Around the world, news industry trade associations are corruptly cashing in their political capital — which they have because their members are newspapers, and politicians are scared of them — in desperate acts of protectionism to attack platform companies. The result is a raft of legislation that will damage the internet and in the end hurt everyone, including journalists and especially citizens.
As I was sitting in the airport leaving Newsgeist Europe, a convening for journalists and publishers [disclosure: Google pays for the venue, food, and considerable drink; participants pay their own travel], my Twitter feed lit up like the Macy’s fireworks as The New York Times reported — or rather, all but photocopied — a press release from the News Media Alliance (née Newspaper Association of America) contending that Google makes $4.7 billion a year from news, at the expense of news publishers.
The Times story itself is appalling as it swallowed the News Media Alliance’s PR whole, quoting people from the association and not including comment from Google until hours later. Many on Twitter were aghast at the poor journalism. I contacted Google PR, who said The Times did not reach out to the person who normally speaks on these matters or anyone in the company’s Washington office. Google sent me their statement:
These back of the envelope calculations are inaccurate as a number of experts are pointing out. The overwhelming number of news queries do not show ads. The study ignores the value Google provides. Every month Google News and Google Search drives over10 billion clicks to publishers’ websites, which drive subscriptions and significant ad revenue. We’ve worked very hard to be a collaborative and supportive technology and advertising partner to news publishers worldwide.
The “study” upon which The Times (and others) relied is, to say the least, specious. No, it’s humiliating. I want to dispatch with its fallacies quickly — to get to my larger point, about the danger legacy news publishers are posing to the future of news and the internet — and that won’t be hard. The study collapses in its second paragraph:
Google has emerged as a major gateway for consumers to access news. In 2011, Google Search combined with Google News accounted for the majority (approximately 75%) of referral traffic to top news sites. Since January 2017, traffic from Google Search to news publisher sites has risen by more than 25% to approximately 1.6 billion visits per week in January 2018. Corresponding with consumers’ shift towards Google for news consumption, news is becoming increasingly important to Google, as demonstrated by an increase in Google searches about news.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is great news for news. For as anyone under the age of 99 understands, Google sends readers to sites based on links from search and other products. That Google is emphasizing news and currency more is good for publishers, as that sends them readers. (That 10-billion-click number Google cited above is eight years old and so I have little doubt it is much higher now thanks to all its efforts around news.)
The problem has long been that publishers aren’t competent at exploiting the full value of these clicks by creating meaningful and valuable ongoing relationships with the people sent their way. So what does Google do? It tries to help publishers by, for example, starting a subscription service that drives more readers to easily subscribe — and join and contribute — to news sites directly from Google pages. The NMA study cites that subscription service as an example of Google emphasizing news and by implication exploiting publishers. It is the opposite. Google started the subscription service because publishers begged for it — I was in the room when they did — and Google listened. The same goes for most every product change the study lists in which Google emphasizes news more. That helps publishers. The study then uses ridiculously limited data (including, crucially, an offhand and often disputed remark 10 years ago by a then-exec at Google about the conceptual value of news) to make leaps over logic to argue that news is important on its services and thus Google owes news publishers a cut of its revenue (which Google gains by offering publishers’ former customers, advertisers, a better deal; it’s called competition). By this logic, Instagram should be buying cat food for every kitty in the land and Reddit owes a fortune to conspiracy theorists.
The real problem here is news publishers’ dogged refusal to understand how the internet has changed their world, throwing the paradigm they understood into the grinder. In the US and Europe, they still contend that Google is taking their “content,” as if quoting and linking to their sites is like a camera stealing their soul. They cannot grok that value on the internet is concentrated not in a product or property called content — articles, headlines, snippets, thumbnails, words — but instead in relationships. Journalism is no longer a factory valued by how many widgets and words it produces but instead by how much it accomplishes for people in their lives. I have tried here and here and in many a meeting in newsrooms and journalism conferences to offer this advice to news publishers — with tangible ideas about how to build a new journalistic business around relationships — but most prove incapable of shifting mindset and strategy beyond valuing content for content’s sake. Editors who do understand are often stymied by their short-sighted publishers and KPIs and soon quit.
