed and entertained down under.

Which is as it should be. Facebook, ultimately, is just a website and one that I have been quite happy to ignore since I deleted my account in 2012.

But then there’s this:

I’ve seen other complaining that they liked Facebook as a news aggregator and miss that aspect of its service but will instead visit actual media websites even if that’s a bit fiddly.

Apologies in advance to anyone reading this who gets their news from Facebook, but this is madness.

Facebook uses an algorithm to determine what to show you. Obviously, I have no insight into how this algorithm works — which is a problem in itself — but we do know that it tends to simply deliver more of the same, dragging users of the Zuckerweb into ever more polarised echo chambers.

There is a better alternative. It’s called RSS.

This is a technology that saw it’s heyday in the first decade of the 21st century and allows you to aggregate all of the content, across the web, that you want to see. You would visit a website, add their RSS feed to your preferred reader and, from then on, all of their content is delivered straight to you. It really is that simple.

RSS has fallen out of favour somewhat with the rise of social media and its algorithmic timelines took hold, even though the technology itself still underpins much of the modern web. I still use it, however, and I honestly don’t know how I would manage without it. I can see what I want, when I want, and organised how I want.

So, rather than having to constantly keep up with the latest online drama, I can take twenty minutes, two or three times a day, to check up on issues and subjects that interest and concern me. And then I can go back to focussing on whatever else I’m supposed to be doing.

Although RSS has fallen out of favour, it hasn’t gone away. Many news sites, most blogs and many other sites continue to deliver RSS feeds. The Guardian, for example, offers a feed not only for the site as a whole, but also a separate feed for every individual writer and subject. And, of course, there are still plenty of aggregators out there.

I have been happily using NewsBlur since Google Reader was killed off, but many other options are available.

Taking a long-term approach to fake news

I have previously expressed the view that the only way of realistically dealing with fake news is to encourage more media literacy and stronger critical thinking skills in the population.

With that in mind, I was quite heartened to see this report about an initiative from VRT that aims to give young people a better understanding of news and current affairs. It certainly looks like an effective first step towards tacking the media literacy part.

Wikitribune, Google and the fake news bandwagon

The Guardian reports that Jimmy Wales is launching an online publication that will fight fake news by pairing professional journalists with an army of volunteer community contributors.

Those who donate will become supporters, who in turn will have a say in which subjects and story threads the site focuses on. And Wales intends that the community of readers will fact-check and subedit published articles.

Describing Wikitribune as “news by the people and for the people,” Wales said: “This will be the first time that professional journalists and citizen journalists will work side-by-side as equals writing stories as they happen, editing them live as they develop, and at all times backed by a community checking and rechecking all facts.”

I’m skeptical.

I’m not convinced that that the model, as described, will actually work financially and, even if it does, it looks geared towards encouraging niche and specialist interests. As such, it will probably do little to address either the echo-chamber effect or the over-reliance of much of the mainstream media on advertising and the clickbait type articles which that encourages.

In other news, Google has announced its first attempt to combat the circulation misleading or offensive content being surfaced by its search engine.

The technology company said it would allow people to complain about misleading, inaccurate or hateful content in its autocomplete function, which pops up to suggest searches based on the first few characters typed.

Quite frankly, this looks more like a PR move on Google’s part than anything else. It’s all well and good letting people report bad or misleading search results, but I don’t see any indication of what Google intends to do about these reports.

Fake news is a problem, but gimmicks like these don’t really address the problem. For that, we need to encourage greater media literacy and stronger critical thinking skills.

Statistical abuse

Many publications are guilty of this and I’m not trying to have a go at New Europe specifically here. But seriously:

Fillon dropped half a percentage point…

This is an utterly meaningless statement. Half a percent is well within the margin of error and is simply not worth mentioning.

If Journalists want to treat elections as horse races, they could at least spend a bit of time gaining some statistical literacy.

On hacking as an act of aggression

This is probably going to turn out as less of a post and more of a list of links, but the pattern is both worrying and worth pointing out.

