Damian Tambini, LSE: "We don't have the data to understand what the reality of the spread of misinformation is"

The second panel of the Trust in Journalism Conference 2018 addressed the following question: “Platforms, publishers and politicians: Can’t we all just be friends?”. It was chaired by award-winning former BBC journalist, and current Middlsex University professor, Kurt Barling.

Damian Tambini, Associate Professor at the LSE Department of Media and Communications, has written about the dominance of the internet giants. He is part of the LSE 3T Initiative – Truth, Trust, and Technology, which has recently published its report on Tackling the Information Crisis: A Policy Framework for Media System Resilience (19 November 2018). He was the first to speak.

Damian spoke about how dominance is a key factor in the publishers-politicians-platforms relationship: “We have dominant platforms, structural features of the market, which are winner-takes-all. And there are a number of reasons why this will not be dislodged by the natural play of the market. The platforms in relation to news publishers, for example, are price setters. They have market power. So that is absolutely an unequal relationship. (…) It’s the only route to market for provision of news and information which is reliable – because what we had historically in our societies is truth filters which are separate from the state and our plural. That is what we call journalism and it’s protected in a very complex set of government arrangements (self-regulation, co-regulation, legal privileges) which are breaking down”.

Damian Tambini - LSE - IMPRESS Trust in Journalism Conference 2018

So what are publishers, politicians and platforms doing about it? According to Damian Tambini:

  1. “The news platforms are doing a lot: they are trying to improve the quality of their product (…) they are investing in credibility signalling (kitemarks, trust marks) and they are trying to mend the broken revenue model and improve distribution, findability, access to market – but again, they have the problem with the platforms.
  2. The platforms themselves want to do something about this. They are trying to fix their algorithms in order to filter for truth in some way, for truth rather than what has been revealed to be a filter for residence, emotionality, and the opposite of truth, if you like (…) The platforms are at the foothills of a very long journey where they develop their own self-regulatory tools.”
  3. Finally, the government: “It is not true that governments can’t do anything about the platforms. Ultimately, competition policy can be used in many ways (…), they can have their liability arrangements changes (…) – that debate has started. There are various hybrids around liability so that the platforms are more responsible for what they carry. All of these issues come with lots of problems in terms of freedom of expression and conflicts of interest of various kinds".

Damian was also sceptical that these solutions will work because: “they are basically only on one platforms and there are numerous competitive and coordination problems between the different actors which are trying to fix this. The platforms are competing with the news organisations, and news organisations are competing with each other, and platforms are competing with each other. We also have a huge information problem in relation to all of this. We – the academics, civil society – simply can’t get the data to understand how big the information crisis is. And what the reality of the spread of misinformation is. We can’t come to a public policy solution”.

The second panelist to speak was Emma Meese, Manager at the Center for Community Journalism (C4CJ) and Director of the Independent Community News Network (ICNN), which has been funded by the Google Digital News Innovation Fund to develop new business models for independent publishers.

Kurt Barling - Emma Meese - Damian Tambini - Rachel Coldicutt - IMPRESS Trust in Journalism Conference 2018

Emma summarised the state of the local news sector: "We know that the news that our members from the ICNN and many others produce at a local or hyperlocal level is fantastic quality. We know that some of the most trusted news in the UK and globally is on a very local level. Because we are going back to what we had years ago, were you had patch reporters (…) you are much closer to the source, the quality of regional journalism [is high]. We are finding that in communities right across the UK, courts and councils mainly only get the independent, small publishers [coverage] – the bigger ones have withdrawn completely."

She then presented the idea behind the C4CJ project funded by Google Digital News Innovation Fund: "So we know that the content they produce is massively valuable – and we also know it’s been stolen. (…) We know that people are taking content produced by our members (…) So what we are looking to do is to build a platform, which is going to be a hyperlocal news agency. We will have a birds eye view of all these local stories, bring it in one place and that will be sold. And the money goes back to the content producers. We hope to plug the gap to stop the leakage in the system where these stories are just being taken and used. The other benefit of that is that – kind of like the Bureau Local [do] – is bringing people together from all different sectors and say ‘we are going to look into this one topic’, and you will get a local angle but when you bring it together it’s a fantastic story of national importance.”

