A couple of recent experiences.
First up, I was at Mediapart’s 10th anniversary celebrations over the weekend. At one of the panel discussions, a very important journalist was speaking very passionately about the possibility of someone changing an algorithm and this having consequences for real people in the real world. Well, yes; that’s like you, I thought.
If we say that changes to Facebook or whoever’s newsfeed picks are editorial choices, which we must, and therefore political statements with real consequences, we must also accept that the media has been doing this stuff since forever. Somebody’s editorial choice had the whole British press up to and including the FT chasing around central Europe after a story that had already been killed with primary source documents the other day. It wasn’t Facebook that got obsessed with her e-mails.
A lot of journalists have a seriously weird attitude about this – on the one hand they believe passionately that any regulatory restriction on their industry would be terrible, on the other hand, they deny that their choices are consequential and pride themselves in seeing the whole thing as a joke.
Second, Channel 4’s big Cambridge Analytica story tonight might have had the wrong effect on me. The first few minutes of the broadcast are visually mostly made up of recut archive footage from elections, the news, and stock – politicians, meetings, front pages, dramatic TV attack ads. The total effect is convincing – this lot must be some bad lads! – and no doubt that was what the video editor intended, knowing what was coming. But a lot of the visual content is just nasty campaign ads, the sort that Channel 4 has absolutely no compunction in carrying when election season comes around.
Actually that is a bit too much. The IBA would not accept some of them. TV is a regulated medium. The Daily Mail, though, runs the same and worse on an average Tuesday. Anyway, the content was yet to come and this was just the set-dressing, yet it was powerful propaganda, and they do it on literally every show.
Third, this conversation between Daniel Davies, Matt Zeitlin, and self.
I think a good analogy for how social media companies should treat users of their platforms is finance. Banks and other financial companies have affirmative responsibilities to ensure that criminals and money launderers don't use their systems.
— Matthew Zeitlin (@MattZeitlin) March 17, 2018
The difficulty here is that telecoms regulation in the US and places that drew inspiration (roughly all of them) is built on the common carrier principle. This was created to stop you keeping Jews out of your hotel, black-owned businesses out of your newspaper advertising, or forcing farmers to sell you crops at your price if they wanted to use your railway. It’s important and that’s why no-one wants to touch it.
This has a selection of horrible consequences. If we decide that Facebook or whoever has to make choices about who it publishes, they have to do so about everyone. It won’t just be bad people. Well, we could all go back to blogging or self-hosted Mastodon or whatever…and that would be good…but the common carrier status of the underlying infrastructure is itself under pressure in the US thanks to Trump’s FCC. The telco threat to common carrier hasn’t gone away.
This could get long – apparently not everyone loves telecoms regulation history for some crazy reason – but the point I’d like to make is that financial regulation as far as I know doesn’t have to give the minority any guarantees, and the regulation of speech must.
Envoi. The weirdest thing about the Trump/Russia/Fake News/Facebook story is watching important media people do the Gary Larson cows trick. You mean…we’re drenched in propaganda and bullshit? We have an utterly cynical attitude to whether or not anything we say is true or even just useful? It must be the competition.