"The way I see it" Alex Krasodomski-Jones, researcher, Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, Demos
In this interview series we ask digital media professionals, innovators and commentators to share their perspectives on approaches to comprehensive newsgathering
What opportunities does social media present to news?
I do remain optimistic that social media is inherently a positive thing. Everyone with a mobile is now a source, and the resulting ‘citizen journalism’ is more sophisticated than a simple eye-witness account. It’s first-hand coverage of anything and everything around the world and in most cases the sources of information are relatively strong.
The consumption of news is also an important part of what happens on Twitter and Facebook.
What challenges does social media present to news?
There are some really significant problems that have developed over the past few years.
Social media has become a fundamental gateway to the internet, but the platforms haven’t accepted responsibility for that role. They’ve found themselves wielding a huge amount of editorial control over the type of news that people see.
The ability to publish has been decentralised away from traditional media, which is on the one had a good thing. But it also means the system can be gamed. It changes the rules on what is news, and what makes news big.
What are the new rules for newsworthiness?
Thanks to social, news is now measured by socialization and the idea of popularity. If something’s trending, it shoots to the top of what Facebook tellingly calls your ‘news feed’. And the algorithm is frequently very opaque. All too much of what is called news is the effect of that echo chamber.
In effect, news is treated like an advertisement. Will the user like it? Will they click on it? If so, Twitter, for example, will prioritise that tweet in that user’s feed.
Should we be expecting social media platforms to behave like publishers?
That would involve a complete reconfiguration of their business model, which is dependent on no pre-moderation, and no limits to free speech. Content is freely shared and only removed after someone complains.
Even if Facebook, for example, comes up with an algorithm to identify fake news, the providers will quickly learn how to game it. You’re pitting dedicated money-making fake news sites against a corporation which is largely unwilling to accept the high cost of reforming their platform.
Even supposing they could, how would they handle the very different views of news and media standards across the world?
...paying for content is not a completely alien concept: people will pay for their Sky subscription, or for a magazine. And bastions of facts and truth like Wikipaedia are extremely popular. We’ve come too far for people to resign themselves to polemics and falsehood
Do you remain an optimist about journalism?
There’s a danger that journalism will become a charitable profession in a world in which content on the internet is free.
Instead of investigative journalism, we’re now seeing news become a confirmatory outlet. Breitbart, for example, confirms users’ existing view of the world. It gains traction by encouraging people to be upset or offended by things.
In general, the internet makes delivering poor facts to people who want to believe them a financially rewarding activity.
Having said that, paying for content is not a completely alien concept: people will pay for their Sky subscription, or for a magazine. And bastions of facts and truth like Wikipaedia are extremely popular. We’ve come too far for people to resign themselves to polemics and falsehood.
The internet produces garbage but it also creates communities where people can come together to share information – look at the developers community Stack Overflow.
No-one wants to be lied to. That must tap into something.