Why the moral panic about fake news might have an unpalatable outcome

Jack Shafer is right: the moral panic about fake news on social media — especially Facebook — looks like becoming serious. But, he warns, the cure (Zuckerberg becoming the world’s censor) would be worse than the disease.

Already, otherwise intelligent and calm observers are cheering plans set forth by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to censor users’ news feeds in a fashion that will eliminate fake news. Do we really want Facebook exercising this sort of top-down power to determine what is true or false? Wouldn’t we be revolted if one company owned all the newsstands and decided what was proper and improper reading fare?

Once established to crush fake news, the Facebook mechanism could be repurposed to crush other types of information that might cause moral panic. This cure for fake news is worse than the disease.

As we applaud Facebook’s decision to blue-pencil the News Feed, we need to ask why fake news exists and—as I previously wrote—why it has existed for centuries…

Good question. And the answer:

The audience for fake news resembles the crowds who pay money to attend magic shows. Magic-show patrons know going in that some of what they’re going to see is genuine. But they also know that a good portion of what they’re going to see is going to look real but be phony. Like a woman sawed in half. Or an act of levitation. Being shown something fantastical that is almost true brings delight to almost everybody. People like to be fooled…

Spot on. That’s why millions of people in the UK pay good money every day to buy the Sun and (worse) the Daily Express. It also partly explained why they liked Trump. Sad but true fact about human nature. Or, as Shafer puts it, “Deep in the brain exists a hungry lobe that loves to be deceived.” Sigh.

And as for the media…

Election 2016 has been a disaster for both pollsters and mainstream media. Bracing stuff from Micheal Wolff:

And it was a failure of modern journalistic technique too. It was the day the data died. All of the money poured by a financially challenged media industry into polls and polling analysis was for naught. It profoundly misinformed. It created a compelling and powerful narrative that was the opposite of what was actually happening. There may be few instances, except perhaps under authoritarian regimes, where the media has so successfully propounded a view of events not only of its own making but at such odds with reality. Trump is a simple proof: forget polls — they say what you want them to say.

And then there was the wholesale destruction of what is perhaps the most important media assumption: that advertising matters. A not inconsiderable portion of the profitability of most media companies comes from the extra many billions of dollars that’s poured into local television every four years. Clinton spent the usual quota (buying, for instance, almost 80 percent of the more than 120,000 campaigns ads during the general election in Florida), Trump only a fraction thereof, redefining not only how to run for office, but the symbiotic relationship of the media to politics.

The irony is too painful: Trump the media candidate turns on the media. The flat-footed media became for the nimble Trump his punching bag and foil (while all the time the media assumed Trump was the flat-footed one). It gave him his singular, galvanizing and personalized issue — it’s the media, stupid. If Trump makes good on his promise to oppose the Time Warner and AT&T merger, that will be an indication that his war with the media, once his most reliable alley, will go on.

Jack Shafer goes further:

Trump’s secret was almost exactly the opposite of what even the best-paid consultant would advise. He has run a media campaign directly against the media, helping himself to the copious media attention available to a TV star while disparaging journalists at every podium and venue. Other politicians before him have aimed some anger at the press. President Lyndon Johnson schemed to manipulate reporters; once when asked a tough, one-on-one question by a reporter, Johnson responded, “Here you are, alone with the president of the United States and the leader of the free world, and you ask a chickenshit question like that.” Richard Nixon loathed the press, but delegated the attack-dog job to Vice President Spiro Agnew, who gave speeches denouncing the network news. Ronald Reagan’s image-makers subverted the press by producing heroic prepackaged visuals while keeping their man from having to answer any inconvenient questions. George H.W. Bush’s disdain for journalists inspired the popular 1992 reelection bumper sticker: “Annoy the Media; Vote for Bush.”

But Trump has taken press-baiting further than anyone else in public life would have imagined possible. He has isolated the press as his genuine rival, campaigning harder against it sometimes than the other candidates. He’s fought it on a personal level, ridiculing reporters—often by name—as “sleazy,” “extremely dishonest,” “a real beauty,” “unfair,” and “not good people.” Until recently, he blacklisted individual reporters from campaign access. He mocked a disabled reporter; he called Brit Hume and Maureen Dowd “dopes.” He’s fought it institutionally, slathering CNN with a barrage of insults, and castigating the New York Times and the “mainstream media” scores of times.