Most legacy publishers have come up with no sustainable business strategy for a changing world. So they try to stop the world from changing by unleashing their trade associations [read: lobbyists] on capitals from Brussels to Berlin to London to Melbourne to Washington (see: the NMA’s effort to get an antitrust exemption to go after the platforms for antitrust; its study was prepared to hand to Congress in time for its hearings this week). These trade associations attack the platforms without ever acknowledging the fault of their own members in our current polarization in society. (Yes, I’m talking about, for example, Fox News and other Murdoch properties, dues-paying members of many a trade association. By our silence in journalism and its trade associations in not criticizing their worst, we endorse it.)
The efforts of lobbyists for my industry are causing irreparable harm to the internet. No, Google, Facebook, and Twitter are not the internet, but what is done to them is done to the net. And what’s been done includes horrendous new copyright legislation in the EU that tries to force Google et al to have to negotiate to pay for quoting snippets of content to which they link. Google won’t; it would be a fool to. So I worry that platforms will link to news less and less resulting in self-inflicted harm for the news industry and journalists, but more important hurting the public conversation at exactly the wrong moment. Thanks, publishers. At Newsgeist Europe, I sat in a room filled with journalists terribly worried about the impact of the EU’s copyright directive on their work and their business but I have to say they have no one but their own publishers and lobbyists to blame.
I am tempted to say that I am ashamed of my own industry. But I won’t for two reasons: First, I want to believe that the industry’s lobbyists do not speak for journalists themselves — but I damned well better start hearing the protests of journalists to what their companies are doing. (That includes journalists on the NMA board.) Second, I am coming to see that I’m not part of the media industry but instead that we are all part of something larger, which we now see as the internet. (I’ll be writing more about this idea later.) That means we have a responsibility to criticize and help improve both technology and news companies. What I see instead is too many journalists stirring up moral panic about the internet and its current (by no means permanent) platforms, serving — inadvertently or not — the protectionist strategies of their own bosses, without examining media’s culpability in many of the sins they attribute to technology. (I wish I could discuss this with The New York Times’ ombudsman or any ombudsman in our field, but we know what happened to them.)
My point: We’re in this together. That is why I go to events put on by both the technology and news industries, why I try to help both, why I criticize both, why I try to help build bridges between them. It’s why I am devoting time and effort to my least favorite subject: internet regulation. It is why I am so exasperated at leaders in my own industry for their failure to recognize, adapt to, and exploit the change they try to deny. It’s why I’m disappointed in my own industry for not criticizing itself. Getting politicians who are almost all painfully ignorant about technology to try to define, limit, and regulate that technology and what we can do with it is the last thing we should do. It is irresponsible and dangerous of my industry to try.
I just gave a talk in Germany where a prominent editor charged me with being a doomsayer. No, I said, I’m an optimist … in the long run. In the meantime, we in media will see doom and death until we are brutally honest with ourselves about what is not working and cannot ever work again. Then we can begin to build anew and grow again. Then we will have cause for optimism.
Late last year in New York, I spoke with a talented journalist laid off from a digital news enterprise. She warned that there would be more blood on the streets and she was right: In January, more than 2,000 people have lost their jobs at news companies old and now new: Gannett, McClatchy, BuzzFeed, Vice, Verizon. She warned that we are still fooling ourselves about broken models and until we come to terms with that, more blood will flow.
So let us be blunt about what is doomed:
Advertising in its current forms is burning out — perhaps even for the lucky ones who still have it.
Paywalls will not work for more than a few — and their builders often do not account for the real motives of people who pay and who don’t.
There is not enough philanthropy from the rich — or charity from the rest of us — to pay for what is needed.
Government support — whether financial or regulatory — is a dangerous folly.
There are no messiahs. There are no devils to blame, either.
Google and Facebook did not rob the news industry; they only took up the opportunity we were blind to. Our fate is not their fault. Taking them to the woodshed will produce little but schadenfreude.
VCs, private equity, and the public markets are not to blame; like lions killing antelope and vultures eating the rest, they are doing only what nature commanded.
Are we to blame for our own destruction? I confess I used to think that was somewhat true — for the optimist in me believed there had to be something we could do to find opportunity in all this disruption, to rebuild an old industry in a new image, and if we didn’t we were at fault for the result. But perhaps we simply could not see the fallacies in our operating assumptions:
Information is a commodity.
Content is a commodity.
In an age of abundance, commodities are losing businesses.
Nobody owes us a damned thing: not technologists, not financiers, not philanthropists, not advertisers, not the public, and certainly not government. Instead, we are in debt to many of them and can’t pay it back.
