Digital media and the battle for the facts
In recent weeks, the weeks since one of the most divisive and perhaps momentous elections in living memory, the news has itself become the news. And of all the many hundreds of news organizations in this country, none – not even Breitbart News – has been in the spotlight more than The New York Times.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, one of our most devoted readers, a New Yorker born and bred, has just been elected President of the United States.
Indeed almost as soon as he’d won the election, this extremely assiduous reader began to tweet about his hometown newspaper. Here’s a sample from 6.16 am on the 13th of November: “Wow, the nytimes is losing thousands of subscribers because of their very poor and highly inaccurate coverage of the ‘Trump Phenomenon’.”
And here’s another, again sent at 6.16 am, this time on the 22nd November: “I cancelled today’s meeting with the failing nytimes when the terms and conditions of the meeting were changed at the last moment. Not nice.”
Now I can’t tell you why or how Donald Trump came to send these two tweets – or even what spooky significance we should attach to the tweeting hour of 6.16 in the morning in the Trump household.
What I do know, not to make a political point but simply as a matter of personal observation and knowledge, is that both of these statements were and are untrue.
The “failing” New York Times has not lost “thousands of subscribers” since the election. On the contrary, there has been a spectacular surge in subscriptions, with weeks during which we have seen ten times as many new subscribers as the same period last year.
As for changing the “terms and conditions” of Mr Trump’s planned lunch at The Times, I know because I was there that this claim was also quite false. Arthur Sulzberger, the chairman and publisher of The Times, set out clear terms when the Trump team first suggested he visit us: a brief off-the-record meeting followed by a full on-the-record session with Times editors and reporters. Those terms never changed.
A few hours after his tweet cancelling the meeting, Mr Trump decided to turn up after all and took part in a 75-minute on-the-record meeting, as well as a brief private conversation with Arthur. To our knowledge, it’s the first time that a President-Elect has offered such an extensive opportunity for journalistic scrutiny to The New York Times or any news organization. I know that Dean Baquet our Executive Editor, and James Bennet our Editorial Page Editor, and all of their colleagues, were very grateful for the chance to put so many questions to the president elect. So no complaints on that score.
As for Donald Trump and his view of The New York Times, by the time he swept out of the building he was describing the “failing nytimes” as a “jewel”, not just for America but for the whole world. In eight hours, we’d gone from “not nice” to, well, really quite nice.
How long will this new warm glow last? I don’t think it’s disrespectful either to Mr Trump or the office of the presidency to say: your guess is as good as ours.
But please keep those two tweets – and the many others like them – in mind as we turn to what has been the most prominent media discussion of the post-election period, the question of fake news. There’s clearly a lot of it, but should we worry about it? And, if the answer is yes, what if anything can we do?
On the 4th of December, a man was arrested in Washington DC after firing a rifle in a pizza restaurant which has been linked to “Pizzagate”. For enlightenment on that, let me turn to “YourNewsWire.com”, which promises “News. Truth. Unfiltered.” And which, if nothing else, certainly delivers on the “unfiltered” bit:
“As news emerges that the FBI have uncovered a child sex ring connected to the Clinton Foundation, internet sleuths have discovered evidence of pedophile ‘code words’ being used in emails
from John Podesta. Numerous emails from the Chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign incongruously refer to food items such as pasta, cheese pizza, ice cream …”
YourNewsWire.com was one of a myriad of sites, political interest groups and individual cranks who spread the frankly bizarre – and of course entirely unevidenced – conjecture that there is a subterranean child-abuse conspiracy between Democratic high-ups and specific pizza parlours, including the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in northwest DC.
Edgar Maddison Walsh told reporters that it was his desire to “self-investigate” this piece of poisonous nonsense that led him to walk into Comet Ping Pong eight days ago with an assault rifle which he duly discharged, mercifully without hitting anyone. He surrendered to police apparently after satisfying himself there were no child victims on the premises. “The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent”, he told a Times reporter. You can say that again, Mr Walsh.
As many of you will know, the incident quickly led to the brisk departure of Michael G. Flynn, the son of Donald Trump’s pick for National Security Advisor, from the transition team. Flynn the younger had tweeted this about Pizzagate: “Until Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story.”
Until something is proven to be false, it’ll remain a story. Any clever lie or crackpot conspiracy theory will have a currency until it is
debunked. And of course the more outlandish the theory, the harder it is to put to rest – thus the longevity of the Obama Birther myth. In one pithy sentence, Michael G. Flynn has offered us a doctrine of fake news, or perhaps more precisely a doctrine of the political value of fake news.
