We keep looking at the problems of fake news and crap content — and the advertising that feeds them — through the wrong end of the periscope, staring down into the depths in search of sludge when we could be looking up, gathering quality.
There is a big business opportunity to be had right now in setting definitions and standards for and creating premium networks of quality.
In the last week, the Guardian, ad agency Havas, the UK government, the BBC, and now AT&T pulled their advertising from Google and YouTube, complaining about placement next to garbage: racist, terrorist, fake, and otherwise “inappropriate” and “offensive” content. Google was summoned to meet UK ministers under the threat they’ll exercise their European regulatory reflex.
Google responded quickly, promising to raise its standards regarding “hateful, offensive and derogatory content” and giving advertisers greater control over excluding specific sites.
Well, good. But this seems like a classic case of boiling the (polluted) ocean: taking the entire inventory of ad availabilities and trying to eliminate the bad ones. We’re doing the same thing with fake news: taking the entire corpus of content online and trying to warn people away from the crap.
So now turn this around.
The better, easier opportunity is to create premium networks built on quality: Not “we’ll put your ad anywhere except in that sewer we stumbled over” but instead “we found good sites we guarantee you’ll be proud to advertise on.”
Of course, this is how advertising used to work. Media brands produced quality products and sold ads there. Media departments at ad agencies chose where to put clients’ ads based on a number of factors — reach, demographic target, cost, and quality environment.
The net ruined this lovely, closed system by replacing media scarcity with online abundance. Google made it better — or worse, depending on your end of the periscope — by charging on performance and thus sharing risk with the advertisers and establishing the new metric for value: the click. AppNexus and other programmatic networks made it yet better/worse by creating huge and highly competitive marketplaces for advertising inventory, married with data about individual users, which commoditized media adjacency. Thus the advertiser wants to sell boots to you because you once looked at boots on Amazon and it doesn’t much matter where those boots follow you — even to shite like Breitbart…until Sleeping Giants comes along and shames the brand for being there.
So why not sell quality? Could happen. There are just a few matters standing in the way:
First, advertisers need to value quality. There has been much attention paid to assuring marketers that their ads are visible to the user and that they are clicked on by a human, not a bot. But what about the quality of the environment and its impact on the brand? In our recent research at CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center, we found that brands rub off both ways: users judge both media and brands by the company they keep. This is why it is to the Guardian’s benefit to take a stand against crappy ad adjacencies with Google — because The Guardian sells quality. But will advertisers buy quality?
Second, there’s the question of who defines and determines quality. Over the years, I have seen no end of attempts to automate the answer to this question, whether by determining trust in news or quality in media. Impossible. There is no God signal of trust or virtue. The decision in the end is a human one and human decisions cost money. Besides, there is no one-size-fits-all definition and measurement of quality; that should vary by media brand and advertiser and audience. Still, the responsibility for determining quality has to fall somewhere and this is a hot potato nobody — brands, agencies, networks, platforms — wants because it is an expensive task.
Third, there’s the matter of price. Media companies, ad agencies, and ad networks will need to convince advertisers of the value of quality and the wisdom of paying for it, returning to an ad market built on a new scarcity. With fewer avails in a quality market — plus the cost of monitoring and assuring quality — the price will rise. Will advertisers give a damn if they can still sell stuff on shitty but cheap sites? Will the cost of being humiliated for appearing on Breitbart be worth the premium of avoiding that? On the other hand, will the cost of being boycotted by Breitbart when the advertiser pulls ads there be worth the price? This is a business decision.
I always tell my entrepreneurial students that when they see a problem, they should look for the solution, as an engineer would, or the opportunity, as an entrepreneur would. There are many opportunities here: to create premium networks of quality and trustworthy news and content; to create mechanisms to judge and stand by quality; to audit quality … and, yes, to create quality.
Our opportunity is not so much to kill bad content and bad advertising placements and to teach people to avoid all that bad stuff but to return to the reason we all got into these businesses: to make good stuff.
The press will destroy Trump and Trump will destroy the press.
Consider that trust in media began falling in the ’70s, coincident with what we believe was our zenith: Watergate. We brought down a President. A Republican President.
Now the press is the nation’s last, best hope to bring down a compromised, corrupt, bigoted, narcissistic, likely insane, incompetent, and possibly dangerous President. A Republican President. Donald Trump.
