4 Feb 2018

Can the crowd fix Facebook and boost online news?

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 4 February 2018

Mark Zuckerberg says he’ll “fix Facebook” by foregrounding “trustworthy and informative” news recommended by users. Will that work? New Zealander Peter Bale is the editor of WikiTribune, a new news platform where online readers contribute expertise and the money.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales slammed Facebook's new strategy in a CNBC debate at Davos.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales slammed Facebook's new strategy in a CNBC debate at Davos. Photo: screenshot / CNBC

When the heavy hitters of global politics and business gathered at the annual World Economic Forum recently, the media made the trip in numbers too.

They were like coiled springs waiting to see what the US president would do when he choppered into the Swiss ski resort of Davos.  

But in the end, he surprised the press corps by not saying much of note.

Trump Arrived in Davos as a Party Wrecker. He Leaves Praised as a Pragmatist,” said The New York Times.

The US leader who copped the most criticism was one who wasn’t even at the elite gathering - Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg.  

Billionaire philanthropist George Soros condemned Facebook and Google as monopolies that harm individuals and democracy with their misinformation and profiteering. They should be heavily taxed and regulated, he claimed.

Billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch said Facebook and Google have made "scurrilous" news sources popular, and they should pay now news publishers if they want "trusted" content.

Lately Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg seems to have woken up to the responsibility that comes with being a window on the world for more that two billion users.

Vowing to “fix Facebook,” he said he would reduce exposure to biased news-like content created by businesses and media outlets.

Announcing the change on Facebook (where else?) Mark Zuckerberg said it would now prioritise news that is trustworthy and informative and that readers would set the bar for that.

”The idea is that some news organisations are only trusted by their readers or watchers, and others are broadly trusted across society even by those who don't follow them directly. We will now ask people whether they're familiar with a news source and, if so, whether they trust that source".

- Mark Zuckerberg

Editors and publishers of news around the world are twitchy.  Many of their readers are only seeing their news via Facebook and tweaks of the algorithm could shrivel their reach.

But is this good news for the bulk of Facebook’s users, and those concerned about the scourge of fake news and misinformation?

In Davos, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales didn't think so.

“If five years ago you were talking about Facebook and you said to people: What is your fear? it’s that Facebook would start shaping my public perceptions  - by choosing which information is high quality,” he said in a panel discussion hosted by broadcaster CNBC.

But Wikipedia also uses the wisdom of the online crowd to improve the quality of information it offers online. The crowdsourced online reference website has become by far the biggest source of information on the web.  

Last year, Jimmy Wales recently founded WikiTribune as a response to online fake news and ad-driven clickbait, partly modeled on Wikipedia.  

It has a small team of staff journalists who are supported by a community of contributors, rather than advertisers or philanthropy.

Peter Bale, editor of WikiTribune.

Peter Bale, editor of WikiTribune. Photo: supplled

WikiTribune’s editor is Peter Bale, a New Zealander who’s worked in the past for big names in news like the Financial Times, CNN and Reuters.

He was also in Davos recently, covering the World Economic Forum with input and prompts from WikiTribune’s contributing members.

“It’s all written from here by me, which is knackering. When I worked at Reuters I could send lots of people to cover it,” he told Mediawatch a little ruefully.

Peter Bale also headed up the US-based Centre for Public Integrity, which oversaw the publication of the Panama Papers in 2016 and teamed up with the Washington Post to scrutinise political advertising and fake news during the presidential election.

The CPI had George Soros and his Open Society foundationas a financial backer. WikiTribune doesn't have any such big money donor. Can the ad-free independent online journalism of WikiTribune really thrive with just the support of readers online - as Wikipedia does?  

“It’s certainly Jimmy’s belief that there are communities of people out there with goodwill. The idea is to have a team of professional journalists working alongside that community. There are a range of options to take part. The community can write entire pieces or it can edit the stories we have. Some may just change an oxford comma or correct my New Zealand spelling,” he told Mediawatch.

“Jimmy Wales ran a crowdfunding campaign with 12,000 people contributing to it. We are working through that money and some investment from Google's Digital News Initiative to support us on engineering. We should be able to match the quality of other, bigger sites. If we can get the quality right and the level of community participation going, we can mark out something fresh and new. But we are honest about it being an experiment," he told Mediawatch.

Will Mark Zuckerberg fix Facebook's trust problem?

"I think it’s complete window-dressing. I suspect its open to tremendous distortion. His statement reads like one from someone doing psychology at undergraduate level. The idea that we will be happier globally reading more stuff from our friends and family rather than reading news I find extraordinary,” Peter Bale told Mediawatch.

Facebook has already tried out a separate feed to help Facebook users discover more content beyond posts from friends and pages they already follow - such as news and current affairs content.

Peter Bale says this has backfired in some countries where Facebook has become a critical avenue for information.

"In Cambodia there is a crisis of democracy and media. (The change) robbed a country dependent on Facebook for the mass consumption of news of reliable sources of news in Khmer language and in English," he said. 

He was echoing earlier warnings from US-based  freedom of speech group PEN.

“The effects will be felt most acutely in undemocratic states, where access to information is already limited and where citizens may be least likely to engage, and thereby fuel the new News Feed, with dissenting content for fear of retribution,” said US-based  freedom of speech group PEN.

News Feed that limits the direct flow of content from news pages to individual users dependent on Facebook for information will essentially function as a form of censorship, PEN warned.

A Kiwi connection

WikiTribune's investigative fishing feature story by New Zealand journalist Michael Field.

WikiTribune's investigative fishing feature story by New Zealand journalist Michael Field. Photo: screenshot / WikiTribune

WikiTribune has published an in-depth article about the dark side of the large-scale fishing industry by former Fairfax Media pacific affairs reporter Michael Field, a former colleague of Peter Bale at the Evening Post in the 1980s. Peter Bale says another significant investigate piece by Field will be published soon - but he is keeping the subject secret for now.

Nelson-based digital journalist Charles Anderson is also a contributing editor who keeps content up-to-date while the London-based operation is asleep.

"He does much more than write the odd story. He maintains our daily briefings, he edits our stories. He's incredibly valuable to our team," Peter Bale says.

"Who cares that he's in Nelson? Some days I'd like to be there myself."

“It took 16 years for Wikipedia to get where it is today and now its the fifth most popular site in the world. I don't think we have that much time and we have to accelerate,” he says.