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

Posts tagged fake news

Techmeme

Has our lust for innovation made us move on from ideas too quickly? I’ve been mulling that over for most of the day, since I read Charlie Wurzel’s long piece on Gabe Rivera and Techmeme. Unless you’re a blogger of a certain vintage, you’re probably thinking “who?” right now. And that’s fine – he runs a niche site, but a hugely influential niche site:

Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai are both confessed readers, as are LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner, former PayPal exec and current Facebook Messenger head David Marcus, former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella. Hunter Walk, a former product manager at YouTube turned seed-stage venture capitalist, told me he checks the site three to five times daily. “It’s one of my first morning sites,” he told me over email. “My perception is that lots of us [in Silicon Valley] use it.”

Techmeme is that most-old fashioned of digital things, an aggregator. It makes editorial decisions with algorithmic support over what the most important stories of the day are – and then links to all the discussion around that core story. That combination – of ranking and connection – is utterly compelling and all too little replicated anywhere else.

There are many people trying to find ways of surfacing the “best” or “most important” stories of the day – usually through algorithms, although I still favour the human-curated element through either newsletters or (whisper it) blogs. In many ways, it’s the second element of Techmeme – that’s so interesting – connecting together the conversations.

Conversational connectivity

Techmeme at work

In digital content circle, we talk a lot about “content atomisation”, the idea that the publishing packages of the past have been atomised into individual articles found via search or social. In a sense, what Techmeme does is reconnect those atoms into molecules of news, allowing you to track not just the most popular articles, but to explore the interconnections between them and other articles, which respond to them or follow them up. Thos connections both inform the ratings, but also guide to the reader into the broader context of the story.

It’s such a compelling idea that I’m surprised that nobody is really working on it in any other way. A decade back, the blog platform makers were really interested in connecting up conversations online. That led to the advent of standards like Trackback and Pingback, both of which got steadily buried under ever-increasing volumes of spam. And, to add to the woes, much of the discussion around any single article is now buried away in private spaces like Facebook.

But still, it seems a strange gap in the technology of the web that it’s surprisingly hard for the casual reader to easily find responses and follow-ups to something they’ve read.

And, it seems to me, that such a system might be a very handy tool in the war on intentionally misleading news.

Liveblogged notes from the “Fake News” event at City University, co-organised by The Media Society and the Student Publication Association. Prone to error, inaccuracy, horrible typos and screaming crimes against grammar and syntax. Post will be improved over the next 48 hours.

Jonathan Hewett, our chair, isn’t keen on the phrase “fake news”. What are we actually talking about? Intentionally produced misinformation, that’s designed to be propagated.

Megan Lucero and Jonathan Hewett discussing fake news

Alastair Reid, ex-First Draft News, now independent digital journalist

First Draft was initially set up to deal with user generated content from breaking news events – and the verification of it. But over the last 18 months the rapid growth of misinformation and disinformation has shifted that focus.

Megan Lucero, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism

That phrase is not one she’ll be using. It’s being to delegitimise the press, and so we shouldn’t use it. Yes, a small sliver of it is bad journalism, but there’s far more misinformation, propaganda and so on. There’s a glut of information – we need more journalists to sift through it.

James Ball, special correspondent, Buzzfeed

He’s writing a book on bullshit and “fake news”. The web is full of hoax sites full of deceptive news. It’s the pantomime villain behind this era of bullshit. You can make a distinction between fake news and hyperpartisan news, or accurate stories spun out of all proportion. Lots of people on the centre left are sharing stories about “Trump’s secret plan”, the same sort of conspiracy theory thinking that we criticise the far right for. But this isn’t going to be solved by Google withdrawing ads, or Facebook tagging content.

How did we get here?

AR: Social media has a huge role in that. Anyone can publish anything they want to. The barriers to reaching thousands or millions of people have collapsed. Five years ago everyone was hailing the Arab Spring as a wonderful example of social media use. But that freedom has now been weaponised by those with an agenda. 15 years ago blogging was being talked about in the same way.

ML: It’s exploited a very beautiful part of humanity: trust and integrity. People trust what they read. Your world view was the paper you subscribed to. We have to change that. We need to critically assess what we read online. (more…)

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.

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.

This really is a mark of just how efficient and savvy the media machine around Trump is:

But though the term [Fake News] hasn’t been around long, its meaning already is lost. Faster than you could say “Pizzagate,” the label has been co-opted to mean any number of completely different things: Liberal claptrap. Or opinion from left-of-center. Or simply anything in the realm of news that the observer doesn’t like to hear.

“The speed with which the term became polarized and in fact a rhetorical weapon illustrates how efficient the conservative media machine has become,” said George Washington University professor Nikki Usher.

And Trump himself has grabbed onto it gleefully:

The main thrust of the article is correct, and I can’t help worrying that the current efforts to counter “fake news” by appealing to government and the social networks will prove counter-productive.

If that simpler solution is too dangerous – perhaps we just have to buckle down and do the hard work of building audiences, getting better at using social media and debunking lies compellingly.

