Hyperreality, fake news and the lost power of linking

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Painting of Trump - fake news

Ever since the election of Donald Trump, fake news has been in the ‘real’ news.

Detractors claim Facebook negligently allowed baseless attacks, masquerading as real news, to damage Hillary Clinton’s reputation and seal victory for her rival. A senior writer at the Washington Post even argues that Facebook should employ an editor to stop the fake news virus spreading any further.

A journalist calling for more journalism appears self-serving; it also ignores the practical and ethical questions that flow from employing editors at Facebook. How, for example, would a journalist act as the moral arbiter for hundreds of millions of users exchanging billions of separate pieces of information mostly for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with current affairs?

Facebook users have different political and religious persuasions, languages and cultures. Even ostensibly similar users have competing world views that are hard to define or even understand. So how would employing editors to judge their output not end up threatening free speech? And how do you determine what is fake and what is not, anyway?

Trumping fake news

A list of fake news sites produced to help students stay aware of distorting ‘news’ is illuminating, but not as you might expect. Reportedly the work of a media lecturer, the list included the well-established, much-respected British news magazine, Private Eye because it’s satirical. Satire often manufactures ridiculous stories to highlight stupidity or hypocrisy. That doesn’t mean it should be lumped in with fake news sites. It does, though, demonstrate how blurred the boundaries are. Indeed, one self-confessed fake news author claimed in an interview that his sole reason for cranking out hundreds of fictitious memes was to highlight ‘alt-right’ supremacists’ use of false information.

Fake news is not one-sided, either. Following Trump’s election victory in early November, one piece of fakery appeared in my own news feed repeatedly. It reported Trump telling People Magazine in 1998 that if he ever sought the presidential nomination it would be with the Republicans, because their supporters were gullible and easy to manipulate.

Picture and text reporting Trump: If I were to run, Id run as a Republican. They're the dumbest group of voters

Thousands of people exchanged the meme without questioning its authenticity, no doubt because it matched their impression of Trump. In fact, it’s a delicious (or perhaps unpalatable) irony that it was precisely because people thought Trump was preying on the gullible that they believed a fake news story about him.

Confirming bias

In this sense, fake news stories are confirmation-bias memes. They work because they tell us something we already believe in – and we are all, therefore, vulnerable to them. That leads to an uncomfortable – if obvious – conclusion about fake news: it’s not that different from real news – and not just because it looks like real news. Firstly, fake news and real news can help to support or propagate a particular world view: The Daily Mail, Fox News, The Guardian, even The New York Times, have determined editorial perspectives that are there to support their readers’ view of the world. Yep, there’s a difference: these news providers mostly report on ‘facts’, i.e. things that verifiably happened, rather than stuff that’s just made up. But the lens they apply to these facts is one designed to a serve a world-view, nonetheless.

Secondly, both real and fake news expect us to trust that what they are saying is real. In a news meme, whether the news is real or not, it’s often disconnected from the sources that establish its veracity in the first place. Indeed, news inherently has this problem anyway, even when it’s presented on news sites or newspapers or on news TV channels, let alone when it’s on social media. It is, after all the point of news. You read or hear that something has happened to be informed; you don’t then expect to have to go and make sure that it did actually happen.

Jean Baudrillard: Simulacra and fake news

Jean Baudrillard was a French philosopher and cultural theorist. In Simulacra and Simulation,  published in 1981, Baudrillard explores a phenomenon he calls hyperreality. This is the idea that in a world where everything is experienced through media, our impression of ‘reality’ is in fact completely removed from the actual real. Instead what represents truth isn’t truth at all, because it is so disconnected from any empirical thing in the first place. At first that idea seems ridiculous – not least because it’s so disturbing: One of the most popular references to Baudrillard’s idea is the film The Matrix (where a copy of Simulacra and Simulation is used as a prop). In the film, the world that appears real soon turns out to be a simulation. A character quotes the book, calling it ‘the desert of the real’.

Despite its disturbing qualities – and whether you accept Baudrillard’s claim that the real isn’t real at all – it’s easy to accept his observation. In a mediated world, in which everything is represented or reproduced rather than actually experienced, it won’t take long for notions of veracity to become questionable. Indeed, questioning reality is now an actual ‘thing’ in itself.

Baudrillard developed his theories for Simulacra and Simulation in the 1970s and 1980s, before the Internet dominated news reporting and the media. Nonetheless, it makes his argument that much easier to support. Now, with a bit of tweaking, we can use an off-the-shelf WordPress theme to make a website look, ostensibly, as authentically newsy as the New York Times.

Beyond this, Twitter and Facebook offer ready-made templates for news production and dissemination that make it laughably easy to pretend to be real news producers. In the case of Facebook the platform is reported to be engineered to favour self-referencing: Uploading a video to the platform appears to elicit more engagement than linking to it on YouTube, owned by Facebook’s rival, Google.

