Friday 15 December 2017

New media needs new approach

Press Ombudsman Peter Feeney
Press Ombudsman Peter Feeney
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

It was just about the worst case of mistaken identity you could imagine. Some weeks ago, a man called David Murray found himself surrounded by a mob in Kildare town Monasterevin.

"I was confronted by a vigilante mob accusing me of being a convicted, notorious paedophile," he said. "I was pursued on the footpath by the people and a couple driving a car, hurling abuse at me and trying to involve other people on the street in the activity against me."

What had happened was that someone had stuck his photo up on the Facebook page of 'Kildare Now', claiming it was the face of a convicted sex offender called Anthony Luckwill. When he found out what had happened, he contacted Facebook to have the photo removed - it took him hours to get the picture pulled.

The case was widely reported, with the role of Facebook identified as a key accelerant of the damage done. The viral capacity of the service, together with the lack of apparent checks on such false information, has led to calls that services such as Facebook need to be regulated in a stricter fashion.

One person calling for such a move is the Press Ombudsman, Peter Feeney.

"Under the current arrangements the vast majority of the press is subject to independent regulation and broadcasting is subject to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland," he said last week. "Social media are, however, subject to no regulation, independent or otherwise. They should be required to develop an independent regulatory body that would offer a fair means of redress for people who believe that information about themselves posted on social media is inaccurate or misleading. If social media cannot or will not put in place such structures they should be made subject to national or international governmental oversight."

There is a kernel of common sense to what Feeney is saying. Facebook is now far, far more important and pervasive in people's lives than any media source. It has unparalleled influence in what people read, hear and see. But some of what is disseminated there is ignorant, defamatory bile. It seems somehow wrong that this power is not checked in the same apparent ways as smaller, increasingly impoverished media companies.

Thus, many are now calling for the tech giant to be reclassified - from a regulatory standpoint - in the same way as other publishers. The motion is particularly seductive to those in the media and advertising industries because they are smarting hardest from the duopoly of Facebook and Google in media advertising's new world order.

But do we really want to accord media status to companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and Google?

I find this prospect a little odd.

Should YouTube get a chunk of public service broadcasting revenue? Should 'influencers' on Instagram be given seats at press conferences? Moreover, do radio and TV stations really want Facebook and Google to officially be classified on a Television Audience Measurement (TAMs) or Joint National Listenership Research (JNLR) basis?

I don't mean to be facetious here. I'm merely trying to think through the logical consequences of treating Facebook as a media company. After all, it would hardly be just in enforcement or compliance terms. It's worth noting, too, this isn't really a new debate.

Rupert Murdoch and Axel Springer fumed over social media firms raiding the basis of their businesses for years. But they have eased off considerably of late because they have figured out that Facebook, Google and the rest of the internet is here to stay.

The internet is a distribution platform with scale that comes at an infinitesimal cost in comparison to traditional media workflows. That is a bedrock of today's reality: it can't be regulated away.

Unfortunately for us caught in 'legacy' media infrastructure, that is an anvil around our necks. Up to 90pc of all new digital media ad money is going to Google or Facebook this year, according to multiple industry data.

That means hollowed-out newsrooms, less time and resources for really worthwhile investigative journalism and lots of other negative effects.

There is a strong case to be made that this is not healthy, either for media or for society.

Because even though we in the 'old' media are sometimes accused of being shameless and driven by motives other than absolute objectivity, the majority of practitioners still have some sense of duty toward accuracy or an idea of society. (Even if that idea of society is not the one you or I necessarily agree with.) By contrast, Facebook is by nature apolitical, being initially based on a don't-care-either-way-as-long-as-people-see-the-ads foundation. Its reach and influence means that this is changing, with lots of announcements about measures adopted to tackle extremist content and 'fake news'. But justice or purpose were never primary motivators in its existence. This means that the same checks and balances aren't hardwired into the company's DNA, because it's not what it was set up to do.

Thus, 'fake news' might be described as a problem Facebook is trying (hard) to solve for tactical and political reasons rather than existential ones. That said, the problem for those calling for stricter regulation on Facebook is that the damage hasn't yet been overwhelmingly demonstrated. Put simply, it is still premature to convincingly argue that Mark Zuckerberg constitutes a more malign influence to society than Paul Dacre.

This is not to minimise what happened to David Murray in Kildare in any way. He deserves significant recourse in some way for his pain. But if I were him, I might feel more justice from a quicker, more accessible defamation system than some new regulatory mechanism.

That, though, may be just as unpalatable to journalists, especially given how hamstrung many feel they are by existing defamation laws.

Ultimately, firms like Facebook need to achieve (and maintain) a high degree of cultural citizenship. It's not clear that this will be delivered with regulatory solutions from a 20th century playbook.

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