She’s right you know, technology is as much a barrier to the truth as it is a means to accessing it.

by Niamh Kirk

A friend, (thank you Classified) sent me a link to Katharine Viner’s story ‘How technology disrupted the truth’, a necessary read and, almost, a call to arms.

In trying to come up with a snappy social media post, I needed to unpack the three core issues that stood out for me.

1 Standards of accuracy have dropped to the point truth doesn’t matter.

2 No one is paying for digital journalism and good digital journalism is expensive to do.

3 Social media algorithms are elevating soft and fake news over important news.

As Viner points out, these are not just problems for journalism, more importantly, they are problems for everyone else. And I think it is useful to frame it as such. A democracy only works if the public are an informed electorate. There should be few barriers to the truth. And if there are aspects of technology that are a barrier, then it is time to tackle them.

Standards of accuracy have dropped to the point truth doesn’t matter.

The first of Viner’s issues is not a technological one. Standards of truth and accuracy in journalism fluctuate. Among the low points are the Media Baron and the yellow tops in the 50’s, the red tops in the 90’s decade of sleaze, and as recently as five years ago from NoTW, The Sun and other toxic tabloids. And together the media, the public, and governments negotiated a solution, regulation.

Accuracy is a standard that can be objectively tested by a regulator like the PCI or IPSO. But regulation has to be meaningful and titles should suffer real penalties for publishing unchecked errors. Publishers have forgotten the need to be accurate and truthful before, hefty legal bills have reminded them.

I think the approach to regulation so far has been misguided. Journalism is regulated so that it only protects the people it writes about but not the people it writes for. Taking more of a consumer protection approach to regulation would truly place the needs of the readership at the heart of journalism’s ethics. So far there are only independent NGO’s in the UK and US like FullFactare working for the consumer at large. Giving these bodies a mandate to work in a more official capacity to work for consumers to ensure truth and accuracy, would sit comfortably within the self-regulation.

No one is paying for digital journalism and good digital journalism is expensive to do.

Now this is a problem. If journalism it is not funded by the consumer, it is funded by the advertiser and all the weaker for it. If consumers are holding the purse strings they are in a better position to make journalism work for them and them alone. I tackled this before and if I knew the answer to journalism’s funding crisis etc… But tight resources pressure news organisations to rely on social media as a distributor of their content as opposed to develop and drive their own channels. Which makes the following issue, worse.

Social media algorithms are elevating soft and fake news over important news.

In my view, official regulation of social media is inevitable unless it moves to self-regulate like journalism had to. Social algorithms that drive the distribution are written by people who are making editorial judgments, they are choosing the news to highlight and to suppress. Scoff if you want, the idea that journalism would be regulated was unthinkable too, until it became necessary to protect the public. If social media is going to play a part in informing the public in democratic societies’ they have to play fair. Whether or not Facebook & Co are regulated is not entirely up to them. It is up their users, their consumers and their own content creators. I don’t see the problem. Well, I can see why it would be a problem for Facebook. But their problems are secondary to that of the public need and right to be informed.

I sense a lack of will to take Facebook on. News brands hand over content for free and give away control of how they reach their own audiences to a third party with a different and sometimes conflicting set of objectives. Consumers too are complacent and unconcerned that their world views might be shaped by clickbait headlines, viral hoaxes and rumor.

Galtung and Ruge say that the news does not necessarily tell us what to think, but it does tell us what to think about. The same is true of Facebook. The social media algorithm is encouraging users to think about some issues by elevating them in news feeds and suppresses others by hiding them. The impact of the social media filter funnel can be a public left in the dark about critical issues. And the lack of editorial standards means that the readership is forming opinions and voting based on misinformation that is broadcast in increasingly segregated digital echo chambers.

There should be few barriers to the truth or having a meaningful discourse on the issues that shape our world. It is the job of journalism is to facilitate both. But it can’t do it on dwindling resources or while social media swallows it and spits it out along with the other ‘junk-food content.’

Every time journalism collapses there are heroes out there to revive it and remind that we need diligent, headstrong truth seekers who will hold authorities to account and tell the public when they are being deceived and exploited. Viner, Glen Greenwald and are just a few examples. The Afghan and Iraq leaks were like the post-phone hacking CPR. And Nick Davies expose of the NoTW practices was journalism’s immune system in action, removing the dangers in the system.

I have great faith in journalism, that it can expose gross failures, it can hold authority account and that it can change the world for the better by showing us more of it. But if it is the consumer who is ultimately suffering for journalism’s crisis the then it is time to give the consumer a stronger voice.

Journalism might be sick, but it’s not dead yet. A doctor, however, is order.

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