Maybe there is nothing we could have done to save businesses built on now-outmoded models. Maybe nobody is to blame. Reality sucks until it doesn’t.
I believe we can and must build new models for journalism based on real value, understanding people’s needs and motives so we can serve them. But I’m getting ahead of myself again. I can’t help it: I’m an optimist. Before we can build the new, we must recognize what is past. Only then can we rise from the ashes. That process — when it begins — will not be easy or short. As I am fond of telling anyone who will listen, I believe we are at the start of a long, slow evolution, akin to the start of the Gutenberg Age, as we enter a new and still-unknown age. It’s only 1475 in Gutenberg years. There might be a few peasants’ wars, a Thirty Years War, and a Reformation between us and a Renaissance ahead. No guarantees that there’ll be a Renaissance, either. But there’ll definitely be no resurrection of what was.
Recently, Ben Thompson and Jeremy Littau shared cogent analyses of how we got in this hole. I want to examine why merely adjusting those same strategies will not get us out of it. I want to shift our gaze from the ashes below to a north star above — to optimism about the future — but I don’t think we can do that until we are honest about our present. So let’s examine each of the bullets (to our heads) above.
ADVERTISING IS BURNING OUT.
Mass marketing — that is, volume-based advertising — killed quality and injured trust in media because, as abundance grew and prices fell and desperation rose, every movement and metric was reduced to a click and inevitably a cat and a Kardashian. Programmatic advertising commodifies everything it touches: content, media, consumers, data, and even the products it sells. Personalization via retargeting — those ads that follow you everywhere — is insulting and stupid. (Hey, Amazon: why do you keep advertising things to me you know I bought?)
Advertising ultimately exists to fool people into thinking they want something they hadn’t thought they wanted. Thus every new form of advertising inevitably burns out when customers catch on, when the jig is up. That’s why advertisers always want something new. Clicks at volume worked for Business Insider, Upworthy, and many like them until it no longer did. Native advertising worked for Quartz — which, I think, did the best and least fraudulent job implementing it — until it no longer paid all the bills. So-called influencer marketing sort-of worked until customers learned that even their friends can’t be trusted. Axios is proud that it is breaking even on corporate responsibility advertising —which will work until people remember that some evil empires are all still evil. Facing advertising’s limits, each of these companies is resorting to a paywall. We’ll discuss how well that will work in a minute.
Many years ago — at the start of all this — I said that by definition, advertising is failure. Every maker and every marketer wants to be loved, its products bought because its customers are already sold or because its customers sell its products with honest recommendations. When that doesn’t work, you advertise. The net puts seller and buyer into direct contact and advertisers will explore every possible way to avoid advertising.
Amazon finds another path by exploiting others’ cost structures — manufacturers, marketers, distributors — to arrive at pure sales. Then Amazon can eliminate all those middlemen by making products that require neither brand nor advertising, recommending them to customers based on their behavior and intent (and robots will eventually take care of distribution).
If advertising and brands are diminished, even Google and Facebook may suffer and fall because arbitraging data to intuit intent — like every other advertising business model so far — might be short-lived. I think the definition of “short” might be decades, and so I’m not ready to short their stock (disclosure: I own Google’s). I also expect no end of glee at their pain. My point: The platforms are not invincible.
I think that BuzzFeed was onto something before it pivoted to pivoting. It didn’t sell audience per se but instead sold expertise: We know how to make our shit viral and we can make your shit viral. If we in journalism have any hope of holding onto any scraps of advertising that still exist, I believe we need to think similarly and understand the expertise we could bring to others. I like to think that could be understanding how to serve communities. But first we have to learn how to do that.
The bottom line: Because it enables anyone to speak as an individual, the net kills the idea of the faceless mass and with it mass media and mass marketing and possibly mass manufacturing. It’s over, people. The mass was a myth and the net exposed that.
PAYWALLS WILL NOT WORK FOR MORE THAN A FEW
Not long ago, every time I encountered a paywall for an article I wanted to read, I recorded the annual cost. I stopped after two weeks when the total hit $3,650. NFW. Oh, I know: I’ve been Twitter-scolded along with the rest of the cheap-bastard masses for not comparing the intrinsic, moral worth of a news think piece to a latte. What entitlement it takes for journalists to lecture people on how they spend their own hard-earned money. Scolding is no business strategy.