If the press does what Congress is so far unwilling to do — investigate him — then these two Republican presidencies will bookend the beginning of the end and the end of the end of American mass media. Any last, small hope that anyone on the right would ever again trust, listen to, and be informed by the press will disappear. It doesn’t matter if we are correct or righteous. We won’t be heard. Mass media dies, as does the notion of the mass.
Therein lies the final Trump paradox: In failing, he would succeed in killing the press. And his final projection: The enemy of the people convinces the people that we are the enemy.
The press that survives, the liberal press, will end up with more prizes and subscriptions, oh joy, but with little hope of guiding or informing the nation’s conversation. Say The New York Times reaches its audacious dreamof 10 million paying subscribers. So what? That’s 3% of the U.S. population (and some number of those subscribers will be from elsewhere). And they said that blogs were echo chambers. We in liberal media will be speaking to ourselves — or, being liberal, more likely arguing with ourselves.
No number of empathetic articles that try to understand and reflect the worldview of the angry core of America will do a damned bit of good getting them to read, trust, and learn from The New York Times. My own dear parents will not read The New York Times. They are left to be <cough> informed by Fox News, Breitbart, Drudge, RT, and worse.
Last week, Jim Rutenberg and David Leonhardt of The Times wrote tough columns about turmoil in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal over journalists’ fears that they find themselves working for an agent of Trump. They missed the longer story: What we are living through right now was the brainchild of Rupert Murdoch. It started in 1976 (note the timeline of trust above) when he bought the New York Post to be, in his words, his bully pulpit — and he added new meaning to that phrase. Yes, Rush Limbaugh and his like came along in the next decade to turn American radio into a vehicle for spreading fear, hate, and conspiracy. But it was in the following decade, in 1996, when Murdoch started Fox News, adding new, ironic meaning to another phrase: “fair and balanced.” He and his henchman, Roger Ailes, used every technique, conceit, and cliché of American television news to co-opt the form and forward his worldview, agenda, and war.
Murdoch could have resurrected the ideological diversity that was lost in the American press when broadcast TV culled newspapers in competitive markets and the survivors took on the impossible veil of objectivity. Instead, he made the rest of the press into the enemy: not us “and” them but us “or” them; not “let us give you another perspective” but “their perspective is bad.”
What’s a liberal journo to do? We are stuck in endless paradoxical loops. If we do our job and catch the President in a lie, we are labeled liars. When we counteract fake news with real news, everything becomes fake news. If I get angry about being attacked by angry white men I end up becoming an angry white man. Liberals tell us to be nice to conservatives to win them over but then they only mock us for being weak. Snowflakes. Cucks. Liberal tears.
I commend to your reading this essay by Dale Beran explaining the ultimate political irony of our day: The alt-right is made up of losers and when we call them losers they win. So we can’t win. “Trump is Pepe. Trump is loserdom embraced,” Beran explains. “Trump supporters voted for the con-man, the labyrinth with no center, because the labyrinth with no center is how they feel, how they feel the world works around them. A labyrinth with no center is a perfect description of their mother’s basement with a terminal to an endless array of escapist fantasy worlds.”
How do you argue with that worldview? How do you inform it? How do you win somebody over when all they want is enemies? (Watch this at your own peril.) You probably can’t. There are some chunks of America that likely need to be written off because they have fenced themselves off from reasonable, fact-based, intellectually honest, civil debate and now wallow in hate. Is that condescending of me to say? No, it’s pragmatic. Realjournalismus.
So then am I giving up on journalism and democracy? No, damnit, not yet. I am giving up on mass media. The internet wounded it; Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump finally killed it.
So now what? Now we reinvent journalism. Now we learn how to serve communities, listening to them to reflect their worldviews and gain their trust so we can inform them. Now we give up on the belief that we are entitled to act as gatekeeper and to set the agenda as well as the prices of information and advertising. Now we must learn to work well with others. Now we must bring diversity not just to our surviving newsrooms — which we must — but to the larger news ecosystem, building new, sustainable news services and businesses to listen to, understand, empathize with, and meet the needs of many communities.
Our goal is not to herd all the lost sheep back into our fence. I will disagree with thosewho say that we must grinfuck to Trump voters to woo them to our side of the ballot. No, we must stay angry and incredulous that they — the fanatical core of them — brought us Trump, and we prove our worth by fixing that. I say there is no hope of convincing frogs and eggs in our Twitter feeds; let’s not waste our time. Instead, our goal is to bring out the people who regretted their vote; there must be some. Far more important, our goal is to bring out the people who did not vote, who were not sufficiently informed of the risk of their inaction and thus not motivated to act. We can do that. Journalism can. That is why journalism exists, for civic engagement. (This is why starting Social Journalism at CUNY was a revolutionary act.)
