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When responsibility for media content is evaded, the truth suffers

Wednesday, 29th November, 2017 5:30pm

There was a time when almost everyone seemed to agree that by the mere fact of its existence, social media and the information superhighway would be a force for good in the world.

Walls would be brought down by blogs, tyrants overthrown by tweets, racial difference would be obliterated via the power of a Facebook post.

A few short years later, and such logic seems more like a 1960s hippy fever dream than reasoned, coherent analysis.

The world we live in now seems a darker, more pessimistic place. Rather than the shared, euphoric enlightenment we hoped for, we see a public sphere corrupted by wilful ignorance, in which demonstrable, evidence-based facts are given no more credence than misleading or speculative untruths.

The mistake was to believe that the free flow information would usher in transparency and common understanding without considering how that flow could also be subverted and used for other purposes.

As French communications theorist Armand Mattelart warned: “A free flow of information is like a free fox in a free chicken house”.

But where does the responsibility lie for this glut of mis-information that has empowered and energised everyone from climate change deniers to Brexiteers?

Blame can be laid on several fronts. These range from the malicious work of bots and trolls and the sponsoring of this activity by hostile foreign governments to flabby and complacent media organisations who lost the trust of their audiences.

But the real villain in this particular piece is perhaps less obvious.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, is the payoff line in ‘The Usual Suspects’, a crime whodunnit in which the movie structure itself lies to the viewer to put them off the scent.

The abdication of responsibility by tech giants like Facebook, YouTube and Google when it comes to the spreading of misinformation on their platforms, has been a similar sleight of hand.

Since the birth of mass media, various commercial entities have used the desire of people to know more about the world as a means to make money.

However, a significant brake on the profit-making imperative that drew them to this area was that the facilitation of misinformation could get publishers into serious trouble.

From the fake Hitler diaries scandal in the 1980s, to the Milly Dowler phone hacking scandal more recently, it has always been understood that getting it wrong could cost you.

This requirement that published information be verified and demonstrably true led to an uneasy alliance between commerce and journalistic activity.

Whether by accident, or design, media organisations facilitated and protected journalists as they shone a light on power and revealed hidden truths.

Digitisation has meant the disruption of these more traditional media models, while also bringing undeniable benefits.

A far greater diversity of voices challenged old economic and ideological orthodoxies as the gatekeepers of old were joyfully circumvented.

But the optimism that generated initially has been muted by other, more sinister developments.

With startling speed, media publishing conglomerates like YouTube, Facebook and Google have consolidated their power and in doing so, hoovered up ad revenue and hastened the demise of more traditional media outlets.

An upending of previous media models is not unusual, but the nature of this new landscape is.

They are the platform providers just as before, but they take no responsibility for the veracity of what is put on them.

Free speech

Hiding behind cynical and self-serving interpretations of principles of free speech and information, the new publishing behemoths have made billions of euro without any of the responsibilities that conventional media organisations have to shoulder.

In a world in which disinformation has been weaponised, the companies carrying the missiles towards their target have been allowed to shrug their shoulders and say ‘nothing to do with us’.

Quality, well-funded journalism of the sort that takes time, energy and investment has always been the best defence against untruth.

While it may have had an uneasy relationship with the commercial realities that funded it, journalism survived because there was a cultural and political economic incentive for it to be supported.

But now that delicate ecosystem has been upended, and we should not assume that another will come along to take its place.

There have been some noises of late from Google, Twitter and Facebook about ventures into the area of news verification.

But so far it has been lip-service, well intentioned perhaps, but ultimately akin to a cigarette manufacturer throwing a few euro to the cancer fund at Christmas.

Ultimately the tech giants care less about the content than they do about people spending time on their pages digesting those cleverly targeted advertisements.

Corporatism does not listen to appeals to its better nature. It listens to threats to its pocket.

The only way that Facebook and Google and every other profit-making online media platform provider will consider spending money on verifying and checking the information that is spread on its platforms, is if it made liable for it.

There are no easy answers for legislators or the companies themselves in this new media environment as to how best to police misinformation.

Recent experiments whereby Facebook algorithms remove news sources from its news feed in several small markets resulted in plummeting traffic to news sites and a kickback from legitimate news publishers.

Attempts on Twitter to tighten some of their terms of use to combat fake accounts and extremist hate speech also met with stiff resistance.

Questions about whether these types of attempts restrict or censor free speech are valid, but should not distract from key issues.

Feigned neutrality must no longer be an acceptable position for the tech giants to take on this.

They can no longer be allowed to get away with pretending they have no real stake in this fight, when in financial terms, they have the biggest stake of all.

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