Yes, at least for some years, some media properties will make money by charging readers for access to content — until the idea of “content” disappears (more on that in a minute) along with the concept of the “mass” and the industry called “advertising.” But let’s be honest about a few things:
Consumer willingness to pay for content is a scarcity and we’ve already likely hit its limits. A recent Reuters Institute study said more than half of surveyed executives vowed paywalls would be their main focus for 2019. The line on the other side of the cash register is going to get mighty crowded.
Much of the content behind many of the paywalls out there is not worth the price charged.
Most of the information in that content is duplicative of what exists elsewhere for less or free.
Paywalls are an attempt to create a false scarcity in an age of abundance. They will work for the few that sell speed (see Bloomberg v. Reuters and also Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys — though time is a diminishing asset) or unique value (which inevitably means a limited audience of people who can make money on that value) or loyalty and quality (yes, the strategy is working wellfor The New York Times because it is the fucking New York Times — and you’re not).
The mistake that many paywallers make is that they don’t understand what might motivate people to pay. I pay for The Washington Post because I think it is the best newspaper in America and because Jeff Bezos gave me a great price. Personally, I pay for the New York Times and The Guardian out of patronage but only one of them is clever enough to realize that (more on that in a minute). You might be paying for social capital or access to journalists or to other members of a community or out of social responsibility. The product, the offering, and the marketing all need to take into account your motive.
The economics of subscriptions and paywalls are never discussed in full. I learned from my first day in the magazine business that you have to spend money in marketing to earn money in subscriptions. I’ve been privy to the subscriber acquisition cost of some news organizations and it is staggering. Yes, some of the fees news orgs are charging are high but the subscriber acquisition cost can be two or three times the cost to the consumer or more. And churn rates are higher than most will admit.
I do think we need to explore more sources of revenue from consumers. At Newmark’s Tow-Knight Center, we have brought together media companies trying commerce. Some companies are selling their own ancillary products — everything from books to wine to cooktops to gravity blankets. High-end media companies are surprised at how much people will spend through them on travel. The Telegraph is making financial services and sports betting a priority. Texas Tribune and others find success in events. I’m in favor of trying all these paths to consumer revenue but each one brings the need for expertise, resources, and risk. As for micropayments: dream on.
Those abandoning advertising — or rather, those abandoned by advertising — often argue for the moral superiority of paywalls. But every revenue source brings moral hazards to beware of, as Jay Rosen explores regarding dependence on readers. In the end, the arguments in favor of paywalls are often fatally tautological: They must be working because everyone is building them. Good luck with that.
There is not enough philanthropy from the rich — or charity from the rest of us
The Reuters Institute survey found that a third of executives expected more largesse from foundations this year. Well, last year, Harvard and Northeastern published a study of foundation support of journalism, tolling up $1.8 billion in grants over six years. Not counting support for education (but thanking those who give it), I calculate that comes to less than $200 million a year. For the sake of comparison, The New York Times’ costs add up to almost $1.5 billion. The grants are a drop in the empty bucket. Foundations can be wonderful but they cannot support all the efforts that think they are worthy. They also tend to have ADD, wanting to support the next new thing. They are not our salvation.
How about wealthy individuals? Depends on the wealthy individual. G’bless Jeff Bezos for bringing innovation to The Washington Post and giving Marty Baron the freedom to excel. It’s nice that Marc Benioff bought Time, though I’m not sure why he did and whether that was the best investment in journalism. Pierre Omidyar is funding ideologically diverse efforts from The Intercept to The Bulwark; good for him. Good for all that. But there are also manybadbillionaires. Sugar daddies are not our salvation.
Then what about charity — patronage — from the public? I have been a proponent of membership over paywalls, of creating services that serve the affinities of people and communities. Jay Rosen’s Membership Puzzle Project is helping De Correspondent bring its lessons to the U.S. and key among them is that people give money not for access to content but to support the work of a journalist. I advocated a membership strategy for The Guardian but when its readers said they didn’t want a paywall because they wanted to support The Guardian’s journalism for the good of society, it became evident that the relationship was actually charity or contribution. And it works. The Guardian will finally break even thanks to the generosity of its readers. Is this for everyone? No, because everyone is not The Guardian. I give to The Guardian. I consider my payments to The New York Times patronage. I give to Talking Points Memo simply because I want to support its work. But just as with subscriptions, there is a finite pool of generosity. Charity won’t save us.
