Info

A trade journal of a still-emerging field, written by Adam Tinworth.

As trailed a while back, Instagram has now added the ability to upload multiple images or videos to a single post:

It’s an interesting move, as it shifts the service even further from her it started. In the beginning it was an image sharing app, that tended to focus on people creating “arty” effects via the inbuilt filters. That faded somewhat as the filters were toned down, but it still remained a crafted photo-centric service. But the net effect of this and the rapid growth of Instagram Stories has turned it into a general purpose visual communication and relationship maintenance tool.

Still, might make some verification work easier. One image is much easier to fake than 10.

The lovely, lovely First Draft Coalition has been doing some excellent work in unpicking the roots of the real “Fake News”, before that phrase got co-opted. In particular, research director Claire Wardle has expended on work by Elliot Higgins to define the reasons why people create misinformation and disinformation, taking his “4 Ps” up to “8 Ps”:

  • Poor Journalism
  • Parody
  • to Provoke or ‘Punk’
  • Passion
  • Partisanship
  • Profit
  • Political Influence or Power
  • Propaganda.

Our consistent vulnerability

Misinformation and Disinformation

Why is this so important? Readers of this blog are surely intelligent, critical thinking people of the world, not prone to being influenced. Well, you more be more vulnerable than you think, as Claire points out:

When messaging is coordinated and consistent, it easily fools our brains, already exhausted and increasingly reliant on heuristics (simple psychological shortcuts) due to the overwhelming amount of information flashing before our eyes every day. When we see multiple messages about the same topic, our brains use that as a short-cut to credibility. It must be true we say — I’ve seen that same claim several times today.

Any student who has had the misfortune to come in my orbit for the last couple of years has had verification as a critical skill drummed into them, and journalists are a key part of that. But we need a more sceptical, more critically thinking populace, too:

We all play a crucial part in this ecosystem. Every time we passively accept information without double-checking, or share a post, image or video before we’ve verified it, we’re adding to the noise and confusion. The ecosystem is now so polluted, we have to take responsibility for independently checking what we see online.

And the work First Draft are doing to understand and unpick the ecosystem are a useful weapon in this fight.

Dale Beran has written a fascinating and compelling long read, drawing a direct line from 4chan springing to life from Something Awful’s forums, to the rise of Trump.

And the bridging factor? Milo. He took the GamerGate movement and connected it up with the burgeoning alt-right via Breitbart, effectively giving Trump another demographic in his electoral coalition. And he did it by battening onto what the Anons were most ashamed of, and making them proud of it:

Here Yiannopoulos has inverted what has actually happened to make his audience feel good. Men who have retreated to video games and internet porn can now characterize their helpless flight as an empowered conscious choice to reject women for something else. In other words, it justifies a lifestyle which in their hearts they previously regarded helplessly as a mark of shame.

It leads to the fascinating conclusion that this part of Trump’s base know that he wasn’t deliver for them – but that’s OK, that’s what they expect. They’re just in it for the lulz.

4chan’s value system, like Trump’s ideology, is obsessed with masculine competition (and the subsequent humiliation when the competition is lost). Note the terms 4chan invented, now so popular among grade schoolers everywhere: “fail” and “win”, “alpha” males and “beta cucks”. This system is defined by its childlike innocence, that is to say, the inventor’s inexperience with any sort of “IRL” romantic interaction. And like Trump, since these men wear their insecurities on their sleeve, they fling these insults in wild rabid bursts at everyone else.

I was familiar with many elements of this story – but I’ve not seen them so well connected before.

Sad news:

Steve Buttry, a journalist for more than 45 years, died February 19 at age 62 of pancreatic cancer, his third major cancer.

If you’re not familiar with Steve, he was one of the most prominent voices exploring the role of digital in reshaping newsrooms, through both his work for the last decade or so and through his blog, The Buttry Diary. I can’t claim to have known Steve (the Venn diagrams of our worlds clearly overlapped, but we were never really in each other’s orbit), but I am deeply familiar with his work.

Unlike too many other of the main voices in that conversation, Steve was deeply embedded in working newsrooms until relatively recently:

Buttry visited the newsrooms of all DFM daily newspapers, visiting some of them in multiple locations as newsrooms moved as well as some weekly newsrooms. In all, he visited 84 DFM newsrooms, leading workshops for staffs as well as coaching editors and other staff members. Two primary focuses of his work at DFM were training new editors in leading Digital First newsrooms and “unbolting” newsroom culture from the newspaper factory model.

The DFM experience ended when the hedge fund that controlled DFM, Alden Global, changed its strategy. Buttry’s job was cut April 2, 2014, along with other members of the company’s Thunderdome newsroom. Brady and Paton eventually left DFM as well.

For the last few years, Steve taught at Louisiana State University. Friends and colleagues are building a scholarship fund in his name. When he announced he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I couldn’t help but shudder. I know from my own Dad’s death from it back in 2001 that, for most people, it’s a short-term death sentence. He did well to delay his passing for seven months.