Two bits of feedback to yesterday’s piece on the Google News Lab University Network.

The Frenemy Dance

It’s interesting isn’t it? Only a few years ago, Google was the enemy because it atomises our content (people find articles through search, not index pages) and provides an alternative front page via Google News – thus, indirectly, making money of four content. And now, all of a sudden Google is an ally, and Facebook is the enemy because FAKE NEWS.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Google has its own fake news problems, and Facebook is now our dominant traffic source. But the journalism world’s odd whiplash between perceiving tech platforms as friend or enemy – and then back – betrays nothing less than the insecurity we feel about our place in this new world.

It’s almost like we want a junior partner to guide guys into the digital reality, while failing to realise that we are very much the junior partners in this relationship.

Get your digital production right

It’s a fair point. If you’re going to make point about how you’re supporting journalists in digital, failing to show decent digital production standards isn’t a great start. And Medium, where the post is hosted, makes it really easy to do.

Here’s the Europe list, as it appears in the article:

In Europe: Hamburg Media School (strategic partner for DACH region); Deutscher Journalisten Verband (DJV); Studiengang Journalistik, Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt; Technische Universität Dortmund (Prof. Dr. Lobigs); Fjum_forum Journalismus und Medien Wien; Deutsche Journalistenschule (DJS); EPFL Extension School; Le Centre de formation des journalistes (CFJ); City, University of London; Cardiff University; Dublin City University, Future Media and Journalism (FuJo); Master in Journalism — University of Turin, centre de formation des journalistes

And here it is properly formatted:

In Europe:

  • Hamburg Media School (strategic partner for DACH region);
  • Deutscher Journalisten Verband (DJV);
  • Studiengang Journalistik, Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt;
  • Technische Universität Dortmund (Prof. Dr. Lobigs);
  • Fjum_forum Journalismus und Medien Wien;
  • Deutsche Journalistenschule (DJS);
  • EPFL Extension School;
  • Le Centre de formation des journalistes (CFJ);
  • City, University of London;
  • Cardiff University;
  • Dublin City University,
  • Future Media and Journalism (FuJo);
  • Master in Journalism — University of Turin, centre de formation des journalistes

That was less than a minute’s work (editing using Markdown in WordPress).

Attention to detail on production isn’t just pedantry, it’s paying a fundamental respect to the idea of making the copy more usable for the reader. And it’s certainly a LOT easier to browse that list in the second format.

Fake news is Facebook’s problem, right? Well, maybe it’s a touch bigger than that.

Maybe Google has the problem, too:

Are Jews evil? It’s not a question I’ve ever thought of asking. I hadn’t gone looking for it. But there it was. I press enter. A page of results appears. This was Google’s question. And this was Google’s answer: Jews are evil. Because there, on my screen, was the proof: an entire page of results, nine out of 10 of which “confirm” this.

The problem is much bigger than just fake news. The problem is that our new systems of trust – in Google, in Facebook – are shaping how people views many subjects – and that’s open to exploitation. We’ve know that Russia has been using the internet as an effective propaganda tool for years. ISIL uses social media as a core component of its propaganda strategy. And now other groups are adopting these tactics, with staggering results.

The author, Carole Cadwalladr, talks to Danny Sullivan, one of the leading experts in search engines:

“I thought they stopped offering autocomplete suggestions for religions in 2011.” And then he types “are women” into his own computer.

Google discusses women's "evil"

“Good lord! That answer at the top. It’s a featured result. It’s called a “direct answer”. This is supposed to be indisputable. It’s Google’s highest endorsement.” That every women has some degree of prostitute in her? “Yes. This is Google’s algorithm going terribly wrong.”

Propaganda is winning the web

Google has since acted on these results (with somewhat mixed results) but you should still read the whole piece. This isn’t just technology companies making mistakes – this is an example of a whole industry of sites with a deep understanding of digital platform distribution exploiting that knowledge to spread their messages. In short, political propaganda is beginning to take a hold on the internet:

And the constellation of websites that Albright found – a sort of shadow internet – has another function. More than just spreading rightwing ideology, they are being used to track and monitor and influence anyone who comes across their content. “I scraped the trackers on these sites and I was absolutely dumbfounded. Every time someone likes one of these posts on Facebook or visits one of these websites, the scripts are then following you around the web. And this enables data-mining and influencing companies like Cambridge Analytica to precisely target individuals, to follow them around the web, and to send them highly personalised political messages. This is a propaganda machine.

Are we, as the journalism industry, up to the challenge of beating them? I’m seeing precious little evidence of it so far.

Journalism is failing in the face of such change and is only going to fail further. New platforms have put a bomb under the financial model – advertising – resources are shrinking, traffic is increasingly dependent on them, and publishers have no access, no insight at all, into what these platforms are doing in their headquarters, their labs.

This isn’t a failure in our reporting, it’s a failure in our commitment to getting that reporting to the people who need it. Next time you hear a journalist scoffing at a “social media editor” or “audience engagement editor”, remember that they’re actually showing the care precious little about actually getting knowledge out to the public.