Our Digital Futures: Where Europe Could Come In

The loss of freedom in the digital age seemed inevitable even before the Cambridge Analytica scandal with its massive breach of data privacy. Citizens appear destined to live in one of these two worlds: Number one is the world of monopoly capitalism, where they are primarily regarded as customers. These customers’ sole purpose is it to generate data that at some stage can be converted into money. This is the world shaped by big American Tech. Number two is the world of state surveillance, where freedom has never been appreciated much in the first place. In this Chinese version of the digital world, citizens are valued only if they serve a state sanctioned purpose.

While world number one conveys at least the illusion of freedom, because it is shaped by the private sector and the package of surveillance and manipulation is wrapped up nicely in huge amounts of customer convenience, world number two doesn’t need that much pretence. The Chinese government is fairly transparent about its goals when it monitors citizen behaviour, ranks them along the lines of their compliance with the state’s agenda and distributes privileges accordingly.

The obvious problem in both of these worlds is the violation of basic human rights. Rights that cannot be relinquished by ticking a box, by the way. But what is wrong structurally is monopolies. In world number one these are the huge conglomerates of Facebook and the like, that dominate search, social media, communication and shopping (Amazon is a powerful search engine). In world number two the monopoly is state power, uncontested by political competition.

While monopolies and freedom don’t go down well together, encouraging monopolies is one of digital technology’s basic functions. Based on data gobbling algorithms tech works towards convergence and the accumulation of power, towards super efficiency and structures that are too big to fail. Freedom in contrast, like nature, allows for variety, independence, redundancy, inefficiency and choice.

As a consequence, what needs to happen is the break-up of monopolies, as quite a few commentators have suggested this week.

This is where Europe comes in. The capacity to negotiate among an abundance of diverse interests, find compromises and push forward effective regulation will be a great asset in a digital world that has promised freedom but has increasingly delivered control.

There is no better known way to promote freedom than through democracy. Regulation, derived from public interest, is at democracy’s core because the interests of the weak can only be protected with rules that restrict the freedom of the powerful.

Silicon Valley used to be admired and envied. Many have wished to follow in its footsteps. But now is the time for more self-confidence on this side of the Atlantic. It is essential that Europe leads a third way between the American and the Chinese varieties of a digital world that currently doesn’t serve its inhabitants but only its proprietors.

This text was originally published with News Mavens, Europe’s all female newsroom.

Free Speech in the Filter Age

In a democracy, the rights of the many cannot come at the expense of the rights of the few. In the age of algorithms, government must, more than ever, ensure the protection of vulnerable voices, even erring on victims’ side at times.

OXFORD – Germany’s Network Enforcement Act – according to which social-media platforms like Facebook and YouTube could be fined €50 million ($63 million) for every “obviously illegal” post within 24 hours of receiving a notification – has been controversial from the start. After it entered fully into effect in January, there was a tremendous outcry, with critics from all over the political map arguing that it was an enticement to censorship. Government was relinquishing its powers to private interests, they protested.

So, is this the beginning of the end of free speech in Germany?

Of course not. To be sure, Germany’s Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (or NetzDG) is the strictest regulation of its kind in a Europe that is growing increasingly annoyed with America’s powerful social-media companies. And critics do have some valid points about the law’s weaknesses. But the possibilities for free expression will remain abundant, even if some posts are deleted mistakenly.

The truth is that the law sends an important message: democracies won’t stay silent while their citizens are exposed to hateful and violent speech and images – content that, as we know, can spur real-life hate and violence. Refusing to protect the public, especially the most vulnerable, from dangerous content in the name of “free speech” actually serves the interests of those who are already privileged, beginning with the powerful companies that drive the dissemination of information.

Speech has always been filtered. In democratic societies, everyone has the right to express themselves within the boundaries of the law, but no one has ever been guaranteed an audience. To have an impact, citizens have always needed to appeal to – or bypass – the “gatekeepers” who decide which causes and ideas are relevant and worth amplifying, whether through the media, political institutions, or protest.

The same is true today, except that the gatekeepers are the algorithms that automatically filter and rank all contributions. Of course, algorithms can be programmed any way companies like, meaning that they may place a premium on qualities shared by professional journalists: credibility, intelligence, and coherence.

But today’s social-media platforms are far more likely to prioritize potential for advertising revenue above all else. So the noisiest are often rewarded with a megaphone, while less polarizing, less privileged voices are drowned out, even if they are providing the smart and nuanced perspectives that can truly enrich public discussions.