There’s a brilliant reconstruction in words and graphics of how the Pizzagate conspiracy theory propagated across digital media on The Times news site right now. A pro-Trump Reddit forum and 4Chan’s “alt-right” message board played important early roles, then the rumors spread through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and other major social platforms. In the tangled mind-map of the rapidly metastasizing fantasy, supposed code-words and crimes jostled together in mad combinations. Pizza. Cooking parties. Cannibalism. Handkerchief. Satanism. It all makes perfect sense.
But Pizzagate is only a single drop in what has become a springtide flood of false information.
Fake news is not new. The spreading false rumors for political advantage, for pure malice, or just for entertainment, is as old as the hills. Supermarket checkout magazines have been assuring us for decades that Elvis never died at all and is alive and well and eating unhealthy snacks inside a replica of the Sphinx on the surface of Mars.
And yet what’s happening now feels different. Whatever its other cultural and social merits, our digital eco-system seems to have evolved into a near-perfect environment for fake news to thrive. In addition to enthusiastic domestic myth-makers, it’s easy for hostile foreign governments and their proxies not just to initiate a fake news cycle – it is now widely accepted that it was Russian hackers who broke into John Podesta’s emails and gave them to Wikileaks, beginning the chain of events that led to Pizzagate – but to intensify it, and on occasion even to manage it with armies of human “trolls” and cyber botnets. This is a form of what the military calls “black psy-ops”, in other words covert psychological operations.
Other than rare incidents like the gunfire at Comet Ping Pong, we have limited insight into the impact of fake news on political opinion-forming and voter intent. Much of it seems aimed at an already ideologically committed audience rather than the under-decided – and delivered more as a dark and salacious form of entertainment than with a serious intention to deceive.
But we shouldn’t be complacent. Foreign governments who pour resources into fake news clearly do so in the belief that it will produce real-world results which are to their advantage.
Moral panic about fake news won’t solve anything. But refusing to take it seriously, either because it seems so absurd, or because coming up with a plausible and practical response to it feels so daunting, is dangerous.
And there’s something else: the current political and media environment, with its intensity and ubiquity, its political and commercial pressures and opportunities and, above all, the fast-breeder network effects associated with major social media platforms, produces perverse incentives both for politicians and for many media outlets in the matter of fake news.
As Michael G. Flynn implied in that tweet, sustaining and spreading fake news can be an effective political tactic. And reporting it without immediately outing it as fake can drive traffic and revenue, or spark a controversy, or usefully keep a cable news conversation going.
Mr Flynn’s father, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, is the man Donald Trump has chosen to be his national security advisor. During the campaign, he repeatedly marketed fake news stories. “U decide – NYPD Blows Whistle On New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes w Children, etc … MUST READ!”, and then the link, is a representative example.
And, as we’ve seen, Mr Trump does it himself. That false story about Times subscriptions is a minor example. His recent untruthful claim that “millions of people” voted illegally in the election is a more serious one. Any proposed solution or mitigation to the issue of fake news must recognize the reality that the next occupant of the Oval Office is himself a seasoned practitioner of it. It seems unlikely that any discouragement of fake news is going to come from there.
Facts and lies
But the disruptive pressures and perverse incentives playing on the transmission of political news and ideas go wider than this.
In my book “Enough Said”, I argue that changes in politics, the media and technology have come together to weaken political language and effective political debate in ways which I believe could ultimately threaten democracy. Impact, compression, over-simplification, exaggeration, intemperance and out-and-out character assassination are the winners. Evidence, coherent argument and explanatory power are progressively losing out.
Perhaps it’s worth noting that I began working on the book four years ago, in other words long before Brexit, the new saliency of the populist Right on continental Europe, and the 2016 US presidential election. I believed that over my own three decades in journalism I’d seen a growing ugliness and lack of trust between politicians, the media and the public on both sides of the Atlantic and that, far from being cured, it was being exascerbated by the web and social media.
We can see fake news as the logical next stage in this wider process of deterioration. Why twist and exaggerate the real facts when you can replace them with complete fiction?
So we should be under no illusions that we face a real battle with real opponents.
Though it often seems like it to partisans, this is not a battle between Left and Right. Nor is it a battle between elites and “ordinary” people. It’s not a battle between traditional and digital media, nor – though again it’s sometimes cast as one – is it a battle between publishers and digital platforms. It’s a battle between facts and lies.