Fighting fake news

If news was on shaky ground already, the internet then is helping to reduce that ground to sand. What the hell can we do?

Firstly, journalists need to work harder. Journalism, after all, purports to report significant, real events to audiences who aren’t there to witness them. Given that there is always going to be a gap between real experiences and an audience’s experience, it’s vital that journalists work to address that gap. Otherwise, the dislocation of reports from the facts on which they are based can be exploited to create fakery. Worse still – and more alarmingly – it also makes it much easier for people to pretend that real news is a lie when it’s not – particularly if it doesn’t suit how they feel or think. That, I think, is a bigger potential problem than the fake news itself.

The most obvious tool at an online journalist’s disposal to deal with this is the link: linking to reports, linking to source material, linking to the people in the report. But that shouldn’t be the end of it, either. Journalists need to find other ways to take people directly to where they found out the facts. I’d venture that also means adopting exacting standards of transparency in how reporting is carried out. And backing it up constantly. Indeed, linking is part of the approach used by Wikipedia to help establish ‘truth’ – and now suggested by some for Facebook.

Secondly, the Internet we’re creating increasingly looks like a trap for anyone who isn’t equipped to determine what’s ‘real’ and what’s not. If we allow companies and individuals to develop self-referring ‘realities’ that don’t rely on any objective truth, then all sorts of scary worlds can and will develop. The internet was designed with linking in mind – in fact the world-wide web was proposed as a linking system for scientists. But somehow that hasn’t prevented the web turning into a place where referencing is viewed as a self-serving process rather than one of common interest. That matters because it’s where we are ‘living’ our lives: it’s where our views are shaped and experiences defined. In other words, getting this new world sorted is a big, serious problem. And that isn’t for journalists to solve, love them as I do – or even for Facebook. It’s a dirty-great, society-wide humdinger of a thing. A problem that belongs to us all.

Online Journalism

How to make news playable

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As part of my online journalism studies I have to come up with an ‘experimental portfolio’. This, according to Paul Bradshaw, our course leader, is to explore around the fringes of online journalism knowledge. As a former sub editor, I’ve never been comfortable with uncertainty. I like things to have been written down many, many times before I try them. When my parents used to take me and their other children for walks, I was the sort of kid who’d ask to see a map before setting out. This has made the whole process rather more of a challenge for me than I was hoping it would be. And, to be honest, I’ve been struggling to find an idea for my experimental project that I like.
But, on the back of my last post – which finished with the line ‘Haven’t you got to be prepared to risk making a fool out of yourself to do something interesting?’, (the sort of logic trap one should never find oneself writing) – I’ve resolved to put my own reservations aside and try to be taken by inspiration.
Yesterday, my fellow classmates and I were lucky enough to meet Paul Daniel. It’s worth reiterating that that’s Daniel, not Daniels. He’s a magician of sorts, our Paul, but he wasn’t accompanied by Debbie McGee and the only rabbits he pulled from hats were entirely metaphorical. Paul is an expert in Yahoo! Pipes. Over the course of a couple of hours, he took us through the basics (and not so basic) of using this extremely powerful and very engaging tool. It was an eye opener for me, as I’ve tried to use Pipes before and ended up losing patience before I managed to work anything out worth sharing with the world.
What our little Pipes session taught me, I suppose, was that the future of the web and the future of news really are playable. By that I mean manipulation by the consumer is absolutely key to content use (apologies to people who’d already worked this out!). Pipes can allow ordinary Joes like me to engage with all sorts of different forms of data and choose how we use that data (if they pay proper attention to people like Paul and then go home and watch the videos). This got me thinking: what if news websites were playable – a little like Pipes, but perhaps without the code? At the moment, most content is viewable and you can respond to it (moan about it, rate it, send it to other people, etc.) But this is on the low side of interaction. If there was a high side of interaction it would be about peoples’ ability to make their own personal decisions about content and actually affect that content and represent it themselves.
If people can muck about with your content, use it as they wish and enjoy it in different ways, then they’re more likely to use it again (and even stay on your site). Better still, you can learn all sorts of things about that content and how it is being used that people might find useful commercially.
So, what does all that mean in terms of my experimental project? Well, it means I’m trying to find a good playable piece of journalism. I’m obviously looking for examples of what other people have done and trying to come up with a different idea that I can quickly work out (and present online) without too much of a struggle. Ideally, I’d like to create something that is able to produce its own data (to prove my own point about learning from interaction).
So far, the only achievable idea I’ve come up with is hardly that experimental. I wondered whether I could collect a load of pictures from flickr of landmarks in Birmingham, set them next to a map and find a way to allow people to build their own guided tours of the city that can be presented on the site. I haven’t even begun to work out how I’ll do this – and whether it even meets my playable test – but it’s a start…

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Online Journalism

Will disco dads save the local newspaper business?

