The public role and the business of news and information organisations and professionals is being hacked. On one side are Google and Facebook taking the majority of digital advertising and social media increasingly dominating news distribution. On the other is a growing and fluid range of actors — from commercial pseudo-news sites to highly organised AI supported campaigns — aiming to blur the lines between real and fake and in some cases to actively discredit and threaten journalists. The threat is clear — the undermining of the relationship between news organisations and their audiences.
JamLab is hosting a series of dialogues, starting in April, where we want to examine what media organisations are doing and what we all can do better to respond to these deep challenges. Our goal will be to focus the discussion on mapping and shaping the future rather than simply describing the problems of the present.
We’ve been hacked
This weekend, The Observer in the UK has exposed how a UK firm, Cambridge Analytica, used 50m US Facebook accounts to create micro-targetted ads to US voters based on psychometric profiles. As the Canadian whistleblower, Christopher Whylie describes it, they had a team of psychologists, writers and videographers, producing fake websites and blogs designed to lead voters down a rabbit hole of content designed to lead them to think differently.
In South Africa many will find this story familiar. The African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting and others last year exposed how the Gupta’s and UK PR firm Bell Pottinger organised online campaigns that undermined the country’s political and economic climate. Wits Journalism’s recently published State of the Newsroom report for 2017 adds new research and analysis on how this was done.
There is nothing new about propaganda. But the matrix of social media offers new means of undermining one of the most central functions of journalism and information media — to create a common public space for political discussion and debate. In the Observer’s video interview, Whylie succinctly describes the threat:
“Instead of standing in the public square and saying what you think and then letting people come and listen to you and have that shared experience of what your narrative is, you are whispering into the ear of each and every voter — whispering one thing into the ear of each and every voter and you may be whispering one thing into the ear of this voter and another thing to another voter. We risk fragmenting society in a way where we don’t have any more shared experiences and we don’t have any shared understanding.”
Its clear that journalists and media organisations need to respond. The Journalism and Media Lab (Jamlab) invites you to a dialogue in our new Making the Future of Journalism series. Our goals for the series is to enable media managers, journalists and researchers to share knowledge, experience and insights that can help them make better decisions and plans in making the future of journalism and media work better.
Nic Dawes, former editor of the Mail and Guardian, summarised the need to act at the end of last year at the Media Indaba in Cape Town:
“The information infrastructure that undergirds democracy, and public life, is under deliberate siege at a time when its foundations are already weakened by sloppy construction, inattentive maintenance, and the rising waters of technological climate change.”
The confirmed speakers for the dialogue include Siyabona Africa from the South African Media Innovation Program, Khadija Patel, editor at the Mail and Guardian and Tiso Blackstar’s managing editor, digital Riaan Wolmarans.
Where: Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct
When: 4 April 2018