What can we do about it? The first thing that springs to some people’s minds is some form of censorship or regulation. I note in my book how the 17th century British political thinker Thomas Hobbes came, at least in part, to blame extremist sermons and tracts – tracts which could be mass-produced and disseminated widely within hours thanks to the still relatively new technology of printing – for England’s descent into civil war. He later argued that the war might never have happened if a few thousand of the extremists had been rounded up and executed.
Now, while I don’t suppose that even the sternest critic of fake news would advocate the death penalty, there are certainly some who favor a kind of functional censorship, with fake news sites identified and taken down, and fake news somehow filtered out of search and social media by human or algorithmic means.
But how’s that going to work? Who’ll decide where satire, entertainment and strong opinion end, and fake news begins? Can the millions of sites and hundreds of millions of individuals who post
or share news realistically be segregated in real time, page by page, post by post, into digital sheep and goats?
And who said that the public should only be allowed to read the facts anyway? The First Amendment essentially says they should be allowed to write, distribute and read anything they damn well please. If some of them turn out to prefer churning out and eagerly consuming lies and fantasies, so be it.
When he came to The Times, I asked Donald Trump if he supported the First Amendment, given his remarks about going after the media and tightening the law of libel: “I don’t think you’ll have anything to worry about” was how he replied.
If we imagine the tools that might be used to excise fake news from the web and social media – a mighty algorithm combing every sentence, every image for any trace of falsehood, aided perhaps by legions of human scrutineers employed by some of the world’s biggest corporations – they sound suspiciously like the means of control employed by the world’s most repressive regimes. They are probably not practical and, even if they were, they would be worrisome or worse in our free societies.
Censorship is always worse than the disease it is said to cure. Better our noisy, chaotic, frighteningly vulnerable, but still open and free digital public square, even with appalling aberrations like fake news. Almost anything is preferable to censorship.
So does this mean that the major social platforms, who have faced considerable criticism on the subject of fake news since the election, are off the hook? Well no, not quite.
Fake news is only one of the concerns critics have with these platforms. There’s the question of the so-called “filter bubble”, the fear that citizens who rely solely on them for news and opinion live in what T.S. Eliot once called a “wilderness of mirrors”, only exposed to perspectives like their own.
Then there’s its sister, “herding bias”, the tendency not just to think but to do what your nearest and dearest do: to vote or not to vote depending on whether your friends and family vote, and, if you do vote, who to vote for.
Finally, there’s that family of potential biases associated with the tendency not just of social media, but of search and most of legacy media too, to put the hottest items at the top: “ranking bias”, “popularity bias”, and so on. Empirically, human beings are more likely to read, like, and perhaps believe stories which other human beings – or some aggregator who has counted their aggregate preferences – have declared to be “popular” or “interesting”.
In most digital environments, popularity drives virtually everything: algorithms, headlines, story-order. Given all that, perhaps we really shouldn’t be too surprised that across the western world we’re seeing
an explosion of significantly digitally-driven populist politics – it seems to be an intrinsic bias in the machine.
Please note that this list of questions for the major digital platforms does not include the wealth of hurtful, defamatory, viciously intolent, mysogynist, anti-gay, anti-minority and in other ways anti-social opinion which almost all of them host every day. All of that will have to wait for another day. But it certainly does include the relatively fresh and topical question about their attitude to fake news.
The social platforms have responses to at least some of these charges. In 2015, for instance, a group of senior Facebook data scientists published a persuasive paper in the journal Science making the case that the so-called “filter bubble” effect exists but is far less significant than was previously suggested.
I found their case convincing, but there’s a problem. We can’t see the algorithm which determines which stories appear and where in the Facebook news feed and, without seeing and understanding it, we can’t be sure that the findings in the paper are the full story, nor can we certain about why given stories appear in the feed and what attitudes and behaviors they drive.
And there’s a second issue. Understandably, the social platforms tend to think of themselves as platforms or networks rather than as publishers. People use them to connect with each other and what
these people share with each other, so the argument goes, is their own affair rather than the responsibility of the platform operators.
So the leaders of the major platforms have tended to argue that fake news – and, by extension, other problems of plurality, diversity, quality and challenge in news consumed on social media – is not really their responsibility. They, and therefore we they imply, should put our trust in the “community”, to use Mark Zuckerberg’s word in a recent Facebook posting, to sort out the fake from the real.
