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Most PR people are familiar with journalistic conventions. Things like AP style, for example. We know a story starts with the lede, not lead, and about the reverse triangle approach to news writing. We know what a byline is, and are constantly on the hunt for the people behind them, to pitch stories to.

We also know that it is a noisy world, and there’s much competition for the headline. PR folks often don’t know the reasoning behind what makes the cut. The choices can seem arbitrary and unfair.

But would we be better off if it was some machine, and not a person, deciding what news is important?

The fact is, what we call news is changing – driven by tech and not journalistic principles. More of us are getting our news from Facebook, other networks and news apps these days. And it is the tech companies – and their programmers and algorithms – that determine what appears in our news feeds.

They shape news not only by filtering but also deciding what is share-worthy, what’s crap, and through their deals with news organizations, all while trying to make money and keep advertisers happy.

Big tech and their solutions are increasingly the lenses through which we see the news. They insist, generally, that they’re not the media – but make no mistake. Their influence is real and significant, at almost every step of the editorial supply chain.

I thought it might be interesting to look at traditional news value (see this helpful Taylor and Francis guide) vs. how a social network prioritizes the same.

As you can see from the lists below, there’s quite a difference (OK the “News Now” list is meant to be light-hearted and not 100% accurate – but you get the idea). Another challenge is that the algorithms are constantly changing, hence all the strikethroughs.

This is a big deal, in my opinion. What do you think? What does it mean for your communications strategies and news promotion?

Stay tuned to this blog for further updates on the topic.



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Internet Society Drills Down on Fake News


I attended the Internet Society’s “Content Rules?!” session the other week.   The panel drilled down on what we now call The Fake News problem (I couch it like this because, as you’ll see it’s not a new one), defining it and exploring causes and solutions.

There’s been a lot already written about fake news. It’s turned into a real meme and hot button, but there’s been lots of noise and confusion. That’s not surprising because it is a complex topic, one that only recently hit our radars in the wake of the election.

Giving it a name gave it legs, a thing to blame (in some cases just because someone doesn’t like an article), and evoked lots of teeth gnashing. The session gave me the opportunity to hear from some very smart people from different sides, better understand the issues and crystallize my thoughts about how we might address the problem.

Not a New Problem

Journalist and American University Professor Chuck Lewis started by explaining that fake news has been around for years in various forms, e.g. government disinformation and propaganda. Toni Muzi Falcone’s DigiDig wrap (in Italian) also discussed this.

“The irony of us feeling victimized by fake news is pretty thick,” he said. “We’ve gone from truth to truthiness to a post-truth society, and now it’s fake news,” said Chuck, “but it’s been going on for centuries.”

He blamed the number of people “spinning information” vs. reporting it, and the ratio of PR people to journalists (which has grown to 5:1), and said it is a crisis for journalism. The big questions are, who decides what is true, and how do you set standards for 200+ countries? We’ve traditionally relied on the press to be content mediation experts.

“We are at a critical, disturbing crossroad,” Lewis said, as “No one wants the government to be the mediators.”

A Systemic Problem

Compounding the problem are the changing ways we get info, and the growing influence of social networks. Gilad Lotan, head of data science at Buzzfeed, discussed this.

He’s studied political polarization in Israel. Gilad showed some fancy social graphs that tracked the spreading of stories in the wake of IDF’s bombing of a Palestinian school. Two different story lines emerged. Neither was “fake” Gilad explained; “They just chose to leave certain pieces of info out in order to drive home points of a narrative.”

Gilad further discussed how your network position defines the stories you see; this leads to polarization and homophily (a fancy way of saying echo chamber). He also explained the role of algorithmic ranking systems. “You’re much more likely to see content which aligns with your viewpoints,” he said. This spawns “personalized propaganda spaces.”

It gives bad actors a way to game the system. Gilad illustrated this via what had been the elephant in the room – the 2016 US presidential election. He shared images that showed phantom groups manipulating the spread of information.

“The awareness of how algorithms work gave them a huge advantage. To this day, if you search for ‘Hillary’s Health’ on YouTube or Google, you see conspiracy theories at the top.”

Moderator Aram Sinnreich, associate professor at American University added: “My impression as a media scholar and critic… is that there’s been a lot of finger-pointing… everyone feels that there’s been a hollowing out of the Democratic process… undermining of the traditional role that the media has played as the gatekeeper of the shared narrative and shared truths; people want to hold the platforms accountable.”

Flavors of Fake News

Andrew Bridges, a lawyer who represents tech platforms, said that it is important to define the problem before considering solutions. The knee-jerk reaction has been to try to turn social networks into enforcement agencies, but that would be a mistake, according to Bridges. That’s because there are seven things calling fake news that could have different solutions (I list them with the examples he cited):

  1. Research and reporting with a pretense of being objective (e.g., major newspapers)
  2. Research and reporting in service of a cause (National Review, Nation, New Republic)
  3. Pretend journalism – claim to be a news source but is a curator (Daily Kos)
  4. Lies – the ones that Politifact and others give Pinocchio noses or “pants on fire” awards
  5. Propaganda – the systematic pattern of lying for political gain
  6. Make-believe news, like Macedonian sites.  They make up news from whole cloth.
  7. Counterfeit sites – they make you think you are at ABC News.com, for example

Then, he dramatically challenged the panel and audience to label certain big ticket topics as fake news or not: Evolution, global warming, the importance of low-fat diets, the importance of low carb diets.

