Posts about journalism

What Makes a Community?

Facebook wants to build community. Ditto media. Me, too.

But I fear we are all defining and measuring community too shallowly and transiently. Community is not conversation — though that is a key metric Facebook will use to measure its success. Neither is community built on content: gathering around it, paying attention to it, linking to it, or talking about it — that is how media brands are measuring engagement. Conversation and content are tools or byproducts of real community.

Community means connecting people intimately and over time to share interests, worldviews, concerns, needs, values, empathy, and action. Facebook now says it wants to “prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people.” I think that should be meaningful, lasting, and trusting interactions among people, plural. Think of community not as a cocktail party (or drunken online brawl) where friends and strangers idly chat. Instead, think of community a club one chooses to join, the sorts of clubs that society has been losing since my parents’ generation grew old. Meetuphas been trying to rebuild them. So should we all.

What if instead of just enabling people to share and talk about something — content — Facebook created the means for people to organize a modern, digital Rotary Club of concerned citizens who want to improve their circumstances for neighbors, geographic or virtual? Or it provides pews and pulpits where people can flock as congregations of shared belief. Or it opens the basement in that house of worship where addicts come to share their stories and needs. Or it creates the tools for a community of mutual support to reach out and lift each other up. Or it makes a classroom where people come to share knowledge and skills. Or it creates the means to build a craft union or guild for professionals to share and negotiate standards for quality. Or it builds the tools for citizens to join together in a positive social movement…. And what if journalism served these communities by informing their conversations and actions, by reflecting their desires, by answering their information needs, by convening them into dialogue, by helping to resolve instead of inflame conflict?

That is community. That is belonging. That is what Facebook and media should be enabling. I’ll reprise my definition of journalism from the other day as the imperative Facebook and news share:

Convening communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation, reducing polarization and building trust through helping citizens find common ground in facts and understanding.

How can we convene communities if we don’t really know what they are, if we are satisfied with mere conversation — yada, yada, yada — as a weak proxy for community?

While doing research for another project on the state of the mass, I recently read the 1959 book by sociologist William Kornhauser, The Politics of Mass Society, and reread Raymond Williams’ 1958 book, Culture & Society. I found lessons for both Facebook and media in their definitions of connected community vs. anonymous mass.

Kornhauser worries that “there is a paucity of independent groups” [read: communities] to protect people “from manipulation and mobilization.” In a proper pluralist and diverse society, he argues, “the population is unavailable [for such manipulation] in that people possess multiple commitments to diverse and autonomous groups.” To communities. “When people are divorced from their communites and work, they are free to reunite in new ways.” They are feed for trolls and totalitarians.

Thus we find ourselves working under a false definition of community — accepting any connection, any conversation, any link as qualification — and we end up with something that looks like a mob or a mass: singular, thin, and gross. “The mass man substitutes an undifferentiated image of himself for an individualized one,” Kornhauser says; “he answers the perennial question of ‘Who am I?’ with the formula ‘I am like everyone else.’” He continues:

The autonomous man respects himself as an individual, experiencing himself as the bearer of his own power and having the capacity to determine his life and to affect the lives of his fellows…. Non-pluralist society lacks the diversity of social worlds to nurture and sustain independent persons…. [I]n pluralist society there are alternative loyalties (sanctuaries) which do not place the noncomformist outside the social pale.

In other words, when you cannot find a community to identify with, you are anonymously lumped in with — or lump yourself in with — the mob or the mass. But when you find and join with other people with whom you share affinity, you have the opportunity to express your individuality. That is the lovely paradox of community: real community supports the individual through joining while the mass robs of us of our individuality by default. The internet, I still believe, is built so we can both express our individuality and join with other individuals in communities. That is why I value sharing and connection.

And that is why I have urged Facebook — and media — to find the means to introduce us to each other, to make strangers less strange, to rob the trolls and totalitarians of the power of the Other. How? By creating safe spaces where people can reveal themselves and find fellows; by creating homes for true communities; and by connecting them.

That is what might get us out of this mess of Trumpian, Putinistic, fascistic, racist, misogynistic, exclusionary hate and fear and rule by the mob. There’s nothing easy in that task for platforms or for journalists. But for God’s sake, we must try.