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Roger Green is one of the most important men in local online journalism in Britain. As the boss of Newsquest‘s digital division, he’s the head honcho for more than 150 newspaper websites up and down the country. Remarkably, however, Roger isn’t too enamoured with all the fuss about clever-clever technologies and is more than a little fed up with new media partnerships. He also reckons Jeff Jarvis‘s collaborative vision of the future won’t work in the dog-eat-dog world of British local journalism.
In a frank and refreshing presentation, the senior manager for Gannett‘s UK subsidiary hacked away at a few sacred cows before delivering a stark and fairly simple message to the AOP’s micro local forum, yesterday: ‘either work with us or take us on’. Established businesses, like Newsquest, are operating in a very crowded market and have established brands with loyal readerships, Green told his audience. There isn’t much room for new firms to elbow in on the party and, if they do, they can expect Roger and his pals to make life more than a little uncomfortable. Also, if you do work with Roger, don’t expect to get anything for free. He said his audience ‘wouldn’t believe’ the things people have expected from Newsquest in return for little more than goodwill.
But Green didn’t just land a few blows on new entrants, as he took time to warn his fellow newspaper bosses against falling at the feet of every new technology, with increasing levels of desperation and inversely proportionate levels of understanding. He mocked efforts to force sub-editors to geo-tag business stories and told his peers that they risked looking like ‘disco dads’ as a result of their new-media dalliances.
Sadly, the only thing about Green’s speech that wasn’t a breath of fresh air was its core subject matter: Newsquest’s online strategy. After all his tough words, one might have expected Green to reveal that his company had found the answer his audience was looking for: how to make online local journalism pay. Green admitted that he, like many others, would be waiting to see how competitor Johnston Press did with its experiment in charging for local news content. Meanwhile, Newsquest would have to make do with kicking journalists out of the office and using twitter to improve its conversation with the readers. There are no easy answers, it seems. Even engaging with the newspaper’s audience wasn’t a straightforward task, with Green pointing out that it had proved more than a little tricky to appoint community reporters. Perhaps expecting a local newspaper group to start a revolution is asking too much, but one still might hope that an industry in the grips of a crisis, with its readers dying off – as one of Newsquests’ editors spoke of here – would have a more creative approach to its future. And what’s wrong with a few disco dads anyway? Haven’t you got to be prepared to risk making a fool out of yourself to do something interesting?

Online Journalism

Meeting Channel 4’s digital commissioners

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Today Channel 4’s digital commissioners were in Birmingham to explain their plans for 2010 and give the great and the good of the city’s creative community a run down of the dos and don’ts of pitching to the projects they’re running.

Jason Hall, head of innovation at Screen West Midlands had the job of introducing Louise Brown, head of cross platform commissioning, Matt Locke, commissioning editor, education and Tom Loosemore, head of 4ip.

Louise Brown started by making it clear that, in her role, she was looking to ‘increase the impact of Channel 4 online’. She explained that it wasn’t just breadth of impact that the channel was interested in, but ‘more interactive content’, and they would be looking to increase the depth of impact, too.
Louise used the examples of both Embarrassing Bodies and Hollyoaks to illustrate how interactivity is an increasingly important part of Channel 4’s mission and made some fascinating points about how interaction could be particularly effective with a youth audience. In particular, she said that interactivity on programmes aimed at older audiences were less likely to do well (down towards one per cent), while a series like Skins, aimed at a much younger audience, had something like 40 percent of its audience figures going online. She said that some of the online visitors may not have watched the programme on TV.

Next Matt Locke talked about commissioning ‘for attention’, keeping an audience and then, as he put it, giving that attention value. Because the channel is aware that young people spend 80 per cent of their time on sites that ‘manage the web for them’ it has looked to set up partnerships with social networks such as Bebo. He said young people are likely to come across the channel’s content in the various sites they visit. He also pointed out that visitors are more likely to return if they can leave an impression on a site, be that simple engagement through polls or feedback. He used the example of Battlefront, which featured ’20 campaigners to save the world’, and followed the lives of young activists featured. The website that accompanied the series, which operated for some time after the programmes had aired, became ‘a back office’ for their efforts, with several of the young people garnering considerable attention for their causes. Channel 4 has also experimented with gaming projects, notably Smokescreen, a sort of mock social network that attempts to teach young people about some of the effects using such sites can have in real life. In one challenge gamers are asked to help discover what one social network member is doing that evening. This gives game players an understanding of how, by using a social network, one can leave a trail of personally sensitive information