Government support — whether financial or regulatory — is a dangerous folly
I could go on and on about the lessons learned from regulatory protectionism in Europe but I won’t because I already did.
Should government support journalism in the U.S.? I have a two-word response to that.
So now onto the devils who get the blame for ruining news. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom I greatly admire and often agree with, identifies what she says are the biggest threats to journalism.
The platforms often — more often every day — deserve criticism for their behavior. [Full disclosure: I raised money from Facebook for my J-school but we are independent of them and I receive no money personally from any platform.]
But their success is not the cause of our failure. As is often the case, Stratechery’s Ben Thompson said it better than I could:
While I know a lot of journalists disagree, I don’t think Facebook or Google did anything untoward: what happened to publishers was that the Internet made their business models — both print advertising and digital advertising — fundamentally unviable. That Facebook and Google picked up the resultant revenue was effect, not cause. To that end, to the extent there is concern about how dominant these companies are, even the most extreme remedies (like breakups) would not change the fact that publishers face infinite competition and have uncompetitive advertising offerings.
Optimist that I am, I still think there is reason to work with the platforms because the public we serve is often there and because I believe together we should share what I now define as journalism’s mission: to convene communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation. That would be in the enlightened self-interest of the platforms. But they have no obligation to pay media companies and we have learned the hard way that depending on platforms for stability appears impossible as they experiment and proudly fail with new models.
Siva Vaidhyanathan, a brilliant and harsh critic of the platforms, has argued to me that it is foolish to expect a Google to behave as anything other than a company, in the interest of shareholder return. That realism applies as well to the venture capitalists who sometimes invest in media and, lord knows, the hedge fund and private equity organizations that capitalize on news media’s debt and weakness. We can decry them all we want. I’m just saying that it’s foolish to think that we can change their ways via badgering, begging, or regulation. I strongly believe that innovation in news will require investment but we should enter into those arrangements with eyes wide open, recognizing that unless we can promise a return on investment, we should not knock on their doors. That return will come only when we concentrate on the real value of what we do.
Information is a commodity. Content is a commodity.
Our value does lie in the information we provide. But that is also our problem because information is a commodity. I tried to explain this in Geeks Bearing Gifts:
Information is less valuable in the market because it flows freely. Once a bit of information, a fact, appears in a newspaper, it can be repeated and spread, citizen to citizen, TV anchor to audience: “Oyez, oyez, oyez” shouts the town crier. “The king is dead. Long live the king. Pass it on.” Information itself cannot and must not be owned. Under copyright law, a creator cannot protect ownership of underlying facts or knowledge, only of their treatment. That is, you cannot copyright the fact that the Higgs boson was discovered at CERN in 2012, you can copyright only your treatment of that information: your cogent backgrounder or natty graphic that explains WTF a boson is. A well-informed society must protect and celebrate the easy sharing of information even if that does support freeloaders like TV news, which build businesses on the repetition of information others have uncovered. Society cannot find itself in a position in which information is property to be owned, for then the authorities will tell some people — whether they are academics or scientists or students or citizens — what they are not allowed to know because they didn’t buy permission to know it. Therein lies a fundamental flaw in the presumption that the public should and will pay for access to information — a fundamental flaw in the business model of journalism. I’m not saying that information wants to be free. I agree that information often is expensive to gather. Instead I am saying that the mission of journalism is to inform society by unlocking and spreading information. Journalism frees information.
In news, we copy and rewrite each other because our mass-media business models make us fill pages with content as inexpensively as possible (rewriting is cheaper than reporting — see The Hill) so we can place an ad and get a pageview and get a penny. What we complain Google and Facebook do — taking advantage of the commodification of information — is the basis of much of our own business model. We have hoisted ourselves on our own petard.
I believe information will remain the core of the public demand for and the value of journalism. But we cannot build our business models on that alone.
I also believe that we are not in the content business — and that’s a good thing because it, too, is a commodity, and in an age of abundance, commodities are bad businesses. I think we too often try to save the wrong business.
So what business are we in? Will I allow a bit of optimism at the end of all this doomsaying? Can I point up to a north star?
I return to my definition of journalism, with a debt to James Carey, whom I quoted at length in my recent defense of tweeting. Journalism exists to be of service to the public conversation. What does that look like? How will that serve society? How will it be sustained? I’m not sure.