If the algorithm doesn’t do the job of silencing less privileged voices, online trolls often step in, directing hateful and threatening speech at whomever they choose. Women and minorities are particularly likely to be victims of online harassment, but anyone may be targeted. The German blogger Richard Gutjahr, for example, became the object of conspiracy theories and the target of intense harassment after being present at two terrorist attacks within two weeks of each other.

Victims of online harassment often respond with self-censorship, and many, with their sense of security and even self-worth eroded, remove themselves from social media altogether. In this sense, by offering blanket protections in the name of “free speech,” countries actually privilege hate speech. But why should a victim’s rights count less than those of their bullies?

In a democracy, the rights of the many cannot come at the expense of the rights of the few. In the age of algorithms, government must, more than ever, ensure the protection of vulnerable voices, even erring on victims’ side at times. If already-vulnerable people are besieged by mobs of extremists and aggressors, it is entirely understandable that they will fear speaking up. If that happens, “free speech” is dead.

Not all NetzDG critics dispute this assessment: some agree that the speech of the vulnerable does need extra protection. But they argue that the necessary protections are already in place. After all, severe insult and incitement to hatred and violence are prohibited, and perpetrators can be prosecuted. French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, favors focusing on strengthening the judicial system’s ability to deal with hate speech and misinformation.

But, in the digital age, speed is decisive. The technology is instant, and online posts can be shared widely within minutes. Democratic institutions move rather slowly – much too slowly for police and the courts to be effective in fighting trolls and online hate. And many victims are not in any position to hire a high-quality lawyer, as Gutjahr did. Relying on the state’s most cumbersome institutions alone is not an effective strategy for protecting free speech on today’s digital communication networks.

Hate speech and other kinds of dangerous and illegal content must be attacked at the source. On one hand, there is a need for increased media literacy on the part of consumers, who need to be taught, from a young age, about the real-world consequences of online hate speech. On the other hand – and this is what the NetzDG attempts to ensure – social-media platforms must ensure that their products are designed in ways that encourage responsible use.

But this is no quick fix. On the contrary, it demands a fundamental rethink of business models that facilitate and even reward hate speech. Firms cannot be allowed to profit from damaging content, while shrugging off responsibility for its consequences. Instead, they must revise their algorithms more effectively and scrupulously to flag content that humans should monitor and assess, while entrenching in all of their business decisions an awareness of their responsibility in the fight for truly free speech.

This may contradict the straightforward business logic of doing whatever maximizes profit and shareholder value. But it is, without a doubt, what is best for society. The German government is right to push companies in the proper direction.

This text was published by Project Syndicate on 16th February 2018

Making Journalism Great Again

OXFORD – In the debate over the future of journalism, “fake news” has taken center stage, with storylines featuring a ranting American president, Russian communication “bots,” and betrayal and subterfuge competing for public attention. But in an era of diminishing profits and shrinking audiences, is fake news really the biggest threat that traditional media face?

In a news environment increasingly prone to hyperventilation, it can be difficult to separate fact from fabricated or deliberately skewed content shared via social media. The proliferation of “bots” – computer programs that automatically spread disinformation – has blurred these lines further. And as the methods of manipulation multiply, the problem is only likely to worsen.

And yet the near-constant focus on fake news has distracted many in the industry from more serious challenges confronting professional journalism. The erosion of business models and growing dependence on third-party digital distributors – like Facebook and Google – have handcuffed news organizations and cut deeply into their profits. Worse, audiences no longer trust the information presented to them. This suggests that the problem is bigger than fake news.

In fact, large, traditional, or legacy media organizations still trump social media as trusted sources. As the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Digital News Report 2017 revealed, 40% of news consumers say that established media organizations – The New York Times, for example – accurately differentiate fact from fiction. For social media, this share is only 24%.

But this also means that 60% of news consumers regard the legacy media as being careless with facts. That statistic alone should be a cause for grave concern to everyone in the industry.

According to the report – which surveyed some 70,000 Internet users in 36 countries – 29% of respondents said they were avoiding news altogether. For many, this was either because producers’ preference for negative stories put them in a bad mood, or because they viewed the reporting as politically slanted and therefore untrustworthy.