One can hope that he may ultimately be proved right, yet still be alarmed at the fix in which we presently find ourselves. Imagine a supermarket where the products had no nutrition information printed on them, and no one was prepared to vouch for quite where they had come from, and the owners told you they couldn’t really take responsibility for the quality of anything. Would you feed your children food purchased from that supermarket?
Without transparency and accountability, it’s impossible to recommend that anyone – particularly any young person – should get their news entirely from a source whose editorial choices and rankings are arrived at secretly and whose leaders believe they are involved in some other, essentially different business. By all means use social media as one of your sources of news. As those Facebook scientists suggest, you may come across more variety than you expect, and it’s valuable to see what your friends and family are watching and reading. But the old advice still applies: expose yourself
to multiple sources of news, including some discrete, properly funded, professional news organizations like The Times, and always include at least one whose editorial perspective is in some way different to your own.
As for the digital giants, I believe they need to think hard about transparency and accountability. Their ad tech and ad networks help make fake news so lucrative – here too they need to help the whole industry cut off the advertising revenue which enables the fake sites to flourish.
These great, profoundly creative enterprises like to think of themselves as engines of progress, capable of bringing people together and making the world a better place. One can applaud that and still believe, in the matter of their handling of news, and especially fake and distorted news, that they are inadvertently enabling malign and destructive forces and that, unless they do something, they – and we – will pay a heavy price for it.
But what about the publishers themselves? Well first we’re not perfect either. Professional news organizations like The Times screw up occasionally and we have to learn from our mistakes. Accuracy and objectivity are goals rather than smug guarantees, but at least we are striving towards those goals – and at least the user enjoys complete transparency when it comes to responsibility and accountability. You can see who wrote the story and, if you think it’s inaccurate or biased, you know who the editor is, and the publisher.
I know that if Dean Baquet and Arthur Sulzberger were here, they would say what I am about to say: which is that what we stand for, now more than ever, is toughminded, independent journalism edited and delivered without fear or favor. Investigative journalism, properly resourced, holding powerful institutions and individuals to account. Great international journalism, faithfully reporting events happening in every part of a troubled world. We want every story we report, every column of opinion we publish, to be worth paying for.
And, to state the obvious, we believe in the opposite of fake news. We want people here and around the world to have access every day to real news, and to make use of true facts to form their own judgement about what is happening in their world and, yes, who they should vote for.
We also believe we have a responsibility to find a successful business model to pay for the independent, credible, professional journalism which this country and the world needs.
At The Times, we’re making real progress, with audiences and subscriber numbers larger than at any time in our history, as well as big gains year over year in digital revenue. We still post healthy profits.
But we also know that here in Detroit and almost every other city in America, many of our colleagues – who do not have the national and
international opportunity of The Times, or our successful digital subscription model – are having a much harder time. Their ability to deliver real news – about city hall and the state legislature, about local schools and businesses, as well as about America and the world – is under direct economic threat.
Here too I believe that the search and social media platforms could play a role. The advertising which once paid for professional journalism across this country and the rest of the western world is now migrating to them. Far from helping, if anything initiatives like Facebook Instant Articles, which host news stories natively, seem to make it even hard for responsible publishers to get their business models to work.
In all but a handful of cases like The Times with large audiences, deep engagement and real subscription potential, it’s easier today to make a profit on search and social from fake news than it is from the real thing. Where will that take us if uncorrected? The big search and social companies must do more to sustain the economics of real journalism.
Let me end with you, my audience here today. As you’ve heard, proper journalism is expensive to make. The print advertising which once paid for it is in steep decline and, for the reasons we’ve discussed, the hope that digital advertising would grow to replace the lost revenue has turned out to be hollow. The result for many
newspapers – including newspapers here in Detroit – is cuts, layoffs and a bleak future.
It’s like any quality product. If you want real journalism, you as a consumer will have to pay for it. So subscribe. Subscribe to your local paper, or The New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal, or the Washington Post, or, if you’re feeling particularly flush, to all of the above.
But don’t rely on someone else – big advertisers, Silicon Valley, Santa Claus – to step in to save the day. Real journalism is vital to our democracy, and it has to be paid for. If not, it will largely disappear and leave the field open for Pizzagate, and that zombie army of illegal voters, and all the rest of it.
If you as a citizen are worried about fake news, put your money where your mouth is and pay for the real thing. Thank you.