Imagine if one day the TV transmitter decided that it didn’t want to broadcast BBC news, because it was too boring, the transmitter also didn’t like Panorama much and felt strongly that In the Night Garden was no where near as good as Frozen so stopped putting those out too. Or a printing press decided that the Daily Telegraph’s investigation into an MP wasn’t interesting so blanked that bit. Or a delivery van decided that a suburb wasn’t interested in local news so didn’t deliver the local paper there. If you predominantly use the web through Facebook then your exposure to worthy public service content may already be like this.
Social media companies have built hugely successful businesses on distribution models that filter out all the bits that are good for them or society and provide people with the things they want or are likely to want. But it may be that too much of what you fancy isn’t good for you.
Emily Bell Director at the TOW Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, formerly Head of Digital at the Guardian said in a recent lecture:
News spaces are no longer owned by newsmakers. The press is no longer in charge of the free press and has lost control of the main conduits through which stories reach audiences. The public sphere is now operated by a small number of private companies, based in Silicon Valley.
How do people get the public service content we need as a society, when a delivery mechanism provides only what they want? It’s not just a British issue with our huge investment in public service – it seems to me that in many developing countries Facebook, consumed on a mobile is the internet, dwarfing traditional www. browsing. On the one hand, this is a good thing – Facebook who often pays the data charges has brought the internet to hundreds of millions of people. On the other hand, if important public service content is published in Facebook how does anyone get to see it? I am working with a parliamentary reporting project in Africa that finds it incredibly hard to get seen in peoples’ newsfeed.
At our recent Talk About Local unconference #TAL15 community bloggers producing public service news for their neighbourhood described working with Facebook as a distribution mechanism as ‘an abusive relationship’ and indeed ran an entire session on this theme.
In the UK society invests billions of pounds every year in public service media. If this investment doesn’t reach citizens, then it loses its justification. Equally the tech companies who now present distribution challenges make a phenomenal contribution to our economy and society – how do we reconcile these two for the good of all?
Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust and Reuters Institute in a thoughtful New Statesman article calls for new methods to tackle what he describes as ‘the tech behemoths’.
In countries where the social settlement invests in public service content the challenge is for tech companies to give public service content effective consumption prominence in content sorted by the algorithm. So that public service content in broad terms appears as attractive as anything else. This means counter balancing peoples commercial or emotional preferences with a societal interest – injecting an S-factor into the algorithm.
There are elements of remedies in the tech companies own actions:
Google has a programme ‘Google Grants’ which gives ‘free’ adwords to charities to a rate of about $10,000 a month.
Facebook has it’s internet.org project to bring the internet including public service content for free to the developing world, but it is unclear yet how this work, what that content might be and what the terms of trade are.
Buzzfeed is distinctive in supplying pictures of kittens and multi coloured dresses to hundreds of millions of people but has its own public service journalism function.
At the heart of this is distribution is their algorithm – the secret formula that determines what appears in your search or in your news feed. Often the companies themselves provide advertising products that cut through the algorithm for those who pay.
Of course we need new techniques but you can see similarities with an essential facility case here if these filtered routes become the dominant way of getting content to the citizen – not something that could be commercially essential but that societally essential.
In the past this has led to ‘ranking regulation’ with long history in the USA and EU that began in the regulation of early airline reservation systems so that the people who owned the system (say BA or American airlines) could not put their own flights top every time. In the EU this has morphed into the regulation of electronic programme guides on dominant TV systems so that the BBC and public service content has ‘due prominence’.
There may be a more radical, strategic long term route of taking public service content online into its own sphere and paying the internet companies – who will come and go over time for ‘transmission’ direct to peoples phones, as is done with transmitters. Accepting that net neutrality is warped by the existence of algorithmic distribution and taking radical steps to combat that in perpetuity – along the lines of the Digital Public Space Tony Ageh sets out in his Royal Holloway lecture.
How do you square an algorithm that is designed to serve you the media you want, with the public service culture of the UK that is about giving you the media you need for the good of society?
We are only at the beginning but the speed with which things escalate online suggests that industry would be wise to engage and offer solutions that it can pilot with regulators. Not least to avoid a repetition in Europe of the Axel Springer Google News saga.
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