Finally, we heard from Tom Loosemore, unique among the digital commissioners in that he doesn’t have anything to do with TV! For those who didn’t know, Tom explained that 4ip is a pilot for Channel 4, and is about a year into its three year project of investment. This aims to deliver the channel’s founding values online: doing it first, inspiring change in peoples’ lives and making trouble in the public interest. Now on the lookout for ‘bigger, bolder’ projects and stimulating products, Tom said he was interested in helping hyperlocal journalism and mentioned Help Me Investigate, the Birmingham based website that has benefited from 4ip funding.
Much of Tom’s presentation was taken up with a guide to pitching successfully to 4ip. He made it absolutely clear that there are certain fundamentals that pitchers would have to meet. Firstly, any idea would need to have a clear understanding of how the project would become sustainable, either by commercial means or some other. He mentioned the example of Wikipedia as a non-commercial, but sustainable site. He also said that, so far, 4ip had never backed a project looking to find its revenue solely through advertising and pointed out that this is extremely difficult to do. It was also essential that the project is made possible by the new technologies 4ip is concerned with – that its centre of gravity is ‘participation or collaboration’. A failure to grasp these fundamentals had led to a fairly low success rate so far: out of some 1,700 approaches, only 40 or so had received funding.
Tom mentioned some themes that he’d be interested in exploring this year, including ‘holding power to account’, ‘MOT your life’ – encompassing health and well being – comedy (what Tom called ‘British fun’), art (in particular, collaboration and participation) and, finally, discoverability. By this he meant finding ways to make visible to individuals content that they might otherwise not come into contact with. One of Tom’s bugbears is ‘aggregation’ and portals. He said they hadn’t and wouldn’t be backing projects with these ideas at their centre.
He did present examples of a number of projects that have received backing, including Audioboo and Mapumental. He is also keen to extend 4ip’s interests in iPhone apps, and mentioned You Booze You Lose, a fun, but educational (he said) game that is in the process of being added to the Appstore. He also expressed serious interest in Android apps.

Online Journalism

How readerships differ from print to online at the Daily Telegraph

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I was lucky enough to be among a small group of online journalism students who yesterday had the chance to the pick the brains of Kate Day, recently appointed the Community Editor at the Daily Telegraph. Kate gave us a fascinating insight into life in the famous broadsheet’s online arm.
I asked Kate about her role and she explained that much of her time is taken up looking after the MyTelegraph site, where readers are invited to blog on a range of subjects, from politics to gardening. She points out in this video of our conversation that this part of the site and the Telegraph’s other blogs are among its most successful online ventures, generating considerable traffic and proving more ‘sticky’ than traditional news.


While Kate and the online team have a clear picture about some of their visitors (or readers, if you like), what particularly sticks out is that they can make fewer generalisations about them than you would make with the print Telegraph’s traditional readership. That, as Kate admitted, presents a challenge to the Telegraph and other news organisations wishing to ‘monetise’ their websites. Traditionally, one of the great attractions for advertisers of a newspaper was the relatively fixed, assured profile of the readers they attracted. The Daily Telegraph, for example, is often derisorily referred to as the Torygraph, but its readership – relatively old, high income, Conservative-voting and usually conservative in their tastes – represents a large portion of the British population and one that advertisers want to communicate with.
While Kate points out that blog visitors often impart considerable information about themselves – and it might be possible to use this information commercially, (I should stress that this is not something that is happening) – these are younger, rather different visitors. And, by virtue of the way that blogs work, they are likely to be a less homogeneous group as a whole than the readership in print. That is to say, they don’t necessarily represent a single easily identifiable group. A reasonable proportion, it seems, hail from outside the UK, for example. So you might be able to channel very specific advertising to a small group, but you won’t necessarily be able to sell your products across a nice, neat range of people.
I’m fascinated by this added complexity to advertising for newspapers. As if it wasn’t hard enough already to persuade advertisers to spend big on online advertising, now it’s clear the whole game has changed. Is it possible to find a way to foster a similar identity/profile of readers online as it is in print? And would that be something that would be attractive anyway? Whatever the answer is, it presents a real challenge to the news industry. One, of course, that it is already engaged in, but that seems to grow more complicated by the day.

Online Journalism

A hyperlocal news service for Brum

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As part of my studies for an MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University I’m involved in a new project to run a hyperlocal news site for Birmingham.
Ahh. So here we go. I’m going to try to explain our idea in 150 words…

Imagine a website for central Birmingham. You go to the site and see a map of, wait for it, central Birmingham. It’s split into smaller areas and you’re be able to click on each one. You decide to click on Digbeth, cos that’s where you live. Great! Up comes a stream of information all about Digbeth. You can contribute to this, either from the website or from Twitter, using our handy hash tag #brumdigbeth. We (that’s the folk who run the site) will scan the feed for morsels to make into blog posts that we’ll encourage anyone to contribute to, thus creating a brand new hyperlocal news service for Birmingham.

Gulp. How’s that? It took me 130 words. What we’re hoping to do now is get people interested in helping us to get the site going, telling us what we should do and how we can improve it. What I’ve sketched out here is the rough idea, so any help at all is appreciated.