IN 1644, John Milton’s Areopagitica made the case that the individual is capable of using reason and distinguishing right from wrong, good from bad, and should therefore have unlimited access to the ideas of his fellow man.
This notion became the basis of the modern free press.
In 2017, while unlimited access to ideas is a given, said “reason” is very often decided by an algorithm.
The proliferation of the web, and subsequently social media, has undone nearly 400 years of long-standing news values in little over a decade.
Fake news, clickbait, filter bubbles, sponsored content, and the gradual blurring of opinion and fact, are all nascent phenomena.
At the centre of all this is, of course, Facebook. With 28 per cent of the world now active within its walls, it is a gatekeeper of information, the likes of which Murdoch et al can only dream.
It occurred to me last week that those describing Facebook as a publisher – as I have done for years – are missing the point. It tweaked its News Feed algorithm in an update geared towards relegating spammers and accounts sharing fake news.
Facebook is not a publisher, but an editor.
The Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, as per every year, is a thrilling read (if you’re into that sort of thing, anyway). It found that more than half of us (54 per cent) prefer paths to news that use algorithms to select stories for us, rather than editors or journalists (44 per cent). This of course is not exclusive to Facebook – Apple, Google and others offer a similar service.
For these new algorithmic editors, a fresh approach to news values is required. Despite recent efforts from the likes of Max Mosley, the press has mostly self-regulated, which must remain so. Ipso does a fine job, and those of us producing the news – the publishers – will continue to fulfill its requirements in our copy.
But in terms of actually distributing news – deciding what is seen by who and when – we have lost control. New standards must be established, or else the murmurs of regulation will grow louder. Efforts from Facebook to curtail fake news and clickbait, release educational tools, and work with fact-checkers such as Snopes, while welcome, don’t go far enough.
Social media firms, the new editors, need to agree on, and join, something akin to a “International Digital News Charter”. It needs to be an independent body, establishing the duties of non-traditional news distributors. Working with the press, it needs to complement the fundamental importance of information in a democracy.
Hard-fought, long-standing values tend to be so for a reason. Picking the bits that are applicable to social media firms and applying them to a new set of standards benefits all.
An appreciation from social media firms that newspeople have lost control of the means of distribution to their platforms is paramount. Journalism comes with responsibilities.
Ensuring citizens have access to accurate, relevant news, with a diversity of opinion, to make informed decisions in a democracy, now falls on the shoulders of social media giants.
Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.