I have long argued that local journalism needs to rise from communities. I thought that could take the form of hyperlocal blogs but I was wrong because I was still thinking of local journalism in terms of content. I confessed my error here, where I also acknowledged the difficulty — perhaps the impossibility — of building a new house while the old one is burning down around existing newsrooms. Is it possible to turn a content-based, information-based business into one that is built on and begins with the public conversation and is based on service? I don’t know.
I think I’ve seen a bare sprout of what this one model might look like rising from the ashes in the form of Spaceship Media’s plans for local journalism. Spaceship does just what I say journalism should do: convene communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation. So far, it has done that in collaboration with newsrooms, notably Advance’s in Alabama, learning how to rebuild trust between journalist and public. I recently spoke with Spaceship’s cofounder, Eve Pearlman, about how journalists convening, listening to, serving, and valuing local conversation could be a service and a business. Above I said that we could follow BuzzFeed’s lead by selling a skill and I wish that skill were serving communities. I hope Spaceship could teach us that. So I will watch its work with interest and enthusiasm. But I want to be careful and not present that as the salvation of journalism, only as one small experiment that could begin to teach us to rethink what journalism can and should be, not based on our old presumptions of mass media but on our essential value.
In the meantime, I think it is vital — as that unemployed journo told me on the streets of New York — that we be brutally honest with ourselves about our failures so we can learn from them. I hope that conversation continues.
Sometimes, things need to get bad before they can get good. Such is the case, I fear, with content, conversation, and advertising on the net. But I see signs of progress.
First let’s be clear: No one — not platforms, not ad agencies and networks, not brands, not media companies, not government, not users — can stand back and say that disinformation, hate, and incivility are someone else’s problem to solve. We all bear responsibility. We all must help by bringing pressure and demanding quality; by collaborating to define what quality is; by fixing systems that enable manipulation and exploitation; and by contributing whatever resources we have (ad dollars to links to reporting bad actors).
Last May, I wrote about fueling a flight to quality. Coming up on a year later, here’s what I see happening:
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently posted a thread acknowledging his company’s responsiblity to the health and civility of the public conversation and asking for help in a bunch of very knotty issues balancing openness with civility, free speech with identifying and stopping harassment and disinformation. It is an important step.
Facebook made what I now come to understand was an unintended but critical mistake at the start of News Feed when it threw all “public content” into one big tub with few means for identifying differences in quality. Like Twitter and like the net culture itself, Facebook valued openness and equality. But when some of that content — especially Russian disinformation and manipulation campaigns — got them in trouble, they threw out the entire tub of bathwater. Now they’re trying to bring some of the better babies back by defining and promoting quality news. This, too, involves many difficult questions about the definitions of quality and diversity. But when it is done, I hope that good content can stand out.
In that post last May, I wrote about how Google Search would thenceforth account for the reliability, authority, and quality of sources in ranking. Bravo. I believe we will see that as a critical moment in the development of the net. But as we see in the news about Logan Paul and Alex Jones on YouTube, there is still work to be done on the ad side of the company. A system that enables platforms to give audience and major brands to give financial support to the likes of Jones is broken. Can we start there?
Through the News Integrity Initiative,* we helped start an effort called Open Brand Safety to identify the worst, low-hanging, rotten fruit of disinformation sites to help advertisers shun them. It’s still just a bare beginning. But through it, we have seen that not-insignificant amounts of ad dollars still go to known crap sites.
That is why I’ve joined an effort to organize a meeting later this month, bringing together the many organizations trying to identify signals of quality v. crap with representatives from platforms, ad networks, ad agencies, brands, NGOs, and others. I do not believe the solution is one-size-fits-all black lists and white lists, for it is impossible to define trust and quality for everyone — Gerber and Red Bull have different standards for advertising, as they should. What I’ve been arguing for is a network made up of all these constituencies to share signals of quality or a lack of it so each company can use that information to inform decisions about ranking, promotion, ad buys, and so on. I’ll report more when this happens.
I’ve spoken with the people in these companies and I believe their sincerity in trying to tackle this problem. I also see the complexity of the issues involved. We all want to preserve the openness of our internet but we also have to acknowledge that that openness makes the net vulnerable to manipulation by bad actors. So, to start, we need to recognize, reveal, and counteract that manipulation while also identifying and supporting good content.
