It’s been a good week for journalism as another myth about the communications revolution explodes. Revelations that Facebook has been secretly using journalists to edit and direct its delivery of news has torpedoed one of the long-standing fallacies about information technology – that algorithms can tell us what makes news and can define the news agenda.
Such a simple truth might be intuitive to people who come from a traditional journalism background, but in the world of communications technology, where there is no culture of understanding the role and place of news in society, it has been necessary to create a fantasy based on the idea that high-tech crunching of numbers can deliver news values just as effectively as the editorial judgement of news professionals.
Now we have an admission that it wasn’t true after all.
Facebook has admitted using undercover journalists to edit its “trending topics” feature on its website. For years they have used good old-fashioned editors with a nose for news to help identify “trending” stories.
But they have been kept out of sight, working undercover and silenced by strict non-disclosure agreements which have prevented them from even revealing that they worked for the company.
Facebook was forced to take on journalists and editors – called “curators” in the modern dictionary of publishing – when two years ago they found themselves out of step with two competing stories dominating social media: in the summer of 2014 Facebook’s own algorithm had the “ice-bucket” challenge as it’s headline story, but on Twitter, with virtually no algorithm at work, the biggest story was Black Lives Matter, following the shooting of a black teenager Michael Brown in the United States.
Facebook realised that their algorithms couldn’t capture important breaking news, so they set up a curation team of journalists to over-ride the algorithm when it was out of step with the headlining news in major traditional news media.
The company also put in place editorial guidelines to ensure its news feeds were up to the mark. The traditional voices of journalism – the New York Times, CNN, The Guardian, the BBC and Fox News among them – were consulted in the evaluation of top news stories to be promoted to the Facebook community.
This secret operation was uncovered in the past week as a result of the controversy over alleged liberal political bias in the Facebook news operation and allegations that their curators were suppressing so-called “conservative news.”
This controversy has not only forced Facebook out into the open over its covert journalism, it also highlights the reality that Facebook is a dominant player in the distribution of news, taking over control from traditional news publishers.
The company is one of a new generation of social media and platform companies that are filtering the news through algorithms and platforms which are opaque and unpredictable.
An inevitable outcome of this process argues Emily Bell, Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, is the increase in power of social media companies – Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Twitter, in particular. They are emerging as the companies who control who publishes what to whom, and how to make money from that publication.
If we have been worried about the concentration of media power and its potential threat to journalism in the past, we should be pressing the panic button now.
As power has shifted to these digital giants the structures that have maintained pluralism in media markets in the past – anti-trust rules and media policy designed to create a communications space for all voices, including dissident and minority opinions, not to mention those that don’t attract advertisers – are being simply ignored or sidelined. The result could be an information deficit and a potential threat to democracy.
One answer to this growing crisis will be for companies like Facebook to own up to the fact that they are in the journalism business and that their editorial practice needs to be transparent and ethical.
In the battle for dominance of the future digital markets we already see a profound lack of transparency – for instance over paid-for news and the proliferation of so-called native advertising which poses as independent editorial material.
This leads to a corrupting process whereby advertisers and digital publishers try to fool the audience (and dodge ad-blocking technology). It highlights why we need digital media at every level to embrace the principles of ethical journalism, good governance and credible self-regulation. This may be old-school, but it’s the only way to build trustworthy systems of information in the digital age.
If you would like to interview Aidan White, please contact the EJN’s communications officer, Tom Law.
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