It seems like Facebook and Google have a decision to make: friend or foe of the news?
Mark Thompson, chief executive officer of The New York Times, and Robert Thomson, ceo of News Corp., are on ideological common ground in their opposition to the way Facebook and Google are using, or not using, their position as dominant distributors of the news. Both spoke Tuesday at a small conference held by The Open Markets Institute, a think tank focused on the resistance of corporate monopoly power, and pushed not only for more oversight of “Big Digital” (as Thomson put it after comparing the industry to Big Tobacco) but also for the platforms themselves to be more forthright and transparent in their dealings with publishers.
Even though the Times has managed to pull well through the digital disruption to advertising and distribution, Thompson said the paper has “advantages most news providers do not enjoy.” But even with them, “we find the environment for growing our digital revenue — and securing the funding of our newsroom — harder than I believe we should.”
He took direct aim at Google, which owns YouTube, and particularly Facebook for failing to own up to their responsibilities as distributors and de facto publishers, a title the platforms have rejected again and again. But Thompson also admitted that leaders of both organizations are not interested in destroying journalism and have at least shown a willingness to listen and explore possible solutions to the undermining of legitimate news and access to it. But listening isn’t enough.
“When it comes to news, Facebook still doesn’t get it,” Thompson said. “In its efforts to clear up one bad mess, it seems set on joining those who want to blur the line between reality-based journalism and propaganda. But the underlying danger — of the agency of editors and public alike being usurped by centralized algorithmic control — is present with every digital platform where we do not fully understand how the processes of editorial selection and prioritization take place. Which right now means all of them. Thus the urgent need for transparency.”
Thomson joined Thompson in critiquing the opacity of algorithms that operate Facebook and Google and the platforms’ support of “atomized consumption of single stories and the jumbling of stories of different depth and quality from different sources.” Thompson said this feeds into the recent advent of “fake news” consumption and a distrust of legitimate reporting because “essential signals…about editorial intentionality” are lost or removed.
“Google, which has actually become more responsive under Sundar Pichai, has been tweaking its algorithm in ways that seem to be a mystery to even the company itself,” Thomson said. He noted when The Wall Street Journal saw a “sudden and remarkable” increase in Google referrals to its site one week earlier this year, the search engine explained it as a “bug,” without elaboration.
As for Facebook’s plan to introduce a trustworthiness ranking of the news it distributes, both executives maligned the plan as ridiculous and more than a little ironic. Thompson characterized it as “a naive attempt to set itself up as the digital world’s editor in chief,” while Thomson asked, “Who is to judge trustworthiness?”
Thomson went a step further by taking issue with the physical and mental effects associated with extensive use of Big Digital platforms, including what he said is a loss of concentration and tolerance, that go wholly undisclosed.
“If the imperative of an algorithm is to be irresistible,” Thomson said, “when does irresistibility become irresponsibility?”
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