It is because I believe in the need for openness that I will continue to argue that the the internet is not a medium and the platforms are not publishers. When the net is viewed as a next-generation medium like a newspaper or TV network, that brings perilous presumptions — namely that the net should be edited and packaged like a media property. I don’t want that. I treasure the openness and freedom that allow me to blog and say whatever I want and to find and hear voices I never was able to hear through the eye of media’s needle.
I also think it’s important to recognize that scale is a double-edged sword: It is the scale of the net and the platforms that enables anyone anywhere to speak to anyone else without need of capital, technical expertise, or permission. But it is also scale that makes the problems being addressed here so difficult to attack. No, the platforms should not — I do not want them to — pass judgment on everything that is posted on the net through them. I do not want the platforms to be my or your editor, to act like media or to build a Chinese internet.
But the platforms — and media companies like them — can no longer sit back and argue that they are just mirrors to society. Society warped and cracked itself to exploit their weaknesses. Facebook is not blameless in enabling Russian disinformation campaigns; YouTube is not blameless in creating a mechanism that allows and pays for Alex Jones to spew his bile; Twitter is not blameless in helping to foster incivility. Add to that: news organizations are not blameless in helping to spread disinformation and give it attention, and in fueling polarization and incivility. The ad industry is not blameless in helping to support the manipulators, spammers, trolls, and haters. Law enforcement is not blameless when it does not alert platforms and media companies to intelligence about bad actors. And you — yes, you and I — are not blameless when we share, click on, laugh at, encourage, and fail to report the kind of behavior that threatens our net.
Every effort I mention here is just a beginning. Every one of them is entangled with knotty questions. We need to help each other tackle this problem and protect our net. We need to discuss our mutual, moral responsibility to society and to an informed, civil, and productive public conversation.
There is much more to be done: Journalists and news organizations need to help the platforms define quality (wisely but generously to continue to encourage new and diverse voices). Journalists should also get smarter about not being exploited by manipulators. And news organizations need to do much more to build bridges between communities in conflict to foster understanding and empathy. The platforms, researchers, law enforcement, and NGOs should share alerts about manipulation they see to cut the bad guys off at the pass. Ad networks and platforms have to make it possible for advertisers to support the quality not the crap (and not claim ignorance of where their dollars go). Consumers — now banded together by campaigns like Sleeping Giants and Grab Your Wallet — need to continue to put pressure on platforms, brands, agencies, and networks and thereby give them cover so they are empowered to do what’s right.
Above all, let’s please remember that the internet is not ruined just because there are a few assholes on it. This, too, is why I insist on not seeing the net as a medium. It is Times Square. On Times Square, you can find pickpockets and bad Elmos and idiots, to be sure. But you also find many more nice tourists from Missoula and Mexico City and New Yorkers trying to dodge them on their way to work. Let’s bring some perspective to the media narrative about the net today. Please go take a look at your Facebook or Twitter or Instagram feeds or any Google search. I bet you will not find them infested with nazis and Russians and trolls, oh, my. I bet you will still find, on the whole, decent people like you and me. I fear that if we get carried away by moral panic we will end up not with a bustling Times Square of an internet but with China or Singapore or Iran as the model for a controlled digital future.
The net is good. We can and should make it better. We must protect it. That’s what these efforts are about.
*Disclosure: NII is funded by Facebook, Craig Newmark, the Ford Foundation, AppNexus, and others.
Since the election, I havebeen begging the platforms to be transparent about efforts to manipulate them — and thus the public. I wish they had not waited so long, until they were under pressure from journalists, politicians, and prosecutors. I wish they would realize the imperative to make these decisions based on higher responsibility. I wish they would see the need and opportunity to thus build moral authority.
Too often, technology companies hide behind the law as a minimal standard. At a conference in Vienna called Darwin’s Circle, Palantir CEO Alexander Karp (an American speaking impressive German) told Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern that he supports the primacy of the state and that government must set moral standards. Representatives of European institutions were pleasantly surprised not to be challenged with Silicon Valley libertarian dogma. But as I thought about it, I came to see that Karp was copping out, delegating his and his company’s ethical responsibility to the state.
At other events recently, I’ve watched journalists quiz representatives of platforms about what they reveal about manipulation and also what they do and do not distribute and promote on behalf of the manipulators. Again I heard the platforms duck under the law — “We follow the laws of the nations we are in,” they chant — while the journalists pushed them for a higher moral standard. So what is that standard?
