Anyone who has ever watched CBC reporter David Cochrane at work knows that he’s a journalist for the digital age.
Even as he waits for a producer to signal in his earpiece that he’s on air, Cochrane works his phone constantly: I’ve always wondered which out be the first to wear out, his wrists or his thumbs.
He is e-connected near-constantly, the kind of journalist that, years ago, would work every door in a neighbourhood doggedly trying to gather the last piece of information everyone else has missed. I think he does it because he likes it; maybe he’s addicted to it.
All of that makes Friday’s decision by Cochrane a little fascinating. In a series of tweets, he announced he was bailing out of Twitter, that the social media site had become, for him, just too toxic.
The truth is, it’s a kind of harassment that, if it were happening in a regular workplace, would be dealt with immediately and decisively.
I believe it. If you look at what’s posted on prominent journalists’ accounts — anything from their social media to their email accounts — you’d be horrified. There’s everything from insults about their clothes, their bodies and their voices to graphic descriptions of — well, use your imagination. And even if you do, you’re unlikely to top what journalists — especially female journalists — deal with on a daily basis.
Cochrane said stop — and he’s right.
Remember, this is their workplace. For journalists, having an electronic ear to the ground is a crucial part of the business. Tips and hints arrive that way. Interesting stories you might never have seen turn up that way, too. Most outlets expect their journalists to have a public presence. That means having a Twitter account, and using it often enough to add what your employer sees as value.
But sites like Twitter can also be a sewer, where people make up for their lack of real information or legitimate argument with sheer bullying stridency.
I use Twitter all the time. It’s a good tip sheet for what’s going on, especially during a pandemic when many people are away from their traditional workplaces. No one bothers to come after me; maybe I’m not mainstream enough. Maybe I’m too flippant, posting anything from pictures of dinner to photos of parasites that attack fish by eating the fish’s tongue and replacing it with themselves.
It’s clear, though, that others in journalism are not so lucky.
I think of it as, in some ways, becoming the pool of sludge that comments on online news stories used to be — and still are, with some sites. Early on in the world of comments, you’d occasionally get well-thought-out responses to stories. Quickly, though, a new commenter with actual facts would squashed by one of several comment denizens who simply exist and squat there to belittle, insult and demean. I was delighted when comments sections went dark — not because I think people don’t have a right to voice their opinions, but because I don’t anyone has the right to endlessly insult others without any sort of repercussions.
It makes it hard to do your job if you know everything you post will garner repeated personal attacks.
If you were a doctor, would you like to have some stranger sitting in the examining room, announcing to all in earshot what a quack you were?
If you were pouring cement, how long would you suffer someone nearby yelling “you’re too stupid to make a sidewalk,” before you went over to have a little word?
The truth is, it’s a kind of harassment that, if it were happening in a regular workplace, would be dealt with immediately and decisively.
Turning it off might be exactly the right thing to do.
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire newspapers and websites across Atlantic Canada.
Google attacks extreme ways of ACCC news media bargaining code – ZDNet
Google has continued its fight against Australia’s news media bargaining code, this time attacking the final offer arbitration process, known as baseball arbitration, that will be used.
In such a process, rather than parties agreeing to a deal, an arbitrator is presented with a final offer from each side and must select one of the offers presented. Google is arguing that Australia’s old media are asking for sums far in excess of what Google generates from searches related to news, which it says is around AU$10 million in revenue.
“Clearly, both sides have very different ideas of what the prices should be — and asking the arbitrator to pick a ‘final offer’ is an extreme way of resolving that,” Google ANZ chief Mel Silva said in a blog post.
“The reality is that baseball arbitration often fails and doesn’t produce quick outcomes. Independent economists have raised questions about its effectiveness.”
Silva also said the arbitrator would not need to consider the approximately AU$200 million the search giant claims news organisation derive in value from Google properties.
“We are happy to negotiate fairly and, if needed, see a standard dispute resolution scheme in place,” Silva wrote.
“But given the inherent problems with baseball arbitration, and the unfair rules that underpin it here, the model being proposed isn’t workable for Google. It wouldn’t be workable for many Australian businesses — no matter how large or small they are.”
In a separate blog post, Silva said the code would set a bad precedent.
“The draft code would also create a mandatory negotiation and arbitration model that only takes into account the costs and value created by one party — news businesses,” she said.
“The code’s provisions mean costs are uncapped and unquantifiable, and there is no detail on what formula is used to calculate payment.”
Google once again complained that under the code, it will be forced to provide news businesses with advanced warning of changes to its search algorithm, which could punish other local businesses.
“If you ran an independent travel website that provides advice to people on how to plan local holidays, you might lose out to a newspaper travel section because they’ve had a sneak peek at changes to how Search works,” Silva said.
“That’s an unfair advantage for news businesses. Businesses of all kinds would face an additional hurdle at a time when it’s more important than ever to connect with their customers.”
