In less than a year, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has gone from being viewed as a technology guru with presidential ambitions to being investigated by the United States congress and governments around the world. The investigations into Facebook’s alleged malpractices, widely reported in the news,will probably continue through 2018 and beyond. But it is not just Facebook. Google, YouTube, Twitter and other platforms have also been under fire. Indeed, in last year it has become clear to many that what is good for Silicon Valley is not necessarily good for America or the rest of the world.
Amid all this, pressure to regulate or even break up platforms is building in some countries. The US senate is proposing a bill to regulate political advertising on the internet. The UK parliament is investigating whether “fake news” shared on Facebook and Twitter influenced the Brexit referendum, while the Australian competition watchdog is looking at the market power of Facebook and Google with a specific focus on media.
A report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalismtitled “Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions, released earlier this year,is partly based on a survey of 194 leading editors, CEOs, and digital leaders. The survey reveals that 44% of publishers say they are more worried about the power and influence of platforms than this time last year. Only 7% are less worried. Publishers feel more negatively towards Facebook and Snapchat than they do about Twitter and Google. That said, some publishers also blame themselves for their ongoing difficulties. The biggest barriers to success, they say, are not platforms but internal factors such as resistance to change and inability to innovate. Mark Thompson, CEO of the New York Times, who is quoted in the survey, perhaps sums it up best. “This is a crucial year in the battle for the future of journalism.” he says.“After years of ‘disruption’ will the digital platforms really act on the emergency they have created, which has brought about a devaluation in the profession of journalism and a collapse of trust in media organisations and what they report?”
The report suggests investigations into misinformation and the role of the platforms will intensify but will actually lead to very little concrete action in most countries beyond new rules for election- based advertising Facebook Google You-Tube and others will continue to be accused of censorship but fact-checking, news literacy, and transparency initiatives will fail to stem the tide of misinformation and low trust.
The report integrates data and comments from the publishers’ survey to explore seven key themes for 2018. For each theme, the report offers suggestions about what might happen next.
Breaking publishers’ dependence on platforms The publisher’s survey reveals high levels of concern about the power and role of platforms amongst 44% of news executives. This rises to 55% of those from newspaper groups where profits have been squeezed by the increasing share of digital advertising revenues that goes to platforms. Not all platforms are viewed with equal concern. On a scale from 1 to 5, there is a more positive view on average of Google (3.44) and Twitter (3.23) than there is of Snapchat (2.82) and Facebook (2.57). Sentiment towards Facebook, in particular, seems to have worsened following its perceived role in promoting fake news, the lack of promised revenue for video, and a sudden drop in Facebook referrals to many news websites. In response, Facebook has launched what it calls the Facebook Journalism Project (FJP) but it seems to be more public relations than action. Many publishers still see the company as arrogant and high-handed.
Restoring trust in the era of fake news “Fake news” was the Collins dictionary phrase of the year in 2017, From an audience perspective, the term covers biased and shoddy journalism, political spin, misleading online advertising, as well as deliberately fabricated stories distributed