Start, for example, with the many communities who are lumped together as Latino Americans. Meet them not as a demographic bucket imagined by Anglo Americans and marketers but as distinct groups of people who have distinct needs and interests. (This is why I am proud that CUNY started a bilingual journalism program.) Do the same with so many other underserved and these days abused communities: immigrants, Muslims, LGBT communities, people who will lose health insurance … communities organized not just around identity but also around need.
To be clear, this does not mean that the last mass-media companies can abandon these communities to media ghettos. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN, every newspaper company, and every broadcast company must work much harder to bring diversity into their newsrooms and executive ranks to do their jobs better. (One last plug for CUNY: This is why we work so hard to recruit a diverse student body.) We can improve mass media. But I don’t think we can fix it as it is — that is, return it to its lost scale. And I don’t think that mass media can fix the mess we are in.
So I would advise media companies old and new to invent and invest in new services to serve new communities. If I wanted to save a struggling mass-media company — think: Time Inc. — I would start scores of new services, building new and valued relationships with new communities.
And, yes, I would start a new service for conservative America. I would hire the best conservative journalists I could find not just to write commentary but to report from a different worldview (if anyone can define conservatism these days). I would underwrite scholarships at journalism schools (I promised to stop plugging mine) to recruit students from towns wracked by unemployment, from evangelical colleges, from the military. I would take advantage of a tremendous business opportunity to fight back against Murdoch’s and Trump’s destruction of the American press in the full belief that there are enough people in this nation on the right who want facts, who want to be informed, who will listen to their own uncomfortable truths. I would welcome that diversity, too.
Finally, I would stop listening to the entitled whinging of journalists about the state of their business. Yes, Murdoch fired a first bullet and Trump hammered a last nail but we bear the most responsibility for abandoning large swaths of America and for refusing to change. I disagree with Adrienne LaFrance that Mark Zuckerberg is out to “destroy journalism.” His manifestoabout the future of communities and an informed society shows we have much to learn from him. “Online communities are a bright spot,” he writes, ever the optimist. “Research suggests the best solutions for improving discourse may come from getting to know each other as whole people instead of just opinions — something Facebook may be uniquely suited to do.”
OK, but I will also push him, too. Facebook, Twitter, and all the platforms should invest their considerable intelligence, imagination, and resources in helping reinvent journalism for this age. New tools bring new opportunities and new responsibilities. I would like to see Facebook help news companies understand how to serve communities and how to reimagine how we inform citizens’ conversations where they occur. I wish that Facebook would find more ways to introduce us to new people who can tell their stories in safe spaces where we can come to learn about each other. I would like Facebook and media to collaborate convening communities in conflict to informed and productive discourse. I would like to see Twitter finally address its and perhaps society’s key problem: Can we be open and also civil? I hope Google will be more transparent about those who would manipulate it and thus us. I hope they all help us invent new business models that no longer reward just clickbait and fame, cats and Kardashians, sensationalism and polarization (Zuckerberg’s words). The platforms should spend less effort trying to help journalism as it is — except insofar as it buys us time for innovation — but instead support journalism as it can be.
Let Donald Trump kill the mass media that made him President. Let his ego and his hate suck all his attention and hostility from its last dying embers. Let his election be the last gasp, the nadir of this dying institution. Then let the rest of us — God willing a comfortable majority in this already-great nation — find a path to resume a civil and informed conversation about our shared future.
We — John Borthwick and Jeff Jarvis — want to offer constructive suggestions for what the platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Google, Instagram, Snapchat, WeChat, Apple News, and others — as well as publishers and users can do now and in the future to grapple with fake news and build better experiences online and more civil and informed discussion in society.
Key to our suggestions is sharing more information to help users make better-informed decisions in their conversations: signals of credibility and authority from Facebook to users, from media to Facebook, and from users to Facebook. Collaboration between the platforms and publishers is critical. In this post we focus on Facebook, Twitter, and Google search. Two reasons: First simplicity. Second: today these platforms matter the most.
We do not believe that the platforms should be put in the position of judging what is fake or real, true or false as censors for all. We worry about creating blacklists. And we worry that circular discussions about what is fake and what is truth and whose truth is more truthy masks the fact that there are things that can be done today. We start from the view that almost all of what we do online is valuable and enjoyable but there are always things we can do to improve the experience and act more responsibly.