At the start of the month, fellow tech giant in the crosshairs of the code, Facebook, said it would stop allowing news to be shared by Australians on its platforms.
“Assuming this draft code becomes law, we will reluctantly stop allowing publishers and people in Australia from sharing local and international news on Facebook and Instagram,” the social media giant said in a blog post.
“This is not our first choice — it is our last. But it is the only way to protect against an outcome that defies logic and will hurt, not help, the long-term vibrancy of Australia’s news and media sector.”
Last month, shadow assistant minister Andrew Leigh said the quiet part out loud when he said the changes should happen because Australian newspapers failed to capitalise on the shift to online in decades past.
“I think it’s really important to recognise … that news plays such a critical role in our democracy and yet the funding streams that they used to rely on — the classified ads — have been separated apart from the newspapers,” he said.
“We’ve seen huge financial pressure being placed on newspapers and their online equivalents at a time in which we really need the scrutiny of those outlets … we need to have this high-quality investigative journalism, and I think what the government’s doing here is one way of achieving it. I don’t think it’s perfect, but I don’t support the scare campaigns being run against it.”
Google said a couple of weeks later that it was not responsible for the decline of newspaper classifieds.
Thai big media forced to rethink unwritten rules – Bangkok Post
With the rise of the student-led pro-democracy movement, the topic of the monarchy, which was once a taboo, now has more space in public discussion.
Social media has set a new standard of freedom of speech and a number of netizens have dared to break the tradition without fearing the harsh penalties of the lese majeste law, which could theoretically see them slapped with three to 15 years in prison.
But things have hardly changed in the Thai mainstream media which mostly applies self-censorship. Early last month, human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa brought up his demand for reform of the monarchy during a Harry Potter-themed protest in Bangkok. He is the first person in over a decade to break the taboo of criticising the high institution in public on Thai soil.
His statement came so abruptly that, worried about the consequences, most mainstream media pulled the plug on their Facebook Live reporting at the demonstration. That evening, as I learned from other journalists, a debate raged in newsrooms over whether Mr Anon’s speech should be put in the news. The next morning the part about the monarchy was mostly missing from reports. It was the same with the student rally on Aug 10 at Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus, and the following two demonstrations, one led by the Free Youth group at the Democracy Monument six days later, the other on Sept 19-20 at Sanam Luang.
Some speakers went deep into the details of the proposed reform, such as the need for transparency in palace spending so the institution will maintain public respect.
Those who want to see other details of this sensitive issue must either watch live on the student movement’s Facebook page or follow certain Twitter accounts and seek out coverage by the international media.
It’s clear the Thai media is finding it difficult to adjust to this sudden change, and to convey the students’ message properly. Journalists are currently embroiled in debate as to how and to what extent they can report on the topic.
In principle, these questions shouldn’t need to be asked at all. Journalism must promote democracy and freedom of expression. But Thailand’s unique legal and social context makes most mainstream media reluctant to adhere to this principle when reporting on news pertaining to the monarchy.
The legal scope of the lese majeste law is extremely broad and open to interpretation in terms of what constitutes defamation, insult, or threats to the royal lineage. In 2014, police accepted a complaint filed by retired army generals against Sulak Sivaraksa over comments he made about King Naresuan, a 16th-century ruler of Ayutthaya. The court later dismissed the case.
Without a clear boundary over what can be defined as a breach of the lese majeste law, it’s common for newsrooms to end up in disagreement. Some don’t think reporting the students’ demands would cross the line while others do. The most common scenario is all the reports about this issue are cut or amount to just brief or vague mentions. This is because the stakes are high for established news organisations if they were to face lese majeste law charges. Social pressure is another factor that news organisations weigh in handling this topic.
Last week, a royalist group announced it would file a complaint against Voice TV, an online media outlet that has regularly criticised the government, for broadcasting the recent Thammasat University student rally on Facebook Live.
The staff of the Reporter, another news website, also had a live stream of the event. Though there is no criminal charge against them, just yet, they are aware of the possibility.
“After we consulted with lawyers, we are sure that reporting the student demand for reform of the monarchy is not against the law. But it’s still difficult to do when considering the social context,” said Thapanee Eadsrichai, a prominent journalist who founded the Reporter.
During the Harry Potter-themed protest, her team cut their Facebook Live coverage during Mr Arnon’s speech because referring to the monarchy in public was a new phenomenon at the time. But after they studied the law, they decided not to censor their reports going forward.
“The student rallies are newsworthy events, and we can’t avoid reporting it,” she said. “For me, not reporting it is irresponsible to society. Only when the audience can hear different opinions, can society as a whole discuss and find a solution peacefully.”
I could not agree more. Open and healthy discussion about the institution should be possible.
It’s time for Thai media organisations to sit down and discuss a practical approach to covering the subject before their audiences lose confidence in them forever.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.