In relation to the involvement of Google in the project, she said: “As far as Google is concerned, they are just funding a project that is looking for new revenue streams for local news organisations”.

The third member of the panel was Rachel Coldicutt, CEO of Doteveryone – a think tank that called for a new regulator for the internet. They recently presented their Green Paper Making the case for an independent internet regulator.

Rachel brought to the panel a different perspective regarding the role of platforms and its effects: “I’m looking at this [issue] from a broader perspective. Which is that although everyone here is rightly concerned about news and truth and information, there are many other ways that technology is changing the world. You have AI, self-driving cars, finance, education, the workplace – and these things are all related in ways that are quite hard to see. And they are partly connected because there’s a tiny number of companies who are working across all those things. From mapping, to health care. And actually it become a problem if you are actually looking at it within a sector. There needs to be a holistic view as well."

Rachel Coldicutt - Doteveryone - IMPRESS Trust in Journalism Conference 2018

“One of the things that we realised is that in the discussions about regulating the internet it’s always felt easy to say it’s too big, it’s too global, it’s too American, it ought to be free, it’s libertarian – and that actually the issue that we started to look at is really more practical”.

She then summarised the main proposal of Doteveryone: “Our contention is that the regulators that exist need to have more skills and capability. But they can’t really act alone. This is really a question as well of how to empower the public. A lot of the things that happen that are mediated through algorithms or the internet are really hard to see (...) It’s really important to us that we start to think about creating an evidence-base that is impartial, that kind look after by the equivalent of the chief medical officer - Rather than this being something that lobbyists are influencing".

"And lastly, we would like to see the possibility of an ombudsman or a body that people can turn to. Because the issue at the moment is lots of the harms that are happening in the world mediated through the tech are invisible. And that actually if we are able to start collating those it becomes powerful”.

Finally, she spoke about the role of journalism in this regard: “I think that what isn’t happening, and journalism could play more of a role in this, is the shining a light. It isn’t only about information wars. There are the injustices that are created by algorithmic decisions, the ways that technology is changing every industry, everyone’s working lives. And there is actually the power here to tell their stories and to create accountability there. And this is probably hugely more important than a regulator.”

As part of the discussion that followed, Damian Tambini referred to the idea of regulation and the current stage in the relationship with the platforms: “We need to think very carefully when we start talking about regulation (...) It’s a long-term problem (...) The kind of negotiation we are having with the platforms is multi-faceted. It’s not regulation yet; but it’s about the long-term threat of regulation. Because believe you me, if our democracy and our domestic political legitimacy is threatened because a foreign company isn’t looking after our interests, they will be regulated. That’s the end game.”

Rachel Coldicutt also added that when it comes to Parliament and government efforts when it comes to engaging with the platforms "there isn’t really the expertise to ask the right things”.

Closing words

To close the panel, Kurt Barling asked each speaker to briefly refer to the broad question: ‘Platforms, publishers and politicians: Can’t we all just be friends?’.

Emma Meese focused on the role of publishers:

The quality of the sector will speak for itself. And we are seeing that at the moment with more people turning to local news. There’s a growth in the sector. Publishers are turning back to print, because there’s a need and an appetite for local news. Because it’s more trusted”.

Damian Tambini:

Like Alan Rusbridger said in the past: for the moment, frenemies. Right? There’s a mutual relationship there. But we have to remember that ultimately, they are here on our terms. And there are multiple things that we can tweak in the public interest (…) If they have revenues in a country, there is something that country can do”.

Rachel Coldicutt:

I don’t know. I guess what I am interested is in a functioning democracy. And whatever it takes to get to that”.