Without trust, there is no audience; and without an audience, there is no business. If the survey’s results are representative of broader trends, one of the world’s most important pillars of democracy – a free and open press – is in jeopardy.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise. In the digital era, trust deficits have affected most major institutions, from political parties and big companies to religious organizations and universities. This could be a sign of a more informed and critical citizenry; or, more likely, it could be a response to feeling overwhelmed by choice and powerless in a complex world.

But what has changed for news organizations is that, thanks to social media, they no longer have a monopoly on holding the powerful to account. On the contrary, they have come to be identified with the powerful – part of a media-business-political elite divorced from the concerns of ordinary people. Having become a target of popular anger, journalism will need to “disrupt” itself to regain credibility and restore audiences’ trust.

To this end, media organizations should take at least six steps. For starters, news outlets must set their own agendas, rather than wasting resources on pursuing someone else’s. The international investigation that led to the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers are brilliant examples of journalism that is relevant and interesting – two fundamental criteria that all reporting should meet.

Second, reporters have a responsibility to their audiences to analyze what powerful actors are doing, rather than what they are saying. As the Washington Post’s media columnist Margaret Sullivan recently observed, coverage of US President Donald Trump has focused narrowly on his words, at the expense of his policy.

Third, the media must become better listeners. Journalists’ distinction between “reporting” and “reporting on the ground” highlights the reality that a sizable proportion of newsroom staff never leave their desks. Journalists don’t necessarily do this by choice; many are glued to their screens because their companies lack resources, or force them to follow and report on twitter feeds. In a sense, reporters’ behavior is merely a symptom of an editorial pathology.

Fourth, news organizations must engage audiences – talking to them, not down to them. Very often, the news cycle is driven by assumptions about what viewers or readers might like, rather than what they actually want. Diversity in a newsroom is vital to broadening the relevance of its coverage.

Fifth, in the rush to experiment with new forms of storytelling, some media companies are forgetting their mission. News outlets should forego expensive, flashy projects if they do little to further audiences’ understanding of a story.

Finally, rebuilding trust will require a new definition of news itself. When audiences feel overwhelmed by information and complexity, the response can be to tune out. The media must give people a reason to tune back in. (One example: positive news is dramatically undervalued in today’s media environment.)

If traditional media outlets allow themselves to be defined by the fake-news debate, they, too, will be overwhelmed. So long as social media companies optimize for advertising revenue, their algorithms will tend to reward the extremes, and news organizations will waste valuable resources battling disinformation.

A better approach would be to make news less boring. Reputable media companies have always sought to capitalize on facts: the scoop, the exclusive interview, the probing investigation. Truth, like trust, is a commodity. The future of the industry depends on getting better at producing it.

This Text was first published with Project Syndicate, January 9, 2018

A Brief Guide to Newsroom Innovation

With business models under pressure and competition for audience and advertising dollars increasing, media organisations inevitably search for innovative new ways to attract audiences, tell stories or earn revenue.

Yet newsrooms often rush into innovation projects, expecting journalists to participate, or even to lead them, without explaining why, what the project is for, or how it should be done. Alternatively newsroom staff may be eager to bring ideas and innovations to their employers, but are deterred by hurdles on the way.

The following is a brief guide to newsroom innovation that draws on my 20 years experience of working in different media companies, 15 of those in leadership roles. But, even after reading this guide, never forget what media strategist Lucy Kueng concluded after looking into dozens of companies for a recent study, Going Digital: Innovation is not the same as strategy and “shiny new things”, as Kueng describes innovation, can even be a distraction for news organisations.

Why do innovation projects happen?

The obvious reasons to engage in innovation are tied to strategy on the one hand and market pressures on the other: the company wants to explore new business models, compensate for loss-makers or gain access to new audiences. These days there is hardly a newsroom that doesn’t reflect on how to attract younger audiences, more female readers and audiences that can be drawn in through different channels, for example digital, video or audio.

Examples of recent newsroom innovation projects, highlighted in Kueng’s study, include: experiments by The New York Times with virtual reality and by the Financial Times with new platforms, such as Snapchat. The Economist recently tried putting content into a machine learning system, but concluded it was not a worthwhile innovation.

But sometimes motivations are more complicated. Innovation projects are also conceived for the following reasons: to pre-empt the competition, to show off within the industry, to engage in symbolic policy, or to spend money from external funding that wouldn’t be handed over otherwise. Often innovation projects are nothing but symbolic policy to signal that ‘something is being done’ or they are driven by a new CEO or editor-in-chief who wants to shine and leave her or his mark. Other times these projects are invented to keep someone senior, who is perceived as a burden in his or her current role, busy and out of the way

How to go about them: top down or bottom up?

