Journalists step in where platforms have no answers

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All your news is organized by invisible hands. Moderation and content curation measures are two sides of the same coin, and they are at the heart of digital intermediary services. Mild behavioral nudges behind these measures can channel the choices of Google search and Facebook audiences one way or the other, through processes that legal expert Karen Yeung describe as “subtle, understated yet extraordinarily powerful”.

Questions about what content audiences should see have always been part of discussions about media and communication. Newsrooms and parliaments abound with debates about freedom of expression and content that is in the “public interest”. And while governments how to intervene with the digital giants to preserve democratic institutions and provide the public with diverse and reliable information, the media industry is trying to solve the problem from within.

Industry standards and certifications have been touted as solutions to journalism’s trust issues. (The Climate Reality Project, Unsplash)

News organizations around the world are proposing principles and criteria that could define who are “providers of public interest information”. One of the main examples is the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI) in Europe. It started as a collaborative standardization process, under the guidelines of the European Committee for Standardization (CEN), led by Reporters Without Borders and supported by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), Agence France Presse (AFP) and more of 120 experts and entities.

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In 2019 he released a reference document, setting technical standards and professional standards for journalists and the media. These standards introduce a number of clauses, such as transparency requirements on ownership, funding, editorial mission and data collection practices, but also accountability requirements aimed at fostering higher levels of professional standards, accuracy and internal and external accountability systems for these media. who require JTI certification.

These standards could enable trustworthy, public-interest journalism to thrive in the digital age. During the implementation phase, JTI is also call that these standards are taken into account in the algorithms of search engines and social media platforms, in order to bring out, recommend and make more visible “reliable and trustworthy sources of information online for the benefit of companies and democracy”. These measures could be applied through self-regulatory instruments, a code of good practice or stricter co-regulatory frameworks.

To ensure that JTI standards are implemented within fair and accountable frameworks, self-assessment and accreditation processes must be independent and verifiable. This is particularly the case if governments were to support its implementation with complementary co-regulatory interventions, as transparent and procedurally fair processes to review criteria for ‘public interest’ journalism will be crucial. Although prominence algorithms have the potential to promote trusted news sources, they can also be exploited for mild forms of censorship or propaganda, with implications for democracy and human rights.

These standards also need to find broad support and consensus among journalists and the media, which could be a challenge. In some countries there are independent press regulators with their own industry standards, to which not all press and information providers have adhered (such as IPSO and IMPRESS UK).

And with growing concerns about online misinformation, other networks are also working to develop principles and guidelines for “trusted” or “public interest” journalism, such as News Guard and its ‘trust notes’the Trust Project with its ‘confidence indicators”or the Credibility Coalition and its Guidelines for promoting the quality of online information.

As pointed out by European Digital Media Observatory, the use of metrics as the sole means of determining the reliability of content sources can create a media environment in which “established players gain an additional competitive advantage, while new players face barriers to entry without precedent”, leading to problems of media pluralism and distortion of the media market. Benefits and consequences should be assessed, taking into account the voluntary nature of technical standards and other emerging indicators, and the need to transparency on the methodology of the indicators so that users are aware of their limitations.

Following growing public pressure, services like Google Search and Facebook have improved the transparency of their algorithms. However, as pointed out by the Ranking 2020 Digital Rights Responsibility Indexthey still have a long way to go.

With respect to the prioritization of content on these services, as argued by the Council of Europe Study 2020, these companies are increasingly mixing their usual commercial criteria with vague general interest considerations. For example, in Google Search Ranking Guidelinesamong criteria such as query meaning, relevance, recency, and context, its algorithms also consider “content quality” and “expertise, authority, and trustworthiness.”

Whether a source of information is considered trustworthy or authoritative, and therefore given a higher ranking, appears to be determined by several factors, one being whether “other websites material links or refers to the content”. However, it is unclear what other factors are considered and how they are weighted in the final recommender system. Industry standards do not appear to be part of the differentiation criteria.

Facebook provides some general informations on how the company organizes and classifies”newsworthy content”. The company says its choices are based on a balancing test that weighs the public interest against the risk of harm. They mention that the tests and corresponding judgments are based on “international human rights standards”, but what standards and what types of human rights risks are not clear..

These measures show that search engines and social media companies are willing to reduce misinformation also through measures that support providers of public interest information. But there is a general lack of coordination. Industry standards shared across the world, or at least best practices referenced, are likely to help guide digital giants.

Meanwhile, in the cases of Google Search and Facebook, there are no independent assessments of how these criteria feed into their content prioritization metrics, how they are weighted against other criteria that value user popularity, relevance, or engagement, and what impacts they have on users. ‘ access to and consumption of information. Greater transparency of these factors would promote real change.

Ultimately however, the main purpose of digital intermediaries like these involves moderating, curating, curating and filtering the content that can be found on their services. It remains to be seen whether they would agree to subscribe to the principles of non-discrimination and public interest. Industry practices and policies could benefit from a more coordinated approach. If society hopes for future-proof regulatory proposals that can also be extended to European and international level, then it must widen its scope, because ultimately we face common problems of systems of faulty platform governance.

Good practice principles for prominence algorithms could include technical industry standards such as JTI, but also draw on existing Council of Europe recommendations on freedom of expression and information, media freedom and media pluralism. It is a question at intersection freedom of expression, freedom of the media and media pluralism that demands our attention.

Eleonora Maria Mazzoli is an ESRC-funded researcher in the LSE’s Department of Media and Communications. Alongside her current academic work in the field of content curation and platform governance, she also acts as an external expert and policy advisor, advising on media and digital policy challenges to European institutions, media industry organizations and civil society groups. Previously, she worked for the legal and policy department of the European Broadcasting Union and for RAI, the Italian public service broadcaster. Ms. Mazzoli has declared no conflict of interest in relation to this article.

Ms Mazzoli’s ongoing doctoral research project is funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) through Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) grant No. 2098308..

Originally published under Creative Commons through 360info™.

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