After a break for reading week and then a snow week which put paid to my colleague Caroline Pringle’s lecture on online communities, Journalism Technologies resumed at the University of Huddersfield last week with my lecture examining the related fields of UGC verification, citizen witnessing and the context of what is often described as fake news.
In some ways, the debate around all of this remains in a similar position to when I addressed this topic a year ago. Then, with Donald Trump newly in the White House and Facebook scrambling to work out what to do amid mounting criticism of its perceived role in the spread of various nonsense before polling day, it seemed as though some significant changes might happen, in particular to the look and feel of Facebook’s news feed (with checkmarks for ‘approved’ sources, or warnings of potential fakery, perhaps). As it is, the main change to Facebook’s algorithm since then has seen a general downgrading of news of all kinds. Good news if you’re a fan of other people’s baby photos, but a notable risk to publishers large and small in terms of traffic, and therefore money.
But it still seems to be Facebook under pressure, rather than publishers. This is probably no surprise considering its enormous scale. But not for nothing was 2017 arguably the toughest year in its history. It will go to great lengths to avoid the cold hand of regulation from the US, EU, or anyone else, knowing well that it was long-running anti-trust legal issues that did as much as anything else to nobble tech’s last undisputed giant, Microsoft, in the late 1990s. Facebook also still wants to break into China, and having all kinds of news content swilling about will do nothing for its prospects there. Squaring all of these complicated, overlapping circles still looks out of easy reach.
This week’s lecture in Journalism Technologies was listed in the module handbook at the start of term as being about UGC and verification, an important skill which journalists increasingly need when sorting fact from fiction on social media. But with the growing focus on fake news since then – a term which has had an extraordinary half-life, taking it from little-known buzzword to over-used cliche in a matter of months – I thought this was a good opportunity to explain to the students that recent history.
For an academic concept to help illustrate these overlapping areas of fake news and UGC verification, I turned to a great book by my PhD supervisor Stuart Allan, Citizen Witnessing. Students are often familiar with the idea of ‘citizen journalism’, something often taught in A-Level media classes. Stuart’s book offers a nuanced evolution of that rather broad concept, and examines more closely those who record, post and share content when they find themselves caught up in dramatic news events.
A key difference from the ‘citizen journalists’ of Indymedia who came to prominence covering the Seattle protests of 1999 – who can arguably be described in turns as cousins of the sport and music fanzine writers of years gone by – is that citizen witnesses aren’t actively trying to do journalism as such. To me, the greater journalistic act takes place when a newsroom attempts to verify that material, before publishing it as part of a news report. So I agree that those witnesses are better not described as journalists of any kind. But regardless of the terminology, journalists are increasingly under pressure to do that verification, and quickly, and the emergence of a skills gap in this area within journalism has led to the outsourcing of that task to growing players such as Storyful.
Rather than getting all the students to take a look at Stuart’s book though, I decided to get them to read Guardian editor Kath Viner’s essay of last summer. Even though it was written largely before the Donald Trump-based rise of fake news, it’s still a good read, especially for an audience with little prior knowledge of this area. One interesting aspect of that: plenty of students were more than a bit surprised to discover the rather uncertain provenance of the infamous David Cameron/pig story.
Posted in Lectures
Tagged citizen witnessing, fake news, Huddersfield, Indymedia, Journalism Technologies, Kath Viner, Storyful, Stuart Allan, The Guardian, UGC, University of Huddersfield, verification