Info

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

Posts tagged martin belam

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.

Apparently the Mirror has had enough of experimentation:

Sources close to the online team told BuzzFeed News that they believe Picton’s vision for The Mirror’s websites is based around the MailOnline model, so the current crop of brands do not fit with his plan.

Oh, goody. The world needs a new MailOnline imitator.

The consequences?

BuzzFeed News understands that 14 jobs across UsVsTh3m, Ampp3d, and Row Zed are at risk of redundancy after a 30-day consultancy period. All three brands will continue to publish content, but on a reduced basis.

Well, the good news is that there will be some decent digital journalists with skill in producing viral content hitting the market pretty shortly. I would put money on many of them following Malcolm Coles – who built the Mirror new formats team – to the Telegraph, if it wasn’t for the political difference that might be too much for some to bridge.

Start up your poaching engines, people…

Aggregated rubbish

A Gawker piece by James King is doing the rounds today, highlighting the “ripping off” done by the Daily Mail Online:

Yes, most outlets regularly aggregate other publications’ work in the quest for readership and material, and yes, papers throughout history have strived for the grabbiest headlines facts will allow. But what DailyMail.com does goes beyond anything practiced by anything else calling itself a newspaper. In a little more than a year of working in the Mail’s New York newsroom, I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors at the most highly trafficked English-language online newspaper in the world publish information they knew to be inaccurate.

Cue appropriate outrage and disdain, as the journalism world’s general dislike of the Mail became apparent.

##The Mail backlash backlash

But, as Paul Carr pointed out in PandoDaily, this was a case of the pot calling the kettle black, on some of the allegations:

The only real surprise is that the piece was published by Gawker, a publication edited by a right-wing (and increasingly so) British former fleet street hack and which is guilty of almost every offense of which the Mail stands accused.

And even Martin Belam, lord of all things new formats at leftie tabloid The Mirror and thus the Mail‘s natural enemy, took exception to the idea:

Linking and attribution on news websites has been dreadful for years. Since news started going online. And it’s only made worse by organisations being really cagey about links because of Google’s SEO justice warriors threatening you with punishment if you are not doing it according to Google’s rules. MailOnline is a massive content factory, sure, but there are thousands of others out there.

##Aggregation’s evil mutant offspring

The horrible truth is that the evangelism many of us engaged in for the idea of aggregation has been utterly wasted. What we promoted was, essentially, linking to the best stuff out there, rather than just promoting your own content. That’s what I’ve just done above – linked to three different stories I think it’s worth you reading. I’m sending traffic to them, not stealing it from the authors. That’s not what most organisations are doing – they’re engaging in this twisted, horrible mutant form, where people rip off and rewrite other stories.

That’s not aggregation. That’s stealing stories. But it’s become so widespread and so common, that it seems almost impossible that we’ll ever unwind from it – unless there’s a sudden outbreak of ethics amongst online publishers. Or, more dramatically, someone makes a big thing of it in court – and wins.

Right now, I can’t see either happening.

Martin Belam:

And despite the die-hard afficianados, RSS is no longer a key content distribution channel.

Of course, with some amusement, I read this in my RSS reader of choice.

He’s right in that RSS never became a mainstream means of consumption (indeed, I’d argue that it never really was a key content distribution channel), but wrong in that, for those of us who live or die by the information we find, consume and process in various ways, it’s still a vital tool.

And one that’s not as small as you might think. From a recent post on The Digital Reader, marking the year’s anniversary of the demise of Google Reader:

In 3 weeks Feedly grew from 4 million users to 7 million, eventually growing to 15 million users and 24,000 paying customers in February 2014 and earning the crown of leading Google Reader replacement.

15 million (on one service alone) is a decent chunk of die-hard aficionados.

The ampp3d site

When I first heard about Trinity Mirror’s Us vs th3m, I rolled my eyes. Did the UK really need another Buzzfeed clone? Were our publishers incapable of innovating rather than jumping on yet another bandwagon?

It took a talk by one of the key personnel – Tom Phillips – to change my mind. He characterised the launch of the site as a skunkworks – an agile, but ultimately disposable, attempt to gather learning that the business could apply elsewhere, and an attempt to capture an audience that was drifting away from its traditional products.

The second iteration of this skunkworks experiment is now underway, under the guidance of Martin Belam. It’s an attempt to create a data journalism site that attracts viral sharing – and it rejoices in the name ammp3d – although it’s operating as a Mirror sub-brand, rather than an entirely independent entity. Some of the pre-launch workshops were exciting enough that I lost a chunk of my Interactive Journalilsm MA students from the second half of a lecture because they wanted to attend (and at least one of them is now writing for it).

An agile team

Neil Perkin thinks the way the team is structured is noteworthy:

I also particularly liked the blurring of lines between functions in the team. The publishing industry, says Martin, tends to silo people into editorial, pictures and graphics people, and technology people. Instead, they have a lean team of five where everybody to a greater or lesser extent can do words, pictures and code.

It is interesting – but it’s not quite as innovative as you might think – it’s certainly the way a lot of smaller pure online sites work already, and it has its roots in really small mags, where an element of that was necessary.

Victory conditions for innovation

I tend to think that the most interesting thing about the project is its three months of funding. Some people have characterised this as a lack of commitment to the projects, but Martin spins it – successfully I think – as a positive thing:

I think it shows exactly the opposite. I think it shows a real commitment to making something work. It self-selects the people who are willing to join the project as risk-takers who have a real stake in the success of the project, and it stops us just drifting aimlessly for months on end because we don’t have a target date to be considered viable. And why would I commit to doing anything for longer than we need to find out if it is a success or not?

To give some context here, one of my regrets from my corporate days is that I didn’t fight harder for victory/defeat conditions on more of the projects I was involved with. Too many of them were hand-waving “let’s give this a go and see if anything comes of it” type projects. I think too many publishers at the time were enamoured of Google-style innovation coming from 20% time, and weren’t taking the manifold threats to their business seriously enough.

No time for hobbyists

The very structure of traditional media companies demand that you have some sort of success or failure condition in place, otherwise there’s no existing corporate way to get the money and attention you need to continue to grow what’s evidently a success – or to stop a failure being a resource drain. And, as Martin suggests, putting those sorts of parameters around a project gets people to take it more seriously.

We have to stop treating innovation in publishing as a hobby, and give it a serious business focus. Kudos to Malcolm Coles at Trinity Mirror for doing exactly that.

Martin Belam pretended to be a ghost on twitter – and discovered the misogyny lurking in our political debate:

Then I announced that the next guest was going to be Emmeline Pankhurst, the first time it had featured a woman. Within a couple of minutes I got the first negative tweet I’d ever received directed at the account. And then a few minutes after that, without yet having tweeted in character, I got someone complaining that it was all going to be about feminism. And during the show people tweeted things like “Why are there no men on Woman’s hour?” at me.

It’s a pretty disturbing read, rendered more so by the fact that these feelings are rendered in low level humour rather than outright abuse.