Journalism or social media? The decision is yours

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: The news that Facebook has another 1,000 jobs in the offing and that INM is cutting another 31, is a damning sign of the times, one we can no longer afford to ignore. Picture: Getty

Who will fact check for you before and after referenda and elections? Who will tell you that 6,000 people need repeat smear tests? Mark Zuckerberg?, writes Joyce Fegan.

I WENT to college with a girl whose mother did not believe in couples living together before marriage.

“Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free?” was the nuts and bolts of her mother’s argument. Romance aside, it’s a bit like our rocky relationship with news. Whether you think you have one or not, you do.

You might be a purchaser of newspapers, if only on a Sunday. You could have a monthly subscription to a news site. You perhaps only consume online news that’s available to you for free, save for the time it took to skim read the site’s headlines.

Maybe you don’t fit into any of these three categories and you’re one of those people who say: “Oh, I never read the news, it’s too negative.” Chances are though, that a meme about Donald Trump or a video clip from one of his political speeches has appeared in your Facebook or Instagram feed. You too are a consumer of news, albeit an accidental one.

This week, Independent News and Media (INM), one of Ireland’s largest media companies, announced plans to cut 31 jobs, for various reasons. In the same week, Facebook announced 1,000 new jobs in its Dublin operation.

Why should you care about any of this?

On Friday, June 24, 2016, we all woke up to the news that Britain had voted to exit the EU, an institution founded on the principle of co-operation after a brutal war triggered by propaganda and fuelled by the promulgation of hatred.

On Wednesday, November 9, 2016, we all woke up to the news that six-time bankruptee and reality TV star Donald Trump had been elected as the 45th President of the United States of America.

Social media was proven to play a role in both.

A data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, worked with Trump’s election team. In 2014, it harvested more than 50m Facebook profiles of US voters, using the gathered information to create a powerful software programme to predict and influence choices at the ballot box. It was one of Facebook’s biggest ever data breaches.

In Britain, Twitter had been employed early on by the Leave campaign, where it built “momentum” and “set the tone of the debate across all major social networking platforms,” says Vyacheslav Polonski, a network scientist at the University of Oxford. He was involved in a large-scale social media analysis, which found that there were twice as many Brexit supporters on Instagram compared with Remainers, and on Twitter, Brexit supporters outnumbered the Remain campaigners by seven to one.

Social media is a powerful tool, no doubt.

But the thing about social media is that you create the content for free, with your holiday snaps and your #10yearchallenge selfies. Not only do you create the content, but you also consume it, willingly scrolling its feed on your commute to and from work, and generally in any unaccounted-for-time you meet in your day.

The other thing is, social media firms get paid, not you. They are making money off of your content and your attention.

To get technical for a moment, it is an unregulated beast. Yes, platforms do their best to keep it safe from terrorists and hate groups, prowling pedophiles and Russian troll farms, but it is newspapers that get sued.

Newspapers or news sites, do not rely on you to research and report, write and edit their content, they pay journalists and editors to do that.

However, newspaper publishers live with daily threats of defamation and libel cases. Legal cases which, if they are successful, come with hefty fines.

Newspapers and reporters also operate according to a code of ethics, where balance is sought so as to avoid bias, and ultimately propaganda.

Journalists are sent out to stories to report on what they see. We call this #IRL — in real life — so that the first draft of history can be written with firsthand information. This kind of “content creation” costs time and money. But to pay these salaries, you need an income.

This income used to come from ads and newspaper sales. Between 1970 and 2016, the year the American Society of News Editors stopped counting, 500 daily papers went out of business in the US, The New Yorker reported this week.

With sales declining, newspapers went online, cut costs and hoped that digital ads would help them survive. This, unfortunately, wasn’t the case. Facebook and Google gobbled up the digital ad market, now taking up about 80% between them.

And again, why does any of this matter to you? Who told you about the CervicalCheck scandal? Did Facebook pay its staff to research the issue, ask those in power important questions and then distill their findings down into bitesize infographics for your feed?

During last year’s snow and throughout Storm Ophelia, who kept you abreast of road closures, weather warnings and what hospitals were and weren’t open? Did Instagram send their employees to work with cameras in order to create “stories” that would keep you safe?

Before the referendum on the Eighth Amendment, as foreign ads with misinformation were appearing on Irish Facebook feeds, who reported on bogus claims and exposed “fake nurses”?

Sometimes, when you’re used to getting milk for free, you place no value on the cow.

The public is now used to getting its news for free be that through social media feeds or on news sites that don’t come with a paywall.

But what happens when this free flow of information dries up, when news organisations can no longer afford to pay its staff? Who will fact check for you before and after referenda and elections? Who will tell you that 6,000 people need repeat smear tests? Mark Zuckerberg?

The news that Facebook has another 1,000 jobs in the offing and that INM is cutting another 31, is a damning sign of the times, one we can no longer afford to ignore. Ignorance paves the way for propaganda, which ushers in authoritarianism without accountability. Information, that’s sifted through and verified, is the antidote. But how do we pay for this?

Canadians are to get a tax credit towards any online news subscriptions they may have. The Canadian government’s editorial hands-off approach to news, encourages their citizens to pay for content, therefore supporting jobs that support democracy.

It’s not rocket science. It’s a simple solution to a potentially catastrophic problem.

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