Context, not content, is what’s needed now. And collaboration, not competition.

From a striking CJR post by Todd Gitlin:

After months of recalculation, of reappraisals agonizing and not, of euphemisms and of mea culpas loud and soft, the Times does not know with whom it is dealing. It is as if the mafia were being approached as a quaint bunch of oddballs. It’s as if oversight were the most plausible reason why the famous Rob Goldstone email addressed to Donald J. Trump, Jr., subject-lined “Russia – Clinton – private and confidential,” failed to “set off alarm bells” among the likes of Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Trump Jr. in Trump Tower—and not the far more plausible explanation that Russian cronies were nothing new at making approaches to Trumpworld. Trump’s buildings were homes away from home for all manner of criminals and Russian investors, as were his foreign ventures.

This is what journalists called “context.” Call it background, call it whatever you want. But if you ignore it, you are reporting a baseball game as if people in uniforms are running around a diamond and chasing a ball for no apparent reason at all.

Yep. This essay goes nicely with Dan Gilmor’s plea for journalists to get their acts together on reporting Trump. There’s a strange way in which the competitiveness of journalists is preventing them from collaborating to fight Trump’s campaign to sideline the First Amendment.

That means breaking with customs, and some traditions — changing the journalism, and some of the ways you practice it, to cope with the onslaught of willful misinformation aimed at undermining public belief in basic reality. You can start by looking at the public’s information needs from the public’s point of view, not just your own.

The collaboration needs to be broad, and deep, across organizations and platforms. It can be immediate — such as an agreement among White House reporters to resist the marginalizing, or banning outright, of journalists who displease the president. If a legitimate reporter is banned from an event, or verbally dismissed in a briefing or press conference, other journalists should either boycott the event or, at the very least, ask and re-ask his or her question until it’s answered. In the briefing room, show some spine, and do it together.

The trouble is: most journalists are not by instinct collaborative — which is why they find networked journalism difficult. And their employers are rarely helpful in this regard. That’s also why collaborative ventures — like the one that reported and analysed the Panama Papers — represent such a welcome change.

How network effects amplify lies

This morning’s Observer column:

In the 1930s, a maverick young journalist named Claud Cockburn resigned from the Times and, with £40 borrowed from an Oxford friend, bought a mimeograph machine (a low-cost duplicating machine that worked by forcing ink though a stencil on to paper). With it he set up the Week, a weekly newsletter available by subscription in which Cockburn printed news and gossip that came to him from his diverse group of contacts in both the British and German establishments.

From the beginning the Week printed stuff that the mainstream newspapers wouldn’t touch because of fears of running foul of the Official Secrets Act, the libel laws or the political establishment. Cockburn, having few assets and a rackety lifestyle, proceeded as if none of this applied to him. But people in the know – the third secretaries of foreign embassies, for example, or City bankers – quickly recognised the value of the Week (for the same reasons as they now read Private Eye). Nevertheless the circulation of Cockburn’s scandal sheet remained confined to this small elite circle – and its finances were correspondingly dodgy.

And then one day everything changed…

Read on

Unmasking sock puppets

So called ‘sock puppets’ are multiple social media accounts which are actually controlled by a single person. They’re a pain and the pain is getting worse — as we discovered in 2016 — because they can have a distorting impact on online discourse.

But now comes some good news. New Scientist reports that researchers have developed some tools that can detect these pests with reasonable accuracy.

[Srijan] Kumar and his colleagues at the University of Maryland and Stanford University in California analysed commenter accounts on news websites including CNN, NPR, Breitbart and Fox News. They identified the sock puppets by finding accounts that posted from the same IP address in the same discussion at similar times. This approach isn’t always possible, so they wanted to develop a tool that automatically detects sock puppets based only on publicly accessible posting data.

They found that sock puppets contribute poorer quality content, writing shorter posts that are often downvoted or reported by other users. They post on more controversial topics, spend more time replying to other users and are more abusive. Worryingly, their posts are also more likely to be read and they are often central to their communities, generating a lot of activity.

Based on their findings, the researchers created a machine learning tool that can detect if two accounts belong to the same person 91 per cent of the time. Another tool can distinguish between a regular account and a sock puppet with 68 per cent accuracy. The research will be presented this week at the World Wide Web Conference in Perth, Australia.