In that spirit, we offer these tangible suggestions for action and seek your ideas.
Make it easier for users to report fake news, hate speech, harassment, and bots. Facebook does allow users to flag fake news but the function is buried so deep in a menu maze that it’s impossible to find; bring it to the surface. Twitter just added new means to mute harassment but we think it would also be beneficial if users can report false and suspicious accounts and the service can feed back that data in some form to other users (e.g., “20 of your friends have muted this account” or “this account tweets 500 times a day”). The same would be helpful for Twitter search, Google News, Google search, Bing search, and other platforms and other platforms.
Create a system for media to send metadata about their fact-checking, debunking, confirmation, and reporting on stories and memes to the platforms. It happens now: Mouse over fake news on Facebook and there’s a chance the related content that pops up below can include a news site or Snopes reporting that the item is false. Please systematize this: Give trusted media sources and fact-checking agencies a path to report their findings so that Facebook and other social platforms can surface this information to users when they read these items and — more importantly — as they consider sharing them. The Trust Project is working on getting media to generate such signals. Thus we can cut off at least some viral lies at the pass. The platforms need to give users better information and media need to help them. Obviously, the platforms can use such data from both users and media to inform their standards, ranking, and other algorithmic decisions in displaying results to users.
Expand systems of verified sources. As we said, we don’t endorse blacklists or whitelists of sites and sources (though when lists of sites are compiled to support a service — as with Google News — we urge responsible, informed selection). But it would be good if users could know the creator of a post has been online for only three hours with 35 followers or if this is a site with a known brand and proven track record. Twitter verifies users. We ask whether Twitter, Facebook, Google, et al could consider means to verify sources as well so users know the Denver Post is well-established while the Denver Guardian was just established.
Make the brands of those sources more visible to users. Media have long worried that the net commoditizes their news such that users learn about events “on Facebook” or “on Twitter” instead of “from the Washington Post.” We urge the platforms, all of them, to more prominently display media brands so users can know and judge the source — for good or bad — when they read and share. Obviously, this also helps the publishers as they struggle to be recognized online.
Track back to original sources of news items and memes. We would like to see these technology platforms use their considerable computing power to help track back and find the source of news items, photos and video, and memes. For example, one of us saw an almost-all-blue mapwith 225K likes that was being passed around as evidence that millennials voted for Clinton when, in fact, at its origin the map was labeled as the results of a single, liberal site’s small online poll. It would not be difficult for any platform to find all instances of that graphic and pinpoint where it began. The source matters! Similarly, when memes are born and bred, it would be useful to know whether one or another started at a site with a certain frog as an avatar. While this is technically complicated its far less complicated than the facial recognition that social platforms have today.
Address the echo-chamber problem with recommendations from outside users’ conversational spheres. We understand why Facebook, Twitter, and others surface so-called trending news: not only to display a heat map but also to bring serendipity to users, to show them what their feeds might not. We think there are other, perhaps better, ways to do this. Why not be explicit about the filter-bubble problem and present users with recommended items, accounts, and sources that do *not* usually appear in their feeds, so TheNation reader sees a much-talked-about column from the National Review, so a Clinton voter can begin — just begin — to connect with and perhaps better understand the worldview of Trump voter? Users will opt in or out but let’s give them the chance to choose.
Recognize the role of autocomplete in search requests to spread impressions without substance. Type “George Soros is…” into a Google search box and you’re made to wonder whether he’s dead. He’s not. We well understand the bind the platforms are in: They are merely reflecting what people are asking and searching for. Google has been threatened with suits over what that data reveals. We know it is impossible and undesirable to consider editing autocomplete results. However, it would be useful to investigate whether even in autocomplete, more information could be surfaced to the user (e.g., “George Soros is dead” is followed by an asterisk and a link to its debunking). These are the kinds of constructive discussions we would like to see, rather than just volleys of complaint.
Recognize how the design choices can surface information that might be better left under the rock. We hesitate to suggest doing this, but if you dare to search Google for the Daily Stormer, the extended listing for the site at the moment we write this includes a prominent link to “Jewish Problem: Jew Jake Tapper Triggered by Mention of Black …” Is that beneficial, revealing the true nature of the site? Or is that deeper information better revealed by getting quicker to the next listing in the search results: Wikipedia explaining that “The Daily Stormer is an American neo-Nazi and white supremacist news and commentary website. It is part of the alt-right movement …”? These design decisions have consequences.