Social Media Needs an Election Declaration of Conscience – The New York Times
On election night in 2012, Barack Obama trailed Mitt Romney by some 30,000 votes at the moment Mr. Obama was projected to win his re-election bid. By the time the votes were tallied, Mr. Obama had five million more votes than Mr. Romney.
In 2016, when Donald Trump accepted Hillary Clinton’s concession, he was leading the popular vote count by nearly one million votes. When all the votes were counted, he lost the popular vote by nearly three million.
This longstanding and well-documented phenomenon, known as the “blue shift,” opens the door to a troubling scenario on election night this year.
Imagine: It’s midnight, and the electoral map looks quite red. But news networks and election officials aren’t calling the swing states, as this year’s record numbers of mail-in and absentee ballots have yet to be fully counted. Mr. Trump, leading in the popular vote, decides he’s seen enough. He takes to his social media platforms and declares that he has won re-election and will accept no other result. He tells his tens of millions of followers that the Democrats and the press will try to change the result and steal the election. The door to unrest and constitutional crisis swings wide open.
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all pledged to crack down on misinformation around voting and electoral outcomes. Perhaps in the above scenario they append a label to the president’s posts saying that the information is disputed and that the results are not in. They could introduce friction into the algorithms to slow the reach of the posts.
But pro-Trump lawmakers and pundits most likely would have picked up the argument by then, amplifying the president’s message. What started as one prominent piece of voter disinformation easily could become widespread in the Republican Party and among a large segment of Americans. What would the platforms do then?
That one cannot answer that question with confidence, weeks before Election Day, is alarming. The platforms’ content moderation decisions are often arbitrary and, when public officials are concerned, left up to the judgment of a few top executives. Their corporate desires to avoid accusations of bias and appear politically neutral, however admirable in principle, break down in an information environment in which the political parties do not share the same relationship to the truth and to democratic norms.
To prevent such a nightmare scenario across social media, technology’s biggest platforms need to create a clear, explicit framework for what qualifies as electoral misinformation and disinformation. They must determine exactly what they will not tolerate and what the penalties will be for violating those rules. Then they ought to make those rules public.
Even better: The tech companies could form a consortium to formalize these standards across platforms. For a template, they could look to the work of the Election Integrity Partnership, which built a framework for grading Big Tech’s election security policies and has determined “that few platforms have comprehensive policies on election-related content.”
Such a united front wouldn’t just be symbolic. “If you had the platforms together making a statement of their values, then when they take action, it creates a permission structure for reticent platform executives to make difficult decisions quickly,” David Kaye, former United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, told the editorial board. Such a move would also be a strong public signal of the gravity of the moment.
There’s precedent for this type of collaboration. In 2016, Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft came together to combat extremist content. The companies created a shared database using unique digital fingerprints to flag videos, pictures and memes promoting terrorist activity and ideologies. Domestic political disinformation poses different challenges than terrorist threats, but both are urgent matters of national security.
A public, transparent effort from the platforms would offer additional accountability for those spreading disinformation in the weeks and months after the election. “Be very clear and publish a database the public can access,” Mr. Kaye urged the platforms. “Say, ‘These are the accounts we took action against. Here’s why.’ It doesn’t need to be a legal opinion, just a list. If there are privacy concerns, they can redact names.”
There are very few tools now for parsing how messages spread across social media. Three days after the 2016 election Facebook purchased the best one, a tool called Crowdtangle, which tracks online engagements with social media posts. It is the best available method to understand what is popular on the platform, though Facebook argues that tracking engagement is not a reliable indicator for how many people saw a post. At this pivotal moment for American democracy, Facebook owes it to the American public to provide metrics to evaluate that claim.
Facebook, Twitter and Google will most likely argue that they’re doing plenty of this work behind the scenes. In a recent interview, Nick Clegg, Facebook’s head of global affairs, said the company was war-gaming election night scenarios. “There are some break-glass options available to us if there really is an extremely chaotic and, worse still, violent set of circumstances,” he said. But Mr. Clegg stopped short of offering specifics.
Such vagaries are worrisome, especially since Mr. Clegg admitted that “any high-stakes decisions will fall to a team of top executives” like Mr. Clegg and Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, with Mr. Zuckerberg “holding the right to overrule positions.”
These platforms have consolidated power to control the flow of information to billions of people. The power to judge which content is harmful to democracy on election night rests with a handful of tech executives. That Mr. Zuckerberg, the ultimate arbiter at Facebook, is accountable to no one, including his company’s board, is even more alarming.
A handful of unelected entrepreneurs — most of whom have no formal education on matters of election and First Amendment law or online extremism and misinformation — are asking a frightened and anxious American public to trust them. To trust that they’ll put the interests of the country over those of their corporations. To trust that they’ll remain politically unbiased.
The trust they’re asking for has not yet been earned. It’s time these companies came together and pledged their commitment to the public interest.
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