Now you might say that what is good for the goose is good for the nazi: that the same tools that are used to build my hip, digital Rotary Club can be used by the white supremicists to organize their riot in Charlottesville or advertise their noxious views to the vulnerable. Technology is neutral, eh? Perhaps, but society is not. Society judges by negotiating and setting standards and norms. A healthy society or platform or media or brand should never tolerate, distribute, or pay for the nazi and his hate. This means that Facebook — like Google and like the media — will need to give up the pretense of neutrality in the face of manipulation and hate. They must work to bring communities together and respect the diverse individuals in them.

“An atomized society invites the totalitarian movement,” Kornhauser warns. In mass society, the individual who does not conform to the group is the cuck; in totalitarian society, he is a criminal. In pluralist, open, and tolerant society, the individual who does not conform to someone else’s definition of the whole is free to find his or her community and self. That is the connected net society we must help build. Or as Kornhauser puts it, in terms we can understand today: “A pluralist society supports a liberal democracy, whereas a mass society supports a populist democracy.” Trump and his one-third base are built on populism, while the two-thirds majority (not “the mass”) of the nation disapproves. But our platforms and our media are not built to support that majority. They pay attention to Trump’s base because mass media is built for the mass and conflict and platforms are built as if all connections are the same.

In the end, Kornhauser is optimistic, as am I. “[T]hese conditions of modern life carry with them both the heightened possibility of social alienation andenhanced opportunities for the creation of new forms of association.” We can use Facebook, Twitter, et al to snap and snark at each other or to find ourselves in others and join together. The platforms and media can and should help us — but the choice, once offered, is ours to take.

I’ll end with these words of sociologist Raymond Williams:

If our purpose is art, education, the giving of information or opinion, our interpretation will be in terms of the rational and interested being. If, on the other hand, our purpose is manipulation — the persuasion of a large number of people to act, feel, think, know, in certain ways — the convenient formula will be that of the masses….

To rid oneself of the illusion of the objective existence of ‘the masses’, and to move towards a more actual and more active conception of human beings and relationships, is in fact to realize a new freedom.

Facebook’s changes

[Disclosure: I raised $14 million from Facebook, the Craig Newmark and Ford foundations, and others to start the News Integrity Initiative. I personally receive no money from and am independent of Facebook.]

So, here’s what’s on my mind about Facebook’s changes, just announced by Mark Zuckerberg, to “prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people” over content from media and brands.

Yes, I’m worried. Let me start there.

I’m worried that now that Facebook has become a primary distributor of news and information in society, it cannot abrogate its responsibility — no matter how accidentally that role was acquired — to help inform our citizenry.

I’m worried that news and media companies — convinced by Facebook (and in some cases by me) to put their content on Facebook or to pivot to video — will now see their fears about having the rug pulled out from under them realized and they will shrink back from taking journalism to the people where they are having their conversations because there is no money to be made there.

I’m worried for Facebook and Silicon Valley that both media and politicians will use this change to stir up the moral panic about technology I see rising in Europe and now in America.

But…

I am hopeful that Facebook’s effort to encourage “meaningful interactions” could lead to greater civility in our conversations, which society desperately needs. The question is: Will Facebook value and measure civility, intelligence, and credibility or mere conversation? We know what conversation alone brings us: comments and trolls. What are “meaningful interactions?”

And…

I wish that Facebook would fuel and support a flight to quality in news. Facebook has lumped all so-called “public content” into one, big, gnarly bucket. It is is dying to get rid of the shit content that gets them into political and PR trouble and that degrades the experience on Facebook and in our lives. Fine. But they must not throw the journalistic baby out with the trolly bathwater. Facebook needs to differentiate and value quality content — links to The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, and thousands of responsible, informative, useful old and new news outlets around the world.

I wish that Facebook would make clear that it will not use this change to exploit media companies for more advertising revenue when the goal is to inform the public.

I wish that Facebook would not just connect us with the people we know and agree with — our social filter bubbles — but also would devote effort to making strangers less strange, to robbing the demagogues and hate mongers of their favorite weapon: the Other. That, I firmly believe, is the most valuable thing Facebook could do to combat polarization in our world: creating safe spaces where people can share their lives and perspectives with others, helping to build bridges among communities.

I wish that Facebook would work with journalists to help them learn how to use Facebook natively to inform the public conversation where and when it occurs. Until now, Facebook has tried to suck up to media companies (and by extension politicians) by providing distribution and monetization opportunties through Instant Articles and video. Oh, well. So much for that. Now I want to see Facebook help news media make sharable journalism and help them make money through that. But I worry that news organizations will be gun-shy of even trying, sans rug.