Create reference sites to enable users to investigate memes and dog whistles. G’bless Snopes; it is the cure for that email your uncle sends that has been forward a hundred times. Bless also Google for making it easy to search to learn the meanings of Pepe the frog and Wikipedia for building entries to explain the origins. We wonder whether it would be useful for one of these services or a media organization to also build a constantly updated directory of ugly memes and dog whistles to help those users — even if few — who will look into what is happening so they can pass it on. Such a resource would also help media and platforms recognize and understand the hidden meanings and secret codes their platforms are being used to spread.
Establish the means to subscribe to and distribute corrections and updates. We would love it if we could edit a mistaken tweet. We understand the difficulty of that, once tweets have flown the nest to apps and firehoses elsewhere. But imagine you share a post you later find out to be false and then imagine if you could at least append a link to the tweet in the archive. Better yet, imagine if you could send a followup message that alerts people who shared your tweet, Facebook post, or Instagram image to the fact that you were mistaken. Ever since the dawn of blogging, we’ve wished for such a means to subscribe to and send updates, corrections, and alerts around what we’ve posted. It is critical that Twitter as well as the other platforms do everything they can to enable responsible users who want to correct their mistakes to do so.
Media must learn and use the lesson of memes to spread facts over lies. Love ’em or hate ’em, meme-maker Occupy Democrats racked up 100 to 300 million impressions a week on Facebook, according to its cofounder, by providing users with the social tokens to use in their own conversations, the thing they share because it speaks for them. Traditional media should learn a lesson from this: that they must adapt to their new reality and bring their journalism — their facts, fact-checking, reporting, explanation, and context — to the public where the public is, in a form and voice that is appropriate to the context and use of each platform. Media cannot continue to focus only on their old business model, driving traffic back to their websites (that notion sounds more obsolete by the day). So, yes, we will argue that, say, Nick Kristof should take some of his important reporting, facts, arguments, and criticisms and try to communicate them not only in columns (which, yes, he should continue!) but also with memes, videos, photos, and the wealth of new tools we now have to communicate with and inform the public.
Stop funding fake news. Google and Facebook have taken steps in the right direction to pull advertising and thus financial support (and motivation) for fake-news sites. Bing, Apple, and programmatic advertising platforms must follow suit. Publishers, meanwhile, should consider more carefully the consequences of promoting content — and sharing in revenue — from dubious sources distributed by the likes of Taboola and Outbrain.
Support white-hat media hacking. The platforms should open themselves up to help from developers to address the problems we outline here. Look at what a group of students did in the midst of the fake-news brouhaha to meet the key goals we endorse: bringing more information to users about the sources of what they read and share. (Github here.) We urge the platforms to open up APIs and provide other help to developers and we urge funders to support work to improve not only the quality of discourse online but the quality of civic discourse and debate in society.
Hire editors. We strongly urge the platforms to hire high-level journalists inside their organizations not to create content, not to edit, not to compete with the editors outside but instead to bring a sense of public responsibility to their companies and products; to inform and improve those products; to explain journalism to the technologists and technology to the journalists; to enable collaboration with news organizations such as we describe here; and foremost to help improve the experience for users. This is not a business-development function: deal-making. Nor is this a PR function: messaging. This sensibility and experience needs to be embedded in the core function in every one of these platform companies: product.
Collaborate in an organization to support the cause of truth; research and develop solutions; and educate platforms, media companies, and the public. This is ongoing work that won’t be done with a new feature or option or tweak in an algo. This is important work. We urge that the platforms, media companies, and universities band together to continue it in an organization similar to but distinct from and collaborating with the First Draft Coalition, which concentrates on improving news, and the Trust Project, which seeks to gather more signals of authority around news. Similarly, the Coral Project works on improving comments on news sites. We also see the need to work on improving the quality of conversation where it occurs, on platforms and on the web. This would be an independent center for discussion and work around all that we suggest here. Think of it as the Informed Conversation Project.
We will bring our resources to the task. John Borthwick at Betaworks will help invest in and nurture startups that tackle these problems and opportunities. Jeff Jarvis at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism will play host to meetings where that is helpful and seek support to build the organization we propose above.
We do this mostly to solicit your suggestions to a vital task: better informing our conversations, our elections, and our society. (See another growing list of ideas here.) Pile on. Help out.