Fake news and audio online: 2016’s lessons for moribund media

This article first appeared in Village magazine, December 2016 edition

At the beginning of 2016, the two expected major new issues in media circles were 3D/VR immersive technologies, and podcasting. A lot has changed since then.

Virtual reality/3D is still in the earliest stages of development – and may not ever evolve beyond a gimmick in news terms – but podcasting continues to go mainstream, further industrialising and professionalising what was a domain held by amateurs and enthusiasts. Just as social networks – and to a lesser extent news media – colonised the paces carved out by bloggers, so too with radio and other media companies. Across a range as diverse as NPR and the New York Times, Buzzfeed and Storyful, including online start-ups and regional and local media outlets, everyone wants to be a podcaster.

In Ireland, the Irish Times were one of the first into the podcasting space, building a custom studio in Tara Street. But like their print and written word offerings, most of their podcasting efforts were institutionally dull, following a well trodden path of professional and predictable panel formats long ago defined as the way to do audio by RTÉ and others. It is notable that their breakout success – the Second Captains – came to the Irish Times stable with an already established audience, and was not born in RTE, but in independent radio.

Meanwhile, new entrants to the market took a fresher approach than that of the Irish Times and Irish Independent podcasts. Headstuff.org features a variety of new offerings, fronted by newer voices (and notably as likely to be presented by a comedian or an author as by yet another journalist) and bringing new points of view. And in the closing weeks of the year, Maximum Media – owners of Joe.ie and Her.ie among other titles – announced their own plans for a broad spectrum of new audio – and audio-visual – productions in 2017.

Interestingly, one of the post-election post-mortems in the USA examined the role of podcasts as promoters of echo chambers. When listeners seek out podcasts to listen to, rather than taking the variety of stories the are served by a broadcast station, they create yet another media bubble, blocking out stories they aren’t interested in. That tension between greater variety and greater isolation is sure to become a theme across all media as information sources fragment in future.

Advertising revenues, meanwhile, continue its migration away from traditional media. American news papers, having told themselves the situation was stabilising, watched in dismay as the New York Times announced ad revenues slumps 19% in the third quarter, even as Donald Trump’s presidential run pulled in new readers and page hits.

Irish media can expect similar results, according to results from media buyer Core Media, which released a survey pointing to an advertising shortfall of 12% in 2016, with radio spending falling five percent, due to a combination of Brexit uncertainty and the continuing move to digital. That amounts to a loss of €16 million for print and €6 million in radio compared to the expected out-turn at the beginning of the year.

Commenting on the findings, Core Media chief executive Alan Cox noted that there was “a lack of innovation in the radio sector and it is losing money to digital because of it. It is important that they do something demonstrable in their content. Some stations have, but the majority haven’t.”

Trump’s presidential campaign may have brought some good news for newspapers, however. In the wake of his election, amid reports of voters motivated by “fake news” and deliberate propaganda misinformation websites, the New York Times and Washington Post both reported a boost to their subscription revenues, as readers moved to support paid-for and reliable reportage. The effect was not confined to the United States either, with Irish publishers also confirming to Village that they had seen post-election spikes in online subscriptions.

The Financial Times has shown that there is at least some market for paid-for news, and in November passed a significant “digital first” milestone, when for the first time it raised more revenues from online than print operations. Irish titles clearly still have some distance to go before matching that performance.

Whether this translates into a longer term pattern, of fades in the coming months as the Trump era normalises, remains to be seen. It would indeed be a true situational irony of Trump’s tantrums against the press and his frequent threats to sue and shut them down improves their bottom lines – at least among the more liberal titles which continue to defy him.

Fake news is unlikely to go away any time soon. Capitalising on an audience already primed by years of exposure to Fox News to believe any conspiracy theory, and benefiting from the same economics of scale as aggregators from the Huffington Post to Buzzfeed, but without the inconvenient overheads of fact-checking and ethics, the rise of bogus news sites, custom built for the internet and pandering to the prejudices of their readers, were in a sense inevitable, at least for as long as Facebook’s algorithms and Google Ads tolerate and promote them.

Individual sites may come and go, but even if the now near-legendary Macedonian teenagers and bored Californian millennials pumping out pro-Trump fictions go out of business, it is not hard to see a future where the same approach – either deliberately distorting news for propaganda purposes, or making up stories out of whole cloth simply for the revenues – is weaponised by everyone from Vladimir Putin to Fox News. Murdoch’s cable behemoth is already scrambling to get ahead of the pack, having found itself wrong-footed by the “alt-right” (that is, fascist) Breitbart News during the election cycle. American politics has veered so far rightwards what Fox News, which contented itself with increasingly shrill “dog whistle” signalling, now finds itself labelled part of the very mainstream it sought to undermine. As control passes from Rupert to the next generation of Murdochs, it will be interesting to see how they respond to the challenge.

Despite the calls for it to do so, it is not clear is Facebook will take concrete steps to block fake news. It is not even clear if it can do so, and there are clear moral dilemmas in giving that censorship power to a single corporation.

The internet interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it, and if the network – social or physical – wants fake news, then it will find a way to locate and propagate fake news. People, being people, will still share false stories.

Journalist have long held that the most effective remedy to bad speech is more speech and better speech, and that may be the case now more than ever before. That means journalism – and journalists – have a job to do. Fake news has to be identified, called out, and named for what it is. And that’s the case whether it comes from a Macedonian teenager’s bedroom, the twitter account of the US president-elect, or one of the yellower corners of Fleet Street.

Facebook doesn’t want to be a publisher. It wants to be a platform. It doesn’t want to be an editor. Truth is, it probably wouldn’t be a very good editor. And given the closeness of some board members to the nascent Trump administration, Facebook risks being a very bad editor indeed.

News publishers struck a deal with the devil in allowing their content on Facebook, tempted by shared data, and advertising revenues from Facebook Live and Instant Articles. But as any smart drug dealer will tell you, the first hit is always free. Just as it has in the past, Facebook can turn off the revenue tap in a moment, and make publishers pay for continued access to their audiences.

Ultimately, publishers and news outlets have to own their sites, and make them attractive enough that audiences will want to visit them and share the stories they find there. The challenge for journalism is to do that in an environment where revenues are falling, and their expensive product is competing against cheap and plentiful fraudulent news.


And finally, last month I wrote a piece here about the Citizens’ Assembly. Although the piece was mainly concerned about what recommendation the Assembly should make on the Eighth Amendment, it hung on the narrative hook that submissions from the public were not circulated to the ninety-nine members of the assembly.

I have since been informed that this as based on an error due to a misinterpretation of a poorly-phrased question I asked the assembly.

On October 22 the Citizens’ Assembly (the Assembly) opened its formal call for submissions on the first topic the Assembly has been tasked with discussing, the Eighth Amendment. As per the information provided on the website www.citizensassembly.ie , all submissions received by the Assembly secretariat shall be listed on the website and displayed with a name/name of organisation, if appropriate. The Assembly reserves the right not to accept a submission if it is deemed offensive or inappropriate.

Members of the public are invited to make a submission before the closing date of 16 December and view all the submissions made to the Assembly once they are published. Further to this Assembly members will be provided with the submissions in a format that is most convenient to them.