Publishers and journalists have nothing to gain from complaining about platforms such as Facebook “stealing” their audiences.
Instead, they need to recognise why audiences have gone elsewhere and find new ways to meet the challenge of bringing them back, according to journalism professor and media thought leader Jeff Jarvis.
“I don’t blame the platforms for fake news. I don’t blame the platforms for the current atmosphere. It’s a human behaviour problem, not a technology problem.”
Jarvis, the director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at City University New York, was delivering the keynote address at the launch of the UTS Centre for Media Transition.
The centre is an interdisciplinary initiative of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the Faculty of Law and aims to understand how digital transition can be harnessed to develop local media and to enhance the role of journalism in democratic, civil society.
Jarvis said many people had asked him about “fake news” since he arrived in Sydney – and fake news did become a “target of blame for what we went through at the [2016 presidential election” – but it’s a “bogus topic”.
“There is no such thing as fake news. There is propaganda, there is fraud, there are lies and there are politicians who try to call real news fake news for their own benefits,” Jarvis told guests.
A recent Data & Society report made compelling reading for its “taxonomy of the bad guys” – trolls, white nationalists, men’s rights activists, gamer-gaters, the “alt-right” – and the way they manipulate the news agenda and propagate ideas, Jarvis said.
“This notion of fake news … masks the idea that there’s something far more serious going on that tries to disenfranchise entire communities and nations and thus affect democracy itself.”
However, he said it did lead to an important discussion about trust and the need to rebuild it – trust of the public in facts and in institutions such as science, education, politics, government and democracy itself, and trust between communities.
Jarvis said the public, the platforms and the publishers all had responsibilities to counteract the manipulators.
First, the public need to resurrect civility and ensure the responsible sharing of material on internet platforms.
“The internet has brought out many years of frustrations we have with institutions.”
Second, the platforms must do a better job of mapping the manipulation that’s occurring – “Facebook and Google should not become censors or editors … [but] the more they map and share that data, the better we can understand the manipulation”.
Jarvis would like to see Facebook “make strangers less strange, thereby robbing the manipulators of their key tool which is fear of the other”.
Finally, there are the publishers and media who “have the most to do”.
“Journalists need to do a much better job of listening to the public we serve. We’re not good at that [though] we think we are,” Jarvis said.
Journalists need to share power with the public and to take journalism to the public where and when they want to have the conversation.
The media needs to “stop being the chumps of the manipulators” and aim for value and relevance.
“We have to recognise that the old business model based on reach, based on volume, based on talking to as many people as we can, leads inevitably to cats and Kardashians and click bait.
“Donald Trump is click bait … That’s why he succeeded. That’s why it worked.”