So…

I have been rethinking my definition of journalism. It used to be: helping communties organize their knowledge to better organize themselves. That was an information-based definition.

After our elections in the U.S., the U.K., Austria, Germany, and elsewhere, I have seen that civility is a dire need and a precondition for journalism and an informed society. So now I have a new definition for journalism, an imperative that I believe news organizations share with Facebook (if it is serious about building communities).

My new definition of journalism: convening communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation, reducing polarization and building trust through helping citizens find common ground in facts and understanding.

Will Facebook’s changes help or hurt that cause? We shall see.

LATER: One more thought overnight on what publishers and Facebook should do now: Facebook makes it clear that the best way to get distribution there is for users to share and talk about your links. Conversation is now a key measure of value in Facebook.

The wrong thing to do would be to make and promote content that stirs up short and nasty conversation: “Asshole.” “Fuck you.” “No, fuck you, troll.” “Cuck.” “Nazi.” You know the script. I don’t want to see media move from clickbait to commentbait. Facebook won’t value that. No one will.

The right thing to do — as I have been arguing for almost two years — is to bring journalism to people on Facebook (and Twitter and Snap and Instagram and YouTube…) natively as part of people’s conversations. The easiest example, which I wrote about here, is the meme that someone passes along because it speaks for them, because it adds facts and perspectives to their conversation. There are many other forms and opportunities to make shareable, conversational journalism; a colleague is planning to create a course at CUNY Journalism School around just that.

The problem that will keep publishers from doing this is that there are few ways to monetize using Facebook as Facebook should be used. I’ve been arguing to Facebook for more than two years that they should see Jersey Shore Hurricane News as a model of native news on Facebook — with its loyal members contributing and conversing about their community — and that they should help its creator, Justin Auciello, make money there. Instead, Facebook has had to play to large, established publishers’ desires to distribute the content they have. So Facebook created formats for self-contained content — Instant Articles and videos — with the monetization within. Facebook and publishers painted themselves into a corner by trying to transpose old forms of media into a new reality. Now they’re admitting that doesn’t work.

But journalism and news clearly do have a place on Facebook. Many people learn what’s going on in the world in their conversations there and on the other social platforms. So we need to look how to create conversational news. The platforms need to help us make money that way. It’s good for everybody, especially for citizens.

Death to the Mass(es)!

In the tweets above, leading journalists Ezra Klein and Anne Applebaum reflect the accepted wisdom, raison d’être, and foundational myth of their field: that journalism exists to align the nation upon a common ground of facts, so a uniformly informed mass of citizens can then manage their democracy.

The idea that the nation can and should share one view of reality based on one set of facts is the Cronkite-era myth of mass media: And that’s the way it is.But it wasn’t. The single shared viewpoint was imposed by the means of media production: broadcast uniformity replaced media diversity.

Now that era is over. What the internet kills is the mass media business model, with it mass media, and with it the idea of “the mass” as the homogenized, melted pot of citizens.

I’ll argue that we are returning to a media model that existed before broadcast: with many voices from and for many worldviews.

We are also returning to an earlier meaning of the word “mass” — from “mass market” to “the masses” as the political mob, the uninformed crowd, the ruly multitude … Trump’s base, in other words. That’s what the tweets above lament: a large proportion of the nation (at least ≈30%) who accept what is fed to them by Fox News and fake news and come out believing, just for example, that Obamacare is dead. What are we to do?

The answer isn’t to hope for a return to the Cronkite myth, for it was a myth. Mainstream media did not reflect reality for countless unreflected, underrepresented, and underserved communities; now, thanks to the net, we can better hear them. And mainstream media did not uniformly inform the entire nation; we just couldn’t know who all was uninformed, but now we have a better sense of our failings.

In 1964, E.V. Walter examined the shift from “the masses” to “mass” in his paper, Mass Society: The late stages of an idea in Social Research. He wrote (his emphases):

In the historical course of the idea, the decade 1930–1939 is a watershed. Before those years, thinking about mass behavior was restricted to dealing with the “mass” as a part of society, examining the conditions that produced it, the types of actions peculiar to it and their implications. After that time, the characteristics of the “mass” were attributed to society as a whole. This change was associated with significant historical events. One was the development of mass media…. The other was the more traumatic development of totalitarian systems…

Mass media, mass marketing, and mass production turned the ugly masses, the mobs, into the good mass, the marketplace-of-all to whom we sold uniform products (news, deodorant, politicians), convincing them that everyone should like what everyone else likes: the rule of the Jones. Well, good-bye to all that.

And so we are properly freaked out today: The mass isn’t a cohesive whole anymore (or now we know better). The masses have re-emerged as a mob and have taken over the country. We’ve seen how this played out before with the rise of totalitarian states riding on the shoulders of unruly, uninformed, angry crowds. “[T]he masses, by definition, neither should nor can direct their own personal existence, and still less rule society in general,” José Ortega y Gasset properly fretted in 1930 in The Revolt of the Masses.

So what do we do? Let’s start by recalling that before the 1920s and radio and the 1950s and television, media better reflected the diversity of society with newspapers for the elite, the working class, the immigrant (54 papers were published in New York in 1865; today we can barely scrape together one that covers the city effectively). Some of those newspapers were scurrilous and divisive. The yellow journalism rags could lie worse than even Fox News and Breitbart. Yet the nation survived and managed its way through an industrial revolution, a civil war, a Great Depression, and two world wars, emerging as a relatively intact democracy. How?

It is tempting to consider ignoring and writing off as hopeless the masses, the third of Americans who take Fox and Trump at their words. Clearly that would not be productive. These people managed to elect a president. That’s how they showed the rest of us they cannot be ignored. I worry about an effort to return to rule by the elite because the elites (the intelligent and the informed) are not the same as the powerful (see: Congress).

It is tempting, too, to pay too much attention to that so-called base, reporting on the lies and myths they believe without challenge. This presents two problems. The first, as pointed out by Ezra Klein, is that the election hinged not on the base but on the hinge.

 

 

The second problem is that by paying so much attention to that base, we risk ignoring the majority of Americans who don’t believe these lies, who don’t approve of Trump’s behavior, who don’t approve of the tax bill just signed. As my Twitter friends love to point out, where have you seen the empathetic stories listening to the plurality of voters who elected Hillary Clinton?

The problem is that we in media keep seeking to cadge together a mass that makes sense. We don’t know how to — or have lost from our ancestral memory the ability to — serve diverse communities.

I argue that one solution is not just diversity in the newsrooms we have but diversity in the news and media ecosystem as a whole, with new and better outlets serving and informing many communities, owned by those communities: African-Americans, Latino-Americans, immigrant Americans, old Americans, young Americans, and, yes, conservative Americans.

We need to work with Facebook particularly to find ways to build bridges among communities, so the demagogues cannot fuel and exploit fear of strangers.

We need to work on better systems of holding both politicians and media to account for lies. Fact-checking is a start but is insufficient. Is there any way to shame Fox News into telling the truth? Is there any way to let its viewers know how they are being lied to and used?

We need to listen to James Carey’s lessons about journalism as transmission of fact (that’s what the exchange above is about) to journalism as a ritual of communication. This is why we need to examine new forms of journalism. (This is why we’re looking to start a lab at the CUNY J-school and why I’m leading a brief class next month in Comedy as a Tool of Journalism — and Journalism as a Tool of Comedy.)

What makes me happy about the Twitter exchange atop this post is that it resets the metric of journalistic success away from audience and attention and toward the outcome that matters: whether the public is informed or not. “Not” should scare the shit out of us.

I’m working on a larger piece (maybe a book or a part of one) about post-mass society and the many implications of this shift. A slice of it is how the mass-media mindset affects our view of our work in journalism and of the structure of politics and society. We need a reset. The bad guys — trolls and Russians, to name a few — have learned that talking to the mass is a waste of time and money and targeting is more effective. They have learned that creating social tokens is a more effective means of informing people than creating articles. We have lessons to learn even from them.

The mass is dead. I don’t regret its passing. In some ways, we need to learn how society managed before media helped create this monster. In other ways, we need to recognize how we can use new tools — the ones the bad guys have exploited first — to better connect and inform and manage society. Let’s begin by recognizing that the goal is not to create one shared view of reality but instead to inform discussion and deliberation among many different communities with different perspectives and needs. That’s what society needs. That’s what journalism must become

Democracy Dies in the Light

When the nation’s representatives pass sweeping tax legislation that the majority of voters do not want and that will in the long-run harm most citizens — helping instead corporations, a small, rich elite (including donors), and the politicians themselves — there can be only one interpretation:

Our representatives no longer represent the public; they do not care to. American democracy has died.

Democracy didn’t die in darkness. It died in the light.

The full glare of journalism was turned on this legislation, its impact and motives, but that didn’t matter to those who had the power to go ahead anyway. Journalism, then, proved to be an ineffective protector of democracy, just as it is proving ineffective against every other attack on democracy’s institutions by this gang. Fox News was right to declare a coup, wrong about the source. The coup already happened. The junta is in power. In fact, Fox News led it. We have an administration and Congress that are tearing down government institutions — law enforcement, the courts, the State Department and foreign relations, safety nets, consumer protection, environmental protection — and society’s institutions, starting with the press and science, not to mention truth itself. The junta is, collaborative or independently, doing the bidding of a foreign power whose aim is to get democracy to destroy itself. Journalism, apparently, was powerless to stop any of this.

I don’t mean to say that journalism is solely to blame. But journalism is far from blameless. I have sat in conferences listening to panels of journalists who blame the public they serve. These days, I watch journalists blame Facebook, as if the sickness in American democracy is only a decade old and could be turned on by a machine. I believe that journalism must engage in its own truth and reconciliation process to learn what we have done wronghow our business models encourage discord and reduction of any complexity to the absurdhow we concentrate on prediction over information and education;how we waste journalistic resource on repetition; how we lately have used ourfalse god of balance to elevate the venal to the normal; how we are redlining quality journalism as a product for the elite. I don’t believe we can fix journalism until we recognize its faults. But I’ll save that for another day. Now I want to ask a more urgent question given the state of democracy.

What should journalism do? Better: What should journalism be? It is obviously insufficient to merely say “this happened today” or “this could happen tomorrow.”

What should journalism’s measures of value be? A stronger democracy? An informed public conversation? Civil discourse? We fail at all those measures now. How can journalism change to succeed at them? What can it do to strengthen — to rescue — democracy? That is the question that consumes me now.

I will start here. We must learn to listen and help the public listen to itself. We in media were never good at listening — not really — but in our defense our media, print and broadcast, were designed for speaking. The internet intervened and enabled everyone to speak but helped no one listen. So now we live in amid ceaseless dissonance: all mouths, no ears. I am coming to see that civility — through listening, understanding, and empathy — is a necessary precondition to learning, to accepting facts and understanding other positions, to changing one’s mind and finding common ground. Thus I have changed my own definition of journalism.

My definition used to be: Helping communities organize their knowledge to better organize themselves. That was conveniently broad enough to fit most any entrepreneurial journalism students’ ideas. It was information based, for that was my presumption — the accepted wisdom — about journalism: It lives to inform. Now I have a new definition of journalism:

To convene communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation.

Journalism — and, I’d argue, Facebook and internet platforms — share this imperative to reduce the polarization we all helped cause by helping citizens find common ground.

This is the philosophy behind our Social Journalism program at CUNY. It is why we at the News Integrity Initiative invested in Spaceship Media’s work, to convene communities in conflict into meaningful conversation. But that is just the beginning.

Clearly, journalism must devote more of its resources to investigation, to making sure that the powerful know they are watched, whether they give a damn or not. Journalism must understand its role as an educator and measure its success or failure based on whether the public is more informed. Journalism and the platforms need to provide the tools for communities to organize and act in collaborative, constructive ways. I will leave this exploration, too, for another day.

We are in a crisis of democracy and its institutions, including journalism. The solutions will not be easy or quick. We cannot get there if we assume what we are living through is a new normal or worse if we make it seem normal. We cannot succeed if we assume our old ways are sufficient for a new reality. We must explore new goals, new paths, new tools, new measures of our work.

Fueling a flight to quality

Storyful and Moat — together with CUNY and our new News Integrity Initiative*— have announced a collaboration to help advertisers and platforms avoid associating with and supporting so-called fake news. This, I hope, is a first, small step toward fueling a flight to quality in news and media. Add to this:

  • A momentous announcement by Ben Gomes, Google’s VP of engineering for Search, that its algorithms will now favor “quality,” “authority,” and “the most reliable sources” — more on that below.
  • The consumer revolts led online by Sleeping Giants and #grabyourwallet’s Shannon Coulter that kicked Bill O’Reilly off the air and are cutting off the advertising air supply to Breitbart.
  • The advertiser revolt led by The Guardian, the BBC, and ad agency Havas against offensive content on YouTube, getting Google to quickly respond.

These things — small steps, each — give me a glimmer of hope for supporting news integrity. I will even go so far as to say — below — that I hope this can mark the start of renewing support to challenged institutions — like science and journalism — and rediscovering the market value of facts.

The Storyful-Moat partnership, called the Open Brand Safety framework, first attacks the low-hanging and rotten fruit: the sites that are known to produce the worst fraud, hate, and propaganda. I’ve been talking with both companies for some time because supporting quality is an extension of what they already do. Storyful verifies social content that makes news; its exhaust is knowing which sites can’t be verified because they lie. Moat tells advertisers when they should not waste money on ads that are not seen or clicked on by humans. Its CTO, Dan Fichter, came to me weeks ago saying they could add a warning about content that is crap (my word) — if someone could help them define crap. That is where this partnership comes in.

My hope is that we build a system around many signals of both vice and virtue so that ad agencies, ad networks, advertisers, and platforms can weigh them according to their own standards and goals. In other words, I don’t want blacklists or whitelists; I don’t want one company deciding truth for all. I want more data so that the companies that promote and support content — and by extension users — can make better decisions.

The hard work will be devising, generating, and using signals of quality and crapness, allowing for many different definitions of each. The best starting point for discussion of a definition is from the First Draft Coalition’s Claire Wardle:

One set of signals is obvious: sites whose content is consistently debunked as fraudulent. Storyful knows; so do Politifact, Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman, and Snopes. There are other signals of caution, for example a site’s age: An advertiser might want to think twice before placing its brand on a two-week-old Denver Guardian vs the almost-200-years-old Guardian. Facebook and Google have their own signals around suspicious virality.

But even more important, we need to generate positive signals of credibility and quality. The Trust Project endeavors to do that by getting news organizations to display and uphold standards of ethics, fact-checking, diversity, and so on. Media organizations also need to add metadata around original reporting, showing their work.

In talking about all this at an event we held at CUNY to kick off the News Integrity Initiative, I came to see that human effort will be required. Trust cannot be automated. I think there will be a need for auditing of media organizations’ compliance with pledges — an Audit Bureau of Circulations of good behavior — and for appeal (“I know we screwed up once but we’re good now”) and review (“Yes, we’re only two weeks old but so was the Washington Post once”).

Who will pay for that work? In the end, it will be the advertisers. But it is very much an open question whether they will pay more for the safety of associating with credible sources and for the societal benefit of putting their money behind quality. With the abundance the net creates, advertisers have relished paying ever-lower prices. With the targeting opportunities technology and programmatic ad marketplaces afford, they have put more emphasis on data points about users than the environment in which their ads and brands appear. Will public pressure from the likes of Sleeping Giants and #grabyourwallet change that and make advertisers and their agencies and networks go to the trouble and expense of seeking quality? We don’t know yet.

I want to emphasize again that I do not want to see single arbiters of trust, quality, authority, or credibility — not the platforms, not journalistic organizations, not any self-appointed judge — nor single lists of the good and bad. I do want to see more metadata about sources of information so that everyone in the media ecosystem — from creator to advertiser to platform to citizen — can make better, more informed decisions about credibility.

With that added metadata in hand, these companies must weigh it according to their own standards and needs in their own judgments and algorithms. That is what Google does every second. That is why Google News creator Krishna Bharat’s post about how to detect fake news in real-time is so useful. The platforms, he writes, “are best positioned to see a disinformation outbreak forming. Their engineering teams have the technical chops to detect it and the knobs needed to to respond to it.”

And that is also why I see Ben Gomes’ blog post as so important. Google’s head of Search engineering writes:

Last month, we updated our Search Quality Rater Guidelines to provide more detailed examples of low-quality webpages for raters to appropriately flag, which can include misleading information, unexpected offensive results, hoaxes and unsupported conspiracy theories….

We combine hundreds of signals to determine which results we show for a given query — from the freshness of the content, to the number of times your search queries appear on the page. We’ve adjusted our signals to help surface more authoritative pages and demote low-quality content…

I count this as a very big deal. Google and Facebook — like news media before them — contend that they are mirrors to the world. Their mirrors might well be straight and true but they must acknowledge that the world is cracked and warped to try to manipulate them. For months now, I have argued to the platforms — and will argue the same to news media — that they must be more transparent about efforts to manipulate them … and thus the public.

Example: A few months ago, if you searched on Google for “climate change,” you’d get what I would call good results. But if your query was “is climate change real?” you’d get some dodgy results, in my view. In the latter, Google was at least in part anticipating, as it is wont to do, the desires or expectations of the user under the rubric of relevance (as in, “people who asked whether climate change is real clicked on this”). But what if a third-grader also asks that question? Search ranking was also influenced by the volume of chatter around that question, without necessarily full regard to whether and how that chatter was manufactured to manipulate — that is, the huge traffic and engagement around climate-change deniers and the skimpy discussion around peer-reviewed scientific papers on the topic. But today, if you try both searches, you’ll find similar good results. That tells me that Google has made a decision to compensate for manufactured controversy and in the end favor the institution of science. That’s big.

On This Week in Google, Leo Laporte and I had a long discussion about whether Google should play that role. I said that Google, Facebook, et al are left with no choice but to compensate for manipulation and thus decide quality; Leo played the devil’s advocate, saying no company can make that decision; our cohost Stacey Higginbotham called time at 40 minutes.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has made a similar decision to Google’s. He wrote in February: “It is our responsibility to amplify the good effects and mitigate the bad — to continue increasing diversity while strengthening our common understanding so our community can create the greatest positive impact on the world.” What’s good or bad, positive or not? As explained in an important white paper on mitigating manipulation, that is a decision Facebook will start to make as it expands it security focus “from traditional abusive behavior, such as account hacking, malware, spam and financial scams, to include more subtle and insidious forms of misuse, including attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people.” That includes not just fake news but the fake accounts that amplify it: fake people.

I know there are some who would argue that I’m giving lie to my frequent contention that Google and Facebook are not media companies and that by defending their need to rule on quality, I am having them make editorial decisions. No, what they’re really defining is fakery: (1) That which is devised to deceive or manipulate. (2) That which intentionally runs counter to fact and accepted knowledge. Accepted by whom? By science, by academics, by journalism, even by government — that is, by institutions. Thus this requires a bias in favor of institutions at a time when every institution in society is being challenged because — thanks to the net — it can be. Though I often challenge institutions myself, I don’t do so in the way Trumpists and Brexiters do, trying to dismantle them for the sake of destruction.

In the process of identifying and disadvantaging fake news, Krishna Bharat urges the platforms to be transparent about “all news that has been identified as false and slowed down or blocked” so there is a check on their authority. He further argues: “I would expect them to target fake news narrowly to only encompass factual claims that are demonstrably wrong. They should avoid policing opinion or claims that cannot be checked. Platforms like to avoid controversy and a narrow, crisp definition will keep them out of the woods.”

Maybe. In these circumstances, defending credibility, authority, quality, science, journalism, academics, and even expertise — that is, facts — becomes a political act. Politics is precisely where Google and Facebook, advertisers and agencies do not want to be. But they are given little choice. For if they do not reject lies, fraud, propaganda, hate, and terrorism they will end up supporting it with their presence, promotion, and dollars. On the other hand, if they do reject crap, they will end up supporting quality. They each have learned they face an economic necessity to do this: advertisers so they are not shamed by association, platforms so they do not create user experiences that descend into cesspools. Things got so bad, they have to do good. See that glimmer of hope I see?

None of this will be easy. Much of it will be contentious. We who can must help. That means that media should add metadata to content, linking to original sources; showing work so it can be checked; upholding standards of verification; openly collaborating on fact-checking and debunking (as First Draft is doing across newsrooms in France); and enabling independent verification of their work. That means that the advertising industry must recognize its responsibility not only to the reputation of its own brands but to the health of our information and media ecosystem it depends on. That means Facebook, Google — and, yes, Twitter — should stand on the side of sense and civility against manufactured nonsense and manipulated incivility. That means media and platforms should work together to reinvent the advertising industry, moving past the poison of reach and clickbait to a market built on value and quality. And that means that we as citizens and consumers should support those who support quality and must take responsibility for not spreading lies and propaganda, no matter how fun it seems at the time.

What we are really seeing is the need to gather around some consensus of fact, authority, and credibility if not also quality. We used to do that through the processes of education, journalism, and democratic deliberation. If we cannot do that as a society, if we cannot demand that our fellow citizens — starting with the President of the United States— respect fact, then we might as well pack it in on democracy, education, and journalism. I don’t think we’re ready for that. Please tell me we’re not. What ideas do you have?


* Disclosure: The News Integrity Initiative, operated independently at CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center, which I direct, received funding and support from the Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund; Facebook; the Ford, Knight, and Tow foundations; Mozilla; Betaworks; AppNexus; and the Democracy Fund.