First up, The Economist on the increasing sophistication of Putin’s propaganda machine:

The Kremlin’s bet on marginal right-wing parties has paid off as they have moved into the mainstream. It has pumped out disinformation and propaganda both through its official media channels, such as the RT and Sputnik news networks, and through thousands of paid internet trolls. Its cyber-attacks against Western countries produced troves of emails and documents which it dumped into the hands of foreign media, disrupting America’s presidential elections to the benefit of Mr Trump.

And a motivation:

Unlike the Socialists of the 1930s, the Kremlin and its friends today are driven not so much by ideology as by opportunism (and, in Russia’s case, corruption). Mr Putin’s primary goal is not to present an alternative political model but to undermine Western democracies whose models present an existential threat to his rule at home. Having lived through the Soviet collapse, he is well aware that the attraction of the prosperous, value-based West helped defeat communism. The retreat of that liberal democratic idea allows Russian propagandists to claim a victory.

Lithuanian MEP, Petras Austrevicius has seen it all before:

A lot of Europeans think that Russian propaganda does not concern them.

These people are in denial on Russia, whose propaganda has infected European debate like a virus.

We are already late in trying to react. Some are still not ready to start.

And, just to underline the point, Russia’s state-owned RT network will start broadcasting in French next year, just in time for the presidential election. And Germany’s intelligence agency has accused Russia of hacking its politicians and election systems under the guise of online activism.

And for the effectiveness of all this, the BBC notes that:

Despite Donald Trump’s boasts to the contrary, he’s entering the White House with a very tenuous claim to a presidential mandate. He trails Democrat Hillary Clinton in the popular vote by 2.8 million votes, and while he posted a comfortable electoral college win, by historical standards it ranks towards the bottom of victory margins (46th out of 58 presidential contests).

The Kremlin has managed to manipulate the media and is continuing to do so. And the media, often more concerned with ratings than reality, are allowing themselves to be played for idiots.

We should all be very concerned.

Quote of the Day: Viral bullshit

I have long believed that the real job of journalism is to add value to what a community knows — tangible value in the form of confirmation and debunking and context and explanation and most of all *reporting* to ask the questions and get the answers — the facts — that aren’t already in the flow. The journalist’s and journalism organization’s ability to do that depends on trust over traffic.

Jeff Jarvis via Paul Fidalgo

Dear Newsnight, Please give Alastair Campbell a job

Alastair Campbell’s performance in Newsnight has already been mentioned in plenty of places across the internet, but it is well worth watching as an example of real journalism in action.

In this video, Alastair Campbell displays everything that I want to see from journalists. He’s seen an injustice, he’s angry about it and he is damn well going to put the perpetrator on the spot and make him account for his actions. Not only does Campbell very effectively put The Daily Mail’s deputy editor, Jon Steafel, on the spot but, in doing so, he also shines a light on the way in which the news media so often fails.

Far too often, journalists present an issue – any issue – using the same old approach of finding someone from each side, putting them in a studio together and essentially standing back. I can see why they do this – it allows them to claim impartiality – but in doing so, they create a false balance between the two sides. In this case, the format followed by Newsnight presents the, frankly rather pathetic, excuses dredged up by Jon Steafel and being as valid as Alastair Campbell’s view that carrying out a hatchet job on someone’s dead dad is despicable. These two positions are not equally valid yet far too much comment and analysis – and I am talking more widely than just Newsnight here – simply fails to keep sight of this fact.

Journalists need to have an opinion on the issues they cover. They do have an opinion, and however much they want to pretend otherwise, we know this. By pretending to be impartial, they not only lose thge trust of their audience but they also fail to get to the heart of the issue being covered. We all lose as a result of this.

Passionate and partisan journalists are a good thing. The only caveat I would add is we – the audience – should be aware of the journalist’s leanings, in general if not necessarily on every issue.

Of course, saying that journalists shouldn’t be constantly seeking a happy middle between each and every extreme does raise the question of impatiality. This is something the BBC does seek to achieve and. while I do think this is a good thing, I also think that they often veer too far towards everyone trying to be impartial about everything.

It is not the job of a journalist to try and remain impartial. It is the job of the editor to try to ensure the balance, across the programme, is reasonable (and being reasonable is not the same as being fair). If the editor is unable to do this then it is up to the producer to ensure that and accurate balance is maintained across the series.

Journalism should be about geting to the truth. Any journalist that lets other considerations get in the way of this is failing to do his or her job.