One thing we frequently ask our students is the simple question: what is journalism? You’d be surprised how difficult it is for some of them to respond. Try the question yourself, it’s not easy.
The response we like best is that journalism is something that is topical, independent, truthful, accurate and above all fair. Our students learn that journalism has, over the last 300 years, had a social function too. It has been the guardian of the public and as such as has had a duty to inform and police the information that flows through society in order to create both an informed and involved public.
What journalism should never, ever do is deliberately mislead. And yet, that is exactly what social media sites, like Facebook, stand accused of in the wake of the US presidential election this week.
On Monday, Facebook and Google announced that they would cut off advertising revenue from a number of fake news sites that has been propagating deliberately misleading information around the US election. It remains unclear, at the time of writing, how exactly the Silicon Valley giants intend implement this policy. But both have come under fire for allowing sites, such as 70 News, to publish false material, usually critical of Clinton. What’s worse, many of these fake news stories were picked up by their trending algorithms, the computer code that decides what goes into your Google and Facebook news feeds, allowing them to be found and then shared widely across social media platforms.
Whether Google and Facebook can cut the head off the hydra of false new is unclear. But the proliferation of false news points at a wider problem for how we reach and share information on the internet. Social media sites such as Google and Facebook are many things, but what they are not in is the business of making the news. Social media sites don’t have an editorial policy nor a professional code of ethics. Facebook doesn’t even have an editor, never mind a team of highly-trained journalists to find, consider and then argue over what makes the news.
The job of social media sites is simple: to keep you clicking. The more you click, the more advertising revenue you generate for these billion dollar giants.
And therein lies the problem. In generating trillions of dollars of advertising revenue, social media corporations have amassed power, an awful lot it. According to recent research conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, over half the online public (51%) say they use social media as a source of news, with Facebook being by far the most popular for finding, reading and sharing news. While in the US the figure is higher - 63% of both Facebook and Twitter users said they get news on the social networks.
With such power should come responsibility. But Facebook in particular has been consistently found wanting. In May, Facebook was accused of censoring the news, as “curators” of its trending topics - effectively its news agenda - deleted stories critics said it didn’t like. The company’s response was to fire the curators and replace them with another algorithm. Cue a slew of fake news.
Don’t think this matters? Consider this: imagine the top story on the BBC 10 o’clock news tonight being decided by the number of “likes” then that story being aired and everything coming out of Fiona Bruce’s mouth was pure baloney.
Mark, Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, has refused to acknowledge that his company is a publisher or even a media company. Instead he insists that Facebook is a platform, as neutral to the content it delivers as your oven is to the food you cook.
What the proliferation of fake news on social media sites does is warn us of a wider malaise in the information sphere. If we undermining the media - the Latin word for in the middle - we have created a vacuum that being filled with a toxic cocktail of nonsense, trivia, pornography, hatred and deliberate disinformation.
In conducting a series of anonymous interviews with journalists earlier this year, to discuss the pressure social media is putting on journalists, one senior editor of a global news network told me something that gave a chill: "The principal danger of social media is that there’s so much bouncing around that it is hard to land on the truth, he said. His site had been made aware Russian "agent troll factories" where such a variety of disinformation abounded that the reader is left “bewildered”. Net result: “[Everyone] just ends up living in this kind of swill generated by misinformation on social media."
What’s needed, of course, is what we teach our students. We need journalism, more of it, and more of the kind that is independent, truthful, accurate and above all fair.