Some innovation projects are mandated top down, others are developed bottom up from within the newsroom. Both ways have advantages and disadvantages. When the editor-in-chief or CEO pushes the project, chances are that support in terms of financial resources and encouragement is more generous. It might also be easier to attract top talent to the group. When the project fails, a blanket of silence might descend, because nobody from the top wants to lose face.

But there are also disadvantages and traps to this approach. As a project leader you are not necessarily allowed to pick your own team, you have to accommodate members who are ‘boss favorites’ or simply want to be there because it reflects positively on them. If the project is a success, top leadership might claim all of the credit and forget about participants; if it fails, the project manager is most likely to be blamed for bad management.

When innovation projects are conceived bottom up from within the newsroom, there are other advantages and risks. The big plus is you can benefit from a start-up spirit. The key team will identify strongly and the project can profit from an underdog feeling. Under the radar it might be easier to circumvent bureaucratic processes and get started sooner. If it fails no one at the top will lose face, so consequences are unlikely to be severe.

The big disadvantage of bottom-up innovation, however, is the lack of identification among top leadership. The project might lack resources but you may be tempted to ignore this in the early stages, in order to make things work. It could also be harder to convince potential supporters. And any envy from within the newsroom can be voiced more openly if no senior managers are involved.

Method: From Scratch or Copy?

To develop something from scratch can have a huge excitement factor. You are free to explore, without being trapped in “this is how it is done” schemes. And the project will not be subjected to comparisons such as “theirs is faster/more reliable/customer-oriented”. But there are disadvantages. Obviously everything takes much longer. If software is involved, plan for lots of coding time because in the beginning things are likely to be bug-prone. Also establishing a market or a pattern of behaviour can be difficult. In the history of great innovations the inventors of a new technology very rarely reaped the rewards. The benefits were usually earned by those who successfully scaled the product .

There are advantages to copying something that is already there and adjusting it to your own needs. First of all, you can draw on the experience of others and don’t have to repeat their mistakes. You get inspiration and can use existing infrastructure, for example an established advertising market or advanced technology. You can’t be the first, but you can be better than the others. And it is possible to position the new product as the renegade – look at the market leader and do things exactly the opposite way.

On the other hand, it might be harder to gain market share or reap other benefits like attention, if the market is already crowded. Also you might be tempted to copy and paste something while neglecting the particularities of your own organisation: company culture or the special needs of your audience. And obviously you will always be compared to the competition.

The Challenge: Managing Transformation To Daily Business

Inventing something is very different from keeping things running. There are quite a few traps in the process of transforming an innovation project into daily business. The biggest challenge is to put the right team together. Very often you need different people for the regular operations than for the phase of innovation. It is important to create satisfaction beyond the honeymoon period, because people who worked through nights to make things happen won’t be willing to commit to overtime forever. Thus it is vital that you carefully draft your resource plan.

As a project leader, carefully listen to your team while planning – and take their observations seriously. Assign clear responsibilities, keep an eye on things and take stock from time to time. It is easy to fall into the “didn’t we just invent this?” trap – being convinced that you have something fresh and new while others have long outperformed it. Also, be honest: if it doesn’t work, do something else. In the long run, marketing benefits are not enough, a project should always contribute to the bottom line. And lastly, as a project leader, you need to be able to let go. Hand over responsibility and innovate something new.

Lessons learned

This list is by no means conclusive, but here are a few lessons learned from leading innovation projects and watching others lead them: For a project to be successful, you need the support of the key people in your company. If you are running a bottom-up project, communication is the most important thing to keep things moving. It is time-consuming but essential that all the important formal and informal stakeholders stay informed. To achieve this, draw a map of the potential fans and enemies within the organisation and potential fans and supporters outside the organisation. If you are the project leader, make sure you are allowed to pick your own team. If this is not possible, find a workaround and build a shadow team of people you have experienced to be most constructive.

Don’t go without the resources, at least not for too long. If a project is launched, it is very hard to convince leadership to commit more resources than initially assigned. Never, ever underestimate envy. Respect rules, but keep in mind that rules don’t always make sense. And finally: start pragmatic. But always try to think bigger.

This text was published first on 14th December 2017 by European Journalism Observatory.