Guardian’s Katharine Viner: ‘Social media companies have become overwhelmingly powerful’

Guardian News and Media’s editor-in-chief Katharine Viner’s prognosis of news publishing in an algorithm- and platform-dominated world is bleak.

Viner addressed a room full of senior marketers yesterday in her keynote at advertiser trade body ISBA’s annual lunch in London. During her speech she reinforced just how much technology and the rise of platforms have changed publishing, and redirected advertising spend.

She referred to a recent Reuters Institute report that revealed a trove of information on people’s current news-consumption habits and showed just how dominant Facebook has become as a platform on which people find news.

“Social media companies have become overwhelmingly powerful in determining what we read and whether publishers make any money,” she said. “The idea of the challenging wide-open worldwide web has been replaced by platforms and publishers who maximize the amount of time you spend with them and find clever ways to stop you leaving. That may be great news for advertisers and the platforms themselves, but it’s a real concern for the news industry.”

That’s partly because it’s led to virality of news being seen as a more valuable commodity than quality or truth, she added. Both journalists and advertisers are locked in the same race in this new world: of fighting to be seen in the news feed.

Facebook tweaked its algorithm last week to favor content that’s shared by people’s friends and family on the platform, rather than what publishers share.

“For journalism, it is a fight dictated by an ever-changing, unknown, mysterious news feed algorithm,” she said, later adding that the entire industry has fallen into line behind the platforms. “We’re at a loss, in part because we have wholly adopted the language and vision of Silicon Valley.”

Viner described the filters used by some platforms like Facebook, and even chat apps like Whatsapp and Viber, as “echo chambers” that lead to people becoming isolated from opposing views and facts, but only exposed to those of like-minded people, and that can perpetuate myths rather than facts, as seen throughout the EU referendum.

“Because Facebook does not think of itself primarily as a news company, it seems to want us to stop expecting it to act like one,” she said. “Whether we should is a more complicated matter.”

She praised how Google and Facebook have helped publishers, including the Guardian, to drive scale, but added that the end result doesn’t necessarily equate to revenue. “Innovative journalism needs a new business model,” she said.

Here are some other takeaways from her speech:

Not “theologically opposed” to paywalls
Despite this challenging backdrop, Viner was confident that the public’s desire for quality, trusted journalism remains strong and that they’re willing to pay for it. She cited the Guardian’s figures around its Brexit coverage as proof of that. In June, it hit 1 billion pageviews for the first time, and 17 million people visited the site, leaving 131,000 comments relating to Brexit.

Last week, Viner published a post calling on readers to support the Guardian’s journalism and continued in-depth coverage of major news like Brexit, by paying memberships. The Guardian’s mantra has always been to champion open journalism, free from paywalls, and Viner reasserted that position, albeit with a touch more flexibility than the publisher would have previously allowed for.

“For now, I’d rather ask people to contribute money to help fund our journalism than demand it. I’m not theologically opposed to paywalls, but I believe it would be better to explore all the alternatives first,” she said.

She added that the experiment in asking people to contribute has been “very successful” though wouldn’t share further figures.

Spreading and funding of fake news 

The speed at which inaccurate information can spread on social media has become painfully quick. This year during the Paris attacks, several false articles and videos spread like wildfire. It has lead to a doubling down on verification processes of news. Naturally Viner referenced trusted news outlets like the Guardian as the publications that debunk all myths and falsehoods.

It wasn’t just user-generated content published to social networks that she spoke of. She also called out news farm National Report as a site which has published fake blogs about the Ebola crisis, daily fake stories about infections, and comments from fabricated sources. “It’s apparently a lean and profitable business. In a world in which humans rather than computers make choices, and with the rise of advertising served by algorithms, some of you [brands] are unwittingly supporting fake journalism,” she said.

Journalists themselves have, of course, made mistakes, regardless of digital, for various reasons. But it’s the fact that in the digital era the rumors and lies are read just as widely as the facts, and often more because they’re “wilder” than real life and more “enticing” to share, that Viner lamented. “Is anyone responsible for preventing lies from flying around the world?”

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