The recent US election result has prompted much discussion regarding the role of search engines and social networks as critical drivers of information and opinion. The realisation that services such as Facebook were effectively gamed with a continuous stream of fake news articles has been a serious wake-up call.
It now seems clear that social networks are not merely fun places to share photos of restaurant meals and adorable baby sloths — they can actually affect the outcome of elections. Perhaps naively, Silicon Valley executives thought they could be networks of neutrality, algorithmically delivering content without regard to context (save for advertising, of course). But it turns out their role may be far more important to our democracy and to our economy than we — or they — had realised.
This must sound vaguely familiar to the media owners who once occupied this exalted seat at society’s table, delivering information and entertainment and often being vastly profitable doing so, while still maintaining a sense of civic responsibility that informed coverage at least to an extent. Press barons valued their status in the establishment firmament and rubbed shoulders with the captains of industry, political leaders, celebrities and royalty.
But although print publishers still enjoy considerable influence in the UK market, their financial underpinnings have severely weakened, and their share of attention has lessened as the media have fragmented digitally and so many other alternatives are vying for consumer attention. And of course in many cases they have the commercial misfortune of being lashed to costly 20th-century manufacturing operations in the form of printing presses and fleets of lorries.
Enter the social networks who have no such encumbrances and can segment their audiences using analytics to customise each user’s view of the news and to optimise the amount of revenue they can extract from same. Traditional publishers can only look on in wonder and envy as audiences and revenues continue to dribble away to Silicon Valley upstarts. Millennials who in a previous era might have toiled away as obsequious newsroom interns are now captains of all they survey, whilst the media barons of old write off the value of their declining assets and calculate how to unload what’s left.
It’s a sorry picture and it’s tempting to just throw in the towel and join forces with the devil — as indeed many media companies have done by signing on to share content on Facebook and other channels that offer large audiences but modest financial returns. Of course, Facebook and its contemporaries are only doing what print publishers themselves used to do so well — providing limited access to their audiences for a high price and with most of the value accruing to the audience owner rather than the business partner. But now the tables have turned and it’s Facebook and its peers who have all the leverage whilst publishers chirp for scraps.
The one saving grace for traditional publishers may be the aftermath of the US presidential election and the dawning realisation that Facebook allowed itself to be totally gamed by bad actors seeking to flood users’ news feeds with junk and falsehoods. Suddenly in 2016 we are appreciating that although connectivity is greater than ever, news literacy is perhaps lower than ever as many users seem unable to discern between absolute fabrication and real journalism.
Media outlets with lesser scruples and partisan agendas pump out content without regard to objectivity or veracity. And as the fake news spreads, the views of many users only harden until they reserve their greatest antipathy and mistrust for the most storied news organisations — who are accused of bias, with serious journalists mocked and spit upon, even as the fake news is readily shared.
It’s clear now that the social and political impact of Facebook is far greater than anyone — least of all, apparently, its founders — could have anticipated. In light of this, it’s concerning that the company has so far shown no willingness to review what content it delivers. It has taken no evident steps to provide the ability for users to respond to newsfeed content with something more nuanced and meaningful than a big blue thumb, or an emoji showing an angry face or crying face. When it comes to public discourse, we’ve been reduced to the level of toddlers.
In spite of this, we know that Facebook can understand the content it is serving up with sophistication great enough to deliver highly targeted and relevant advertising. We know also that it has developed tools to enable foreign governments to censor newsfeed content. So this see-no-evil posture regarding fake news is not sustainable if Facebook aspires to play a responsible role in our society.
If Facebook won’t step up to this responsibility then it’s reasonable for others to act to reduce its outsized role in our society. For starters, traditional publishers ought to ask themselves whether they should limit, rather than expand, their participation in Facebook’s platform.
People describe Facebook’s traffic as heroin, but in reality it’s more like methadone — a cheap high, not very long lasting and doled out through a smeared plexiglass window by a person in a white lab coat. Publishers can start by looking honestly at what benefit they actually receive from Facebook. Not fuzzy metrics such as shares and likes, or even clickthroughs. How much actual revenue?
And, as a walled garden, Facebook keeps most of the actionable user data for itself, leaving the publisher mainly with clicks rather than relationships. Looking at it objectively, publishers might find they’re better off going cold turkey.
But publishers need to focus on quality. One reason it’s so difficult for readers to discern the difference between real and fake news is the packaging. Even the best quality publisher content frequently appears on pages jammed with advertising links, flashing ads delivered programmatically with no regard for the experience of the user, pop-overs, pop-unders — a flashing turnpike of junk that makes even the most sterling journalism look like cheap filler.
If even reputable publishers continue to sacrifice the user experience so that they can hit short-term revenue targets by cramming screens full of ads, it’s little wonder that fake news, not looking very much different in its presentation, is taken just as seriously by the average viewer. This is why quality publications such as Slate and The New Yorker are now removing this junk from their pages. Clean design makes content shine. Other publishers should follow suit.
When it comes to the intelligent civic discourse that our society so desperately needs, Facebook (as well as Twitter, with its continuous trolling, racism and misogyny) has proven to be more of a useful idiot than a valued contributor.
For this reason, more than ever, publishers are still needed to guide the civic discourse. The opportunity is there for publishers to provide an alternative to Facebook, where the information shared is vetted and curated, where a high standard of conversation is encouraged, where trolling is prohibited. Where advertisers can be confident that their messages appear alongside content that makes a contribution to the common good.