With Steve’s passing, it feels like another of the elder statesmen of the online journalism discussion has been silenced. Romenesko has retired, Buttry has passed. But, true to his vision, Buttry has left behind his wisdom in digital form, even blogging his own obituary, creating that rarest of things, a blog that ends, rather than peters out.

Thank you, Steve.

I’ve been a Fellow of the RSA for about six years now, invited to join the fellowship because of my “expertise in digital media” – something they were apparently short of at the time. I’ve enjoyed being a fellow, often use the RSA House as a meeting space or a London office, and attend events there. But the annual Fellowship card has always annoyed me – it’s a fragile coated paper thing that barely survives a year of use:

the old RSA Fellowship Card

That’s all gone, replaced with a nicely designed plastic one:

The RSA provides a powerful global platform for independent debate and research, creating a foundation to encourage innovative thinking, which often grows into pioneering action. We wanted to take this concept to bring to life the Fellowship network through illustration.

And this is the result:

Final card image

It’s rather nice – and feels a heck of a lot less fragile in my wallet.

I suspect it also has RFID or similar in it, because apparently we can use it to “touch in” to the RSA House now. I’m look forward to trying that out soon…

A prominent YouTuber has lost a lucrative contract:

Since August, PewDiePie has posted nine videos that include anti-Semitic jokes or Nazi imagery, according to a review of his channel by The Wall Street Journal.

On Monday after the Journal contacted Disney about the videos, the entertainment giant said it was severing ties with Mr. Kjellberg, who as PewDiePie rose to prominence via clips of himself playing videogames or performing skits and making crude jokes.

What’s interesting about this is that a single YouTuber has reached enough prominence that their deals with major corporations warrant the attention of the Wall Street Journal.

Significant enough, in fact, that they pushed out out as a notification:

PewDiePie WSJ push notification

YouTubers are still a massively under-discussed part of the modern media business landscape.

Ah, Media Twitter is all aflutter with this news from the New York Times:

The Gateway Pundit, a provocative conservative blog, gained notice last year for its fervent pro-Trump coverage and its penchant for promoting false rumors about voter fraud and Hillary Clinton’s health that rocketed around right-wing websites.

Now the site will report on politics from a prominent perch: the White House.

And they certainly seem pleased about it:

Heavens-to-Betsy, a blogger in the press room? There will be a predictable backlash from journalists (in fact there probably already is one), who will do some eye-rolling at the infiltration of the true journalists’ space. And they will all have forgotten this:

Bloggers and pundits have been granted access to White House briefings in previous administrations

The use of the word “blog” here is pretty arbitrary. The definition of “blog” and “website” are pretty hazy at the best of times and the past five years have only blurred that. (Remember when people were calling Buzzfeed and Huffington Post blogs?)

Gateway Pudit itself has a little fun with that distinction:

The New York Times, a provocative liberal blog

The concern here isn’t that the White House has granted press credentials to a Pro-Trump Blog, but that it has granted them to a Pro-Trump blog. But even that shouldn’t necessarily be of deep concern, because we have so much partisan press already (especially in the UK).

The pundit/propagandist boundary

When should we worry? Well, look at the outlet’s record for truth – if it’s so pro-Trump that it lies for the president, than it’s crossed that hazy line from partisan journalism to straight-up propaganda. And on that charge, they have some form:

The Gateway Pundit did not see protesters getting on or off the bus, and they offered no proof that any protesters had been paid (by George Soros or anyone else). The web site published three pictures of buses and then fabricated a story about paid protesters based on the mistaken observations of a sole Twitter user.

The Washington Post, a blog owned by tech mogul Jeff Bezos, has many more examples for you:

Just last week, the Gateway Pundit published the absurd, social media-generated claim that the Washington Post’s Doris Truong had sneakily snapped cellphone photos of notes belonging to secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, during his confirmation hearing. Truong was not at the hearing; it made no sense to think she would have been at the hearing, since she is an editor of The Post’s website.

The Guardian’s SnowCuck-General* Martin Belam has hit the nail on the head with some of the problems inherent to the current fact-checking culture in response to a political movement prepared to flat-out lie to us:

[…] I’m reminded of Clay Shirky complaining during the US presidential campaign that, “We’ve brought fact-checkers to a culture war”, and Hussein Kesvani writing recently that “fact checkers are terrible at telling stories”, whereas the neo-Nazi “alt-right” movement is great at building and maintaining a narrative.

Here’s Shirky’s tweet:

Narrative. Culture war. These are important ideas to bear in mind, as you analyse this situation.

Narratives versus facts

Journalism in general is much more comfortable with facts and stories (in the 350 word, inverted pyramid sense) than narratives. The development of a narrative has been a fundamental part of the best digital native publishing, which tends to have a view and a tight focus, and then explore that narrative through posts and links. It’s a difference of form born of the contrast between the daily newspaper and the infinite scroll of the internet.

And right now, we’re seeing a full-on clash of those two cultures. And it’s not going well for the older version.

