These days, the only thing melting away faster than the polar ice caps is democracy, largely because of the steady degradation of information. In the end, you are what you know.
With only 9 per cent of Canadians willing to pay for news online, an informational Dark Age looms. It’s already consumed the United States, where fake news is giving reality a run for its money — as illustrated by the magical mystery tour of one Donald J. Trump. Fake crowd sizes, fake numbers for illegal voting, fake promises.
Everyone knows the genesis of this tale. There has been a technological revolution in how news is distributed and consumed. The chips are up in the air and nobody knows where they will fall. The big question is: Can digitally-based media replace the civic function of journalism once performed by traditional media?
According to a new study by the Public Policy Forum — The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age — everyone should be worried. During the summer of 2016 it became apparent that “filter bubbles” and “fake news” had become real dangers to society. In any democracy, a healthy news media is the main way to hold public officials and institutions to account. But the election of the Orange One has shown that the public can no longer trust the news ecosystem.
For anyone who doubts that, consider the antics of chief Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway. She cited “alternate facts” while defending the president’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, after he was caught lying his brains out to the press. There’s a reason George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece 1984, now nearly 70 years old, became Amazon’s number one bestseller after Conway used the term on NBC’s “Meet the Press” during a discussion about crowd size that displeased Trump. Orwell’s Big Brother, like Trump, introduced citizens to “doublethink” — the act of simultaneously accepting contradictory versions of the truth. In the real world, Germany is now considering legislation to hold Facebook accountable for fake news that goes uncorrected.
There is no question that the old media is dying. The Globe & Mail, Rogers, Postmedia and Torstar have laid off staff or sold off assets. Despite aggressive cost-cutting, losses are mounting. According to the PPF’s report, it’s not that Canadians don’t trust journalism, or don’t want to be informed. They do. But they just don’t want to pay for news directly the way their parents or grandparents did in the golden age of the dead-tree media.
Back then, a commentary from news icon Walter Cronkite could help end the Vietnam war. In 1950, there were 102 newspapers sold for every 100 households in Canada. According to the PPF report, this is not just a new world, but a different planet. Fewer than one household in five pays for a newspaper today. “Journalism’s economic model,” the PPF concludes, “has collapsed, profoundly and structurally.”
Income from classified ads and display advertising in newspapers has collapsed in the last decade, and revenue from the digital market has flatlined. Both newspapers and TV somehow missed the digital ad boom. Advertisers are not interested in the older Canadians who watch TV. Feature writing, beat reporting and investigations are rarer now because crime, natural disasters and press conferences are cheaper to cover. Only the CBC, with its outrageous billion-dollar annual grant from Ottawa, has fared well in the last decade. How many media start-ups have foundered because Peter Mansbridge added another zero to his bloated salary?
But does this silent shift amount to anything? You bet it does. Once people could count on news coverage that was, for the most part, a reliable first draft of history. It had been edited and verified to the extent possible. When mistakes were made, as they invariably are, corrections were issued. But the information transmitted was the basic clay that shaped informed opinion and forged national consensus.
By comparison, most of the content on social media is generated by users and hits the public domain without a sober second look. For those of a manipulative turn of mind, social media is a super-weapon. Trump, for example, was able to bypass the conventional media and speak directly to his followers through Twitter. In 2014 he said Twitter was ”like owning the New York Times without the losses.”
The crux of the problem is that traditional news organizations are seeing their stories accessed through a news aggregator such as Google News, Twitter or Facebook — the last places where vast audiences are to be found. Between that reality and CBC subsidies, how does a digital start-up cope?
And this crisis is global. Media in the U.K. and the U.S. are also facing a dramatic decline in earnings. Vice News co-founder Shane Smith has forecast a “bloodbath” in digital news in 2017. Only the Washington Post, purchased by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos three years ago, seems profitable. Deep pockets have allowed it to “experiment on multiple platforms simultaneously,” but that’s a luxury few can afford.
Google and Facebook insist that they are merely technology companies, not publishers. Digital ad revenues in the U.S. grew by $2.7 billion in the first quarter of 2016. According to the PPF, $1.4 billion of that went to Google and $1 billion to Facebook. Together they control 70 per cent of the total U.S. market. Canadian publishers get a paltry 11.5 per cent of the display ad market.
The report’s author, former journalist Ed Greenspon, writes that this is a new form of “vampire economics.” The internet giants use content from traditional news feeds, but syphon away the revenue the news organizations need to produce the content in the first place. Google and Facebook get most of the online advertising revenue in Canada.
What this means is that news media outlets are being starved of the revenues they need to invest in the expansion and reliability of their coverage: top-notch reporters, professional editors and overseas bureaus. Now it’s cheaper (and easier) for ‘political provocateurs’ to manufacture disinformation to discredit their opponents. Fact and falsehood have become identical twins. Responsible content is not rewarded, and it’s profitable to aim advertising at the lowest common denominator.
Automated algorithms informed by our online information and that of our “friends” personalize our news agendas. (Remember what happened to that Washington pizza shop after preposterous online rumours started circulating that it was the hub of a Hillary Clinton child sex ring?)
In June, 2016, Facebook, which has 1.8 billion monthly users world-wide, announced it was changing its top-secret algorithm to promote news stories shared by friends and family over those posted by professional news organizations. It also added a feature called “Trending Topics” displayed prominently at the top of the page. The result? A spike in fake news. When Google was asked for “final election results,” the top story in the list of results was that Donald Trump had won the popular vote.
When Canadian journalist Sue Gardner created the online persona ‘Caitlin’ in a bid to understand Trump supporters, she ‘liked’ a page called ‘Alabama for Trump’. Facebook then recommended she check out ‘Patriots for Trump’, ‘Americans Against Hillary Clinton’ and ‘I Hate Hillary’. Gardner’s news feeds filled with stories such as, “She and Husband Bill have killed 44 people since the 1970”. ‘Caitlin’ was barraged with fake news. All she had to do was ‘like’ one site, and then ‘like’ whatever Facebook subsequently recommended.
Between August and election day there were actually more stories on Facebook election sites from hyper-partisan or hoax sources than established news sites. Good for business, but a disaster for public information.
According to a Bloomberg Businessweek report, Trump spent $70 million a month to cultivate millions of supporters — many reached through Facebook. The internet giant had propelled Breitbart News, a right-wing crank operation, to a massive audience. Steve Bannon, now a kingpin in Trump’s White House, clearly understood its power. Using a digital database named Project Alamo, the campaign team ramped up its digital fundraising.
According to a senior official, Trumps son-in-law Jared Kushner “reached out to some Silicon Valley people who are kind of covert Trump fans and experts in digital marketing … There’s really not that much difference between politics and regular marketing.”
There are 47 million eligible white voters without college degrees in America, an obvious source of Trump’s new votes. The campaign team also had three major suppression operations underway during the presidential campaign, targeting idealistic white liberals, young women and African Americans — the very people who didn’t come out to vote.
All the news that’s fit to doctor.
Author: Michael Harris