Info

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

Posts tagged politics

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.

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.

Beware political analysis from the tech world, says Sam Kriss for Politico:

Silicon Valley doesn’t really approach politics as a sphere of competing social interests, a space in which people have the ability to make collective demands and collectively alter the conditions of their existences, but as a system—something with an input, an output and reams of complex programming in between. Whenever the tech world turns its attention to politics, there’s always the hint of this nerdish fascination for system: an inattention to what politics actually is or does, but a fetishization of efficiency, the latent notion that all these 18th-century structures really should just be replaced with something you can download on your phone.

It’s a useful reminder in light of some of the more hysterical pieces about the current US administration circulating on Medium right now. If the theory requires super-human competence and insight from the executive, it’s probably a poor theory.

Here’s an interesting take on an issue that seems to be gripping American journalists right now:

In a nutshell, a statement can fairly be called a lie if there is abundant evidence to the contrary that a speaker should have known about. For example, you can argue that saying the inauguration drew record crowds deserves to be called a lie because there are multiple credible news reports that have proven this to be untrue. At the time of the inauguration, saying so might merely have been a misunderstanding. But one week later, that stance has hardened into something that could be called a lie.

Mathew Ingram make a good job of untangling the complications and ethical issues around calling something a lie. The core point? To be a lie, there has to be an intent to deceive. And it’s hard for to know people’s intent with authority.

In some parts of the world, blogging is still very much a revolutionary activity:

Pakistani blogger Aasim Saeed who went missing earlier this month has been found but has quickly left the country fearing for his life, his family said on Sunday. Saeed’s father said his son was detained by “state agencies” while visiting Pakistan from Singapore, though he did not name which one. Pakistan’s government and Federal Investigation Agency have denied holding any of five liberal activists who went missing this month.

He, at least, is alive and visible. There are questions about others:

Five liberal activists, some of whom have posted blogs criticising the political influence of the military and speaking for the rights of religious minorities, had each gone missing separately since Jan. 4.

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.

Alexandra Ma, one of my current crop of Interactive Journalism students, looks at how the New York Times live covered its meeting with Trump:

But out of all the ways the Times covered the event, Twitter was by far the most effective.

The Times’ social media strategy editor, Michael Gold, created a public Twitter list of the journalists who had attended so people could follow — and instantly react to — direct quotes from the president-elect.

But that, in itself, brings some problems:

The Times’ journalists mostly tweeted direct quotes from Trump, some of which — such as his suggestion that Stephen Bannon, his chief strategist and former editor of Breitbart News, was neither racist nor alt-right — seemed factually dubious and would be best accompanied with fact checking after the event.

The danger of immediacy is clearly lack of contextualisation – and that needs to be there.

David Remnick writing for the New Yorker about Trump’s meeting the the US press:

“But he truly doesn’t seem to understand the First Amendment,” the source continued. “He doesn’t. He thinks we are supposed to say what he says and that’s it.”

Trump’s experience is as a CEO, not a political leader. Sounds like he’s treating the country as a company, and expecting the press to be his comms department. That’s not how it works.

But there’s something more fundamental at work here, too. Trump’s presidency will almost certainly make a pause in political access journalism, because he much prefers speaking direct.

Obama paved the way here – he understood the role of social media in crafting and spreading his image. But Trump takes it a step further, using social media both as a comms tool, and as a distraction:

But what happens if the president intentionally misdirects the media by taking about trivialities?

I suspect, unless the US media unlearns its habit of reaction in a pavlovian manner to each outrageous Tweet from the president-elect, that we’re about to find out.