Transparency should be easy. If Facebook, Twitter, and Google had revealed that they were the objects of Russian manipulation as soon as they knew it, then the story would have been Russia. Instead the story is the platforms.
I’m glad that Mark Zuckerberg has said that in the future, if you see a political ad in your feed, you will be able to link to the page or user that bought it. I’d like the platforms to all go farther:
First, internet platforms should make every political ad available for public inspection, setting a standard that goes far beyond the transparency required of political advertising on broadcast and certainly beyond what we can find out about dark political advertising in direct mail and robocalls. Why shouldn’t the platforms lead the way?
Second, I think it is critical that the platforms reveal the targeting criteria used for these political ads so we can see what messages (and lies and hate) are aimed at whom.
Third, I’d like to see all this data made available to researchers and journalists so the public — the real target of manipulation — can learn more about what is aimed at them.
The reason to do this is just not to avoid bad PR or merely to follow the law, to meet minimal expectations. The reason to do all this is to establish public responsibility consumate with the platforms’ roles as the proprietors of so much of the internet and thus the future.
In What Would Google Do?, I praised the Google founders’ admonition to their staff — “Don’t be evil” — as a means to keep the company honest. The cost of doing evil in business has risen as customers have gained the ability to talk about a company and as anyone could move to a competitor with a click. But that, too, was a minimal standard. I now see that Google — and its peers — should have evolved to a higher standard:
“Do good. Be good.”
I don’t buy the arguments of cynics who say it is impossible for a corporation to be anything other than greedy and evil and that we should give up on them. I believe in the possibility and wisdom of enlightened self-interest and I believe we can hold these companies to an expectation of public spirit if not benevolence. I also take Zuck at his word when he asks forgiveness “for the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together,” and vows to do better. So let us help him define better.
The caveats are obvious: I agree with the platforms that we do not want them to become censors and arbiters of right v. wrong; to enforce prohibitions determined by the lowest-common-demoninators of offensiveness; to set precedents that will be exploited by authoritarian governments; to make editorial judgments.
But doing good and being good as a standard led Google to its unsung announcement last April that it would counteract manipulation of search ranking by taking account of the reliability, authority, and quality of sources. Thus Google took the side of science over crackpot conspirators, because it was the right thing to do. (But then again, I just saw that Alternet complains that it and other advocacy and radical sites are being hit hard by this change. We need to make clear that fighting racism and hate is not to be treated like spreading racism and hate. We must be able to have an open discussion about how these standards are being executed.)
Doing good and being good would have led Facebook to transparency about Russian manipulation sooner.
Doing good and being good would have led Twitter to devote resources to understanding and revealing how it is being used as a tool of manipulation — instead of merely following Facebook’s lead and disappointing Congressional investigators. More importantly, I believe a standard of doing good and being good would lead Twitter to set a higher bar of civility and take steps to stop the harassment, stalking, impersonation, fraud, racism, misogyny, and hate directed at its own innocent users.
Doing good and being good would also lead journalistic institutions to examine how they are being manipulated, how they are allowing Russians, trolls, and racists to set the agenda of the public conversation. It would lead us to decide what our real job is and what our outcomes should be in informing productive and civil civic conversation. It would lead us to recognize new roles and responsibilities in convening communities in conflict into uncomfortable but necessary conversation, starting with listening to those communities. It should lead us to collaborate with and set an example for the platforms, rather than reveling in schadenfreude when they get in trouble. It should also lead us all — media companies and platforms alike — to recognize the moral hazards embedded in our business models.
I don’t mean to oversimplify even as I know I am. I mean only to suggest that we must raise up not only the quality of public conversation but also our own expectations of ourselves in technology and media, of our roles in supporting democratic deliberation and civil (all senses of the word) society. I mean to say that this is the conversation we should be having among ourselves: What does it mean to do and be good? What are our standards and responsibilities? How do we set them? How do we live by them?
Building and then operating from that position of moral authority becomes the platform more than the technology. See how long it is taking news organizations to learn that they should be defined not by their technology — “We print content” — but instead by their trust and authority. That must be the case for technology companies as well. They aren’t just code; they must become their missions.
* Disclosure: The News Integrity Initiative, operated independently at CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center, which I direct, received funding from Facebook, the Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund, and the Ford Foundation and support from the Knight and Tow foundations, Mozilla, Betaworks, AppNexus, and the Democracy Fund.
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.