Belam again:

Infowars, Breitbart, Britain First – the sort of websites and organisations that are spreading the far right’s anti-Muslim, conspiracy-theory-ridden ideology – are not going to be afraid to double-down on spreading their message. Fact-checking their spurious claims is one thing – but what does it achieve? To really challenge the spread of this nonsense we need to work out what we are going to do about more effectively spreading the truth.

It’s a fine distinction, but picking away at the lies that build a political narrative does stop falsehood spreading – and that’s valuable – but it does very little to undermine the central narrative that the extreme right are putting out in the US. This problem is not exclusive to the US – we’ve certainly seen elements of the Brexit-supporting right in the UK do much the same. Given the current success in the States, I’m sure we’ll see more political movements copycatting this approach.

The guerrilla war on truth

However, Martin might be guilty of burying the lede a little – not down in the depths of the article, but in the comments (yes, those much-derided comments):

I started thinking that maybe we just have a rota and instead of us all having two journalists each fact-checking every Spicer appearance, we just have one news organisation with the short straw, and everyone links to their fact-check.

I mean, I can’t see it happening, but it’s interesting if you watched things like GamerGate organising, then they had a distributed crowd who could (mostly) agree on one line to take and then push out. It’s very efficient – and the media don’t really have that collaborative mindset because traditionally it’s been about exclusives and being first.

That latter paragraph highlights a really crucial issue. This battle over the narrative is an asymmetric one on a lot of levels. There’s no doubt that the weight of numbers – people – is still very much on the side of traditional media. Despite the brutal cuts to print newsrooms over the years, in aggregate we’re still talking a heck of a lot of people – especially when you figure broadcast into the equation. But those numbers are being wasted in repetition and duplication. This is the classic “over-supply of news” problem given a rather macabre twist.

Asymmetric information warfare

But it’s worth thinking about this in terms of asymmetric warfare. Look at the “opposing forces” Martin cites in the quote above:

Infowars, Breitbart, Britain First

These are all digital outfits and, in the case of Britain First, Facebook-first. These are people who have been honing their techniques for 15 years on blogs, forums and other online services. They were birthed in the rants against the “MSM” in right-wing blogs in the early 2000s, and they’ve only got more effective as the social media tools have got more powerful.

How many people today are aware of Breitbart’s origin’s as the late Andrew Breitbart‘s blog, where he developed a vision of publishing honed at The Drudge Report and The Huffington Post. Who remembers Milo Yiannopoulos as a would be mainstream right political and tech journalist in the UK? Or as a hanger-on to London and Berlin’s startup scenes?

Too many saw the #GamerGate battle as a side issue, relevant only to techies and geeks. But it was the testing ground for the techniques that the alt-right are using on a much wider scale right now.

This is a classic piece of asymmetric warfare, with a small, but highly-distributed but well-ordinated group of people punching far above their weight because they are focusing on a central narrative, and are using more powerful digital techniques than their sluggish, divided mainstream competitors. The newspapers and broadcast media have very big guns, but they’re all firing them at the same place – and it’s not where the opposition really are.

The Meme is the longbow of the 21st Century

Don’t believe me? Look at this analysis of Breitbart’s use of Facebook:

[…] although Breitbart posted 12 times more links out of Facebook than images and videos combined, images and videos account for 79 percent of the total shares out of these top 100 posts. This disparity is even greater when you sum up the total shares of those 100 posts.

Breitbart shares

And this is the most shared post:

Such a simple message. So central to the alt-right narrative. So easily spread. So easily assimilated into your thinking. This is the propaganda power of Facebook at its most might.

These are the digital tools of narrative warfare. Use of memes – and this is what this is – is a fundamental part of the new language of communication. But we’re still fighting with the tools of the last century – the 1000 word article, debunking the lies, but which reaches a tiny fraction of the people as that simple meme above.

Are we prepared to step up and use these tools? Or will be as the French at Agincourt, cut down by the new technology of the age? Then, it was longbows. In the culture wars, it’s memes.

Even when Spicer, Conway and the others use the traditional media, it’s to spread messages that will be picked up and repeated through digital – and especially social media – by their base. They are subverting the mainstream, and turning it into an additional and reinforcing distribution challenge even as they subvert trust in it.

Are you of digital or merely on digital?

At a fundamental level, there’s a war being waged between organisations which are on digital but are not of digital, and those whose very way of operating has been forged in the fires of digital culture wars over decades. And they’re using the power of direct communication – a power that was prophesied as long ago as 1999’s Cluetrain Manifesto, albeit in rather hippier form:

  • Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
  • Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.
  • People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice.

Politics has fluffed around the edges of this. The Obama years used social media very effectively: remember this?

Great image. But a carefully planned and staged image. Trump has subverted all that by talking like a person – although, admittedly, a particular kind of person – and his voice is undeniably his own. So many of his compatriots in this movement do the same. This has the power to make one of the elite – as Trump’s wealth and status make him – feel like one of the guys. They sound like people. We sound like – brace yourselves – elites hectoring people from our positions of power.

We won’t win the battle for truth with the weapons of the past. We need to take up the longbows of the digital era, and prove ourselves on the battleground of 21st century ideas.

*Sorry Martin, couldn’t resist.