Bridges said that there’s not necessarily a quick fix or tech solution to the problem. “These things have been out there in society, in front of our eyes for years.”  He likened the problem to gerrymandering, gated communities and questions about Hillary’s health.

Some have proposed algorithmic transparency (not surprisingly, Bridges thinks it is an awful idea; “Opening them up just makes it easier to game the system”).

What could work, according to the lawyer? “I think we should look to algorithmic opacity, and brand values of the organizations applying the algorithm.” What about content moderation? He said “Do we turn it over to a third party, like a Politifact? Who moderates the moderator? We know what moderation is – it’s censorship.”

In Bridges view, education is important. We should teach the importance of research and fact checking, and keep each other honest: “Friends don’t let friends spread fake news.”

Other Challenges

Jessa Lingel, Ph.D. and assistant professor at Annenberg School of Communications, seemed to be the youngest on the panel and spoke up for millennials:

“You can’t promise a generation of Internet-loving people a sense of control and agency over content and not expect this breakdown in trust.” She talked about the growth of citizen-driven journalism and the shift from content generation to interpretation. Jessa bemoaned the digital natives’ loss of innocence:

“We were promised a Democratic web and got a populist one; a web that that connects us to different people, instead we got silos. Geography wasn’t supposed to matter… anyone with an Internet connection is the same… instead, geography matters a lot.”

Jessa siad that algorithmic transparency is important but said that it is not enough. “Opacity? I do want to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. We need more than that tiny little button that explains ‘why did I get this ad?’”

Up Next: More on Solutions

As you have hopefully seen from my post, there are many opinions on the situation, and it’s a complex topic.

What do you think? In my next post, I’ll share my thoughts on fake news problems and solutions.



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Facebook Calls the News Shots, Upending Media and Marketing

I generally don’t chase breaking news stories – my posts come once or twice a week at most. This may stormy-1472633_1920seem a disadvantage in the fast moving world of social media. But the slower pace affords some perspective –  I try to look beyond the quick headline, see the bigger picture and connect the dots for readers.

And experience has shown that if I miss one news cycle, there will be another right around the corner.

For example, in just a few short weeks, Facebook drew fire for apparent bias in their Trending Now feature.  Research came out confirming that it is the number one social network for news – and the chief way many of us get our news. The company changed its algorithm, decreasing the organic reach of publishers.  And just this week they’re again catching flack – this time, for not seeming to think through implications of Facebook Live, as citizen journalists broadcast raw footage faster than Facebook can filter the streams (see Farhad Manjoo’s NY Times piece).

On the one hand you have admire their continued innovation.  Facebook never stands still, always seems ready to shake things up to keep users engaged and coming back. On the other, you wonder how much they’ve thought through all the implications.  It’s a little like the proverbial dog chasing a car.  Facebook has caught the news “car”, now what does it do?

They seem to be playing all sides, trying to make everyone happy while increasing their influence. There have been the predictable media responses about impact on journalism, echo chambers and trivializing of news.

The reality is, news is  is in the eyes of the beholder – and in a content and algorithm-driven world, Facebook – increasingly the arbiter – says News with a capital N needs to get in line.

Meanwhile, media should adapt their strategies, as it is clearly a mistake to focus on Facebook and platforms at the expense of cultivating other sources of traffic and attention.

Marketers go where media and users do – so they need to  take a fresh look and revise their play books.

As to the impact on users, and society at large? There, I am not so concerned. We continue to have endless choices of info, news, opinion and analysis.

If people want to rely on Facebook to stay informed, that is their prerogative.  If they want to ignore news and spend their time with baby pictures, that is fine too.  These are likely the same people who looked no farther than the bridge of their nose for other views before Facebook.



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Platforms as Publishers: 6 Key Takeaways for Brands

I checked out a NY Daily News Innovation Labs event last week: Platforms As Publishers: where are We news-644847_1920Now? A panel of experts spoke about their work with the social media platforms, and implications for the news business.

Claire Wardle of Tow Center moderated the session, which included Samantha Barry, of CNN; Allison Lucas, from Buzzfeed; Vox Media’s Choire Sicha; and Carla Zanoni of Wall Street Journal.

The timing was interesting, given all the excitement about Facebook Trending News.  Also, there was a reference to BuzzFeed’s exploding watermelon video that recently went viral (yes, they did use safety goggles).

You will only learn so much at an event like this.  News is a competitive business, and they likely keep most of their cards close. Still, I found it to be interesting, a friendly and apparently open dialog.

Some say that the platforms are the present and future of the news, content and marketing arenas.  Publishers need to go where audiences are, and marketers should be right there too. It was great for this PR guy to have a front row seat on the conversation, and learn more about how some of the top names regard and work with the social media platforms.

The Tow Center ran a nice recap, as did NY Daily News.

So can brand publishers get in on the action too?  What if you want your news to run on social media?

Below I include key takeaways for brands.

  • Don’t just focus on traffic; use social media to build relationships and create a news and content habit that makes the brand relevant.
  • Listen to the audience, use social media to learn new storytelling ways
  • Size does matter, platforms make deals with the largest publishers; who in turn hire small armies of editors, and content, social, engagement and revenue experts. Unless you are a major brand with similar clout and budgets, you need to find other ways.
  • The only constant is change – if you are doing the same thing you were six months ago, you’re probably losing, in the words of CNN’s Samantha Barry.  Experiment and innovate, or be left behind.
  • Have “cool kids” AKA early adapters blaze a trail with new projects and then bring others along
  • Vary strategies and metrics based on goals, features and audiences of each platform

See below for curated tweets on Storify.

 

 

 



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