Why I worry as much about some of the suggested solutions to ‘fake news’ as I do about the problem.

This post is based on a speech I gave to the British Screen Advisory Council on 21st February 2017.

In the year 2000 what was then the largest merger in American business history took place. A new technology giant, AOL, effectively took over an old content one,Time Warner. Everybody heralded the coming together of technology and content, joined in holy matrimony.
I was then Chief Executive of ITN and we were partners with CNN which was, and still is, part of Time Warner. I was invited to something of a victory ceremony at AOL’s headquarters outside Washington. My clearest memory is of following the signs to the ‘AOL Newsroom’ and arriving to find nobody was there, just computers.

We’d heard about paper-less newsrooms but here was a human-less newsroom. It was a newsroom without journalists and -perish the thought- potentially a world without editors. The symbolism was clear, the new players posed a very real threat to the old. Sometimes they would pay us for our content but just as often they were looking for us to pay them for distribution.

They emphasised that they were, in the jargon of the time,‘Mere Conduits for Others’ Communications’, no more than a modern version of the stagecoach where the mail was carried under the driver’s seat and the driver never opened up the letters and read them.

Thus the early tech companies avoided being seen as editors or publishers. And after all much of what they carried had already been edited or published by people like us.

In that year, 2000, Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist. Google was just starting, the founders offered it to sell it to somebody for less than a million dollars but couldn’t find a buyer. It was this second wave of tech companies who provided carriage to a very different kind of content; ‘social media’,‘user-generated content’, ‘citizen journalism’. I summed it up in a column in the FT at the time headlined ‘Can anybody be a journalist nowadays?’. The answer was yes,i ndeed a new breed of journalists, ones without editors or publishers. And that’s when the ‘mere conduit’ argument started to get a bit unconvincing.

Summarising the overall impact of the first 16 years of this millennium in a few minutes: The big corporate mergers didn’t work out. AOL and TimWarner got divorced, calling their marriage ‘the biggest mistake in corporate history’. It was the start-ups like Facebook and Google that became the winners in the news business, mostly without ever covering the news themselves.

They created extraordinary products and services that were inconceivable in a solely analogue age, that people all around the world wanted to use. They built global rather than national brands, located in the most advantageous tax regimes.

As the dominant players in the new markets which they had created they avoided much of the competition regulation that older players faced in older markets. They set commercial terms that the older players would never have accepted in their own markets. They almost destroyed traditional classified advertising which had funded much of the newspaper business.

But they gave a voice to those who could not find a place in mainstream media and who found the cost of entry was virtually zero.The tech companies avoided many of the debates about content regulation. Lord Leveson didn’t want to go near them.

And what of politicians? Some of them had hoped that the first generation of digital media would dis-intermediate the mainstream media but were frustrated, read Tony Blair’s farewell to the ‘feral beasts’ speech. But more recently a new breed of populist politician has seen social media as their moment. Some anti-democratic forces have taken the opportunity to spread falsehoods and undermine the mainstream media. Others, like young Macedonian entrepreneurs, found that fake news was simply a good way of making money.

The new business model did not discourage this, almost the opposite, it created an engagement currency of clicks, likes and shares that fed off emotional responses, that put a premium on strong views and strong reactions.

In the UK the companies employed top flight public affairs consultants and lawyers to help them through the potential political and legislative minefield. But they faced two powerful lobbies. One was the child protection lobby. Initially the tech companies frustrated action at a national level but as child protection became a bigger and bigger issue in the UK things started to change. Even more effective was the lobby against digital piracy by creative rights-holders, especially the Hollywood studios which helped bring about the 2010 Digital Economy Act.There has also been action over ‘hate crimes’in social media.

So now, with these precedents set, comes a natural corollary ,as Damian Collins,Chair of the Commons Culture and Media Committee, says:
‘Facebook and Google already accept they have a social obligation to address pirated content online and illicit material. I think they also have a social obligation as well to act against the sources of fake news’.

Patrick Walker of Facebook Europe said last year ‘We don’t see ourselves as editors’.But I suggest that in truth Facebook’s position should now be something more like ‘we at Facebook originally didn’t see ourselves as editors but that’s where we are ending up’. Or would admitting that leave Facebook open to the same exposure for potential libel that mainstream editors and publishers have always faced.

Walker says Facebook  will not remove fake news in the way they remove material that breaches their ‘community standards’ but they will try to disrupt the financial incentives of what he calls ‘spammers’ the people who create fake news for a living. Facebook will also make it easier to report fake news and will employ ‘third party fact-checkers’ and will then ‘flag’ stories as being ‘disputed by third parties’.He has a sample graphic which shows a web story with a flag attached ‘disputed by third parties’.

There is a serious danger of unintended consequences from clumsy or too clever by half solutions .The clearest example is the American academic who created a list of news websites for her students to avoid and included the Private Eye website (yes there is such a thing) even though she realised some of the content was satirical not fake. The list went viral and was reproduced many times over before the Eye could get its name taken off.

So blacklists by assistant professors at American universities may not be helpful. Censorship by algorithms would not be a solution, it would create new problems. So would expecting artificial intelligence (AI) to solve the problem. ‘Hey Amazon Alexa what news should I believe today?’

I’m worried too  about ‘fact checking’ done by those aimed with with so-called ‘alternative facts’ or the latest phenomenon, facts that never happened such as Kellyanne Conway’s ‘Bowing Green Massacre’ or Donald Trump’s strange memory of Friday night in Sweden. Which is partly why I am nervous about Facebook sticking ‘disputed by third parties’ all over people’s websites.

Take the example of the BBC’s immaculately balanced webpages on the history of the Middle East conflict. The very active lobbies on either side are going to have field day ‘disputing’ facts. How will Facebook decide which third party has a valued enough view to have their dispute displayed ?

Amidst all this public service broadcast news on the air and online, which seemed so threatened by human-less newsrooms, now seems to be the survivor and the saviour.The latest Ofcom figures for what they call ‘Cross-platform audience reach’ of wholesale providers of news across TV, radio, print and online show the BBC -twice as high as anybody else- followed by ITN and Sky, well ahead of any newspapers or websites.

Broadcast news survives because of its high quality trusted journalism (produced on a reduced cost base thanks to digital technology) and the UK’s strong regulatory commitment to broadcast news.

I see no threat to the principles of impartial and accurate broadcast journalism in the UK over the next decade as long as:

1.The BBC Board, overseen by Ofcom, delivers the charter.

2. Ofcom holds the commercially-funded PSBs (ITV and channels Four and Five) to the terms of their ten year licences.

3.The owners of Sky News continue to fund its losses.

I’m not going to predict any further than the mid-2020s -what fool would do that-because of long-term uncertainty about who will pay for broadcast journalism :

The BBC Licence fee will be up for debate again and the commercially-funded PSBs will need to be monetising their investment in news. They get a pittance from online platforms for the millions of views they generate. And, in an unintended consequence of the rules on TV advertising minutage, ITV and Channel Four have fewer ads in news in order to get the best use of their inventory in other airtime slots.

In conclusion, for as long as news from broadcasters continues to be pre-eminent in the UK I doubt that the fake news phenomenon in the US will be replicated here to the extent that democracy can be subverted. Indeed I am heartened by our broadcasters’ increased appetite for challenging falsehoods.

So in the UK I  worry as much about some of the suggested solutions to ‘fake news’ as I do about the problem. I am in the Nick Robinson camp when the presenter of the Today programme says ‘Don’t panic’.

 

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