Why the Web is making high-quality journalism unsustainable

From Frederic Filloux:

Today, the economic value of a journalism item stems from its popularity, i.e. the number of clicks (or views) it generates. A well-crafted listicle put together by a clever Millennial will generate more revenue that any public-interest piece, this in total disregard for who actually reads it, for how long, etc. That’s the absurdity of today’s system.

Yep. Insightful piece, well worth reading in full.

So what if all the assumptions about ‘digital first’ have been wrong?

Wow! Here’s the abstract of a fascinating paper by two academics at the University of Texas at Austin:

Twenty years into US newspapers’ online ventures, many are stuck between a shrinking market for their print product and an unsuccessful experiment with digital offerings. Since readership is the foundation for subscription and advertising revenue, this study, through a longitudinal analysis of readership data (2007, 2011, and 2015) of 51 US newspapers, provides an up-to-date review on these newspapers’ online and print readership. Results indicated that the (supposedly dying) print product still reaches far more readers than the (supposedly promising) digital product in these newspapers’ home markets, and this holds true across all age groups. In addition, these major newspapers’ online readership has shown little or no growth since 2007, and more than a half of them have seen a decline since 2011. The online edition contributes a relatively small number of online-only users to the combined readership in these newspapers’ home markets. These findings raise questions about US newspapers’ technology-driven strategy and call for a critical re-examination of unchecked assumptions about the future of newspapers.

Dispatch from a vanished media universe

The New Yorker recently republished Calvin Trillin’s wonderful profile of R.W. ‘Johnny’ Apple, the famous New York Times journalist.

Sample:

There is a consensus in the trade, I am pleased to report, that Johnny Apple—R. W. Apple, Jr., of the New York Times — is a lot easier to take now than he once was. Even Apple believes that. When I asked him not long ago about the paragraph in Gay Talese’s 1969 book on the Times, “The Kingdom and the Power,” which presents him as a brash young eager beaver, he said it was, alas, “quite an accurate portrait,” although he doesn’t recall boasting in the newsroom that while covering the war in Vietnam he had personally killed a few Vietcong—the remark that, in Talese’s account, led an older reporter to say, “Women and children, I presume.” In speaking of those early days, Apple said, “I was desperate to prove myself.” You could argue, I suppose, that, in the words of a longtime colleague, “he doesn’t have to argue the case anymore.”

It’s long, but well worth a read. A report from a vanished media world.

Appeasing the crocodile

This morning’s Observer column:

Winston Churchill famously defined “appeasement” as “being nice to a crocodile in the hope that he will eat you last”. By that definition, many of the world’s biggest news publishing organisations have been in the appeasement business for at least the past two years and the crocodile to which they have been sucking up is Facebook, the social networking giant.

The reason for this extraordinary self-abasement is simple: Facebook currently has more than 1.6 billion users worldwide, most of whom are very engaged with the service. Around half of them check their page every day, for example, and when they are online they spend significant amounts of time on the site or its smartphone app.

More significantly, research by the Pew Research Center revealed that these users increasingly get much of their news from their Facebook feeds. Accordingly, publishers started doing deals with Facebook to publish some (or all) of their content on it, with initially agreeable results in the shape of “referrals” – ie traffic to their own websites coming from the social network.

There was, however, a fly in the ointment…

Read on

Read before you retweet

This is really intriguing:

On June 4, the satirical news site the Science Post published a block of “lorem ipsum” text under a frightening headline: “Study: 70% of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting.”

Nearly 46,000 people shared the post, some of them quite earnestly — an inadvertent example, perhaps, of life imitating comedy.

Now, as if it needed further proof, the satirical headline’s been validated once again: According to a new study by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute, 59 percent of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked: In other words, most people appear to retweet news without ever reading it.

Worse, the study finds that these sort of blind peer-to-peer shares are really important in determining what news gets circulated and what just fades off the public radar. So your thoughtless retweets, and those of your friends, are actually shaping our shared political and cultural agendas.

“People are more willing to share an article than read it,” study co-author Arnaud Legout said in a statement. “This is typical of modern information consumption. People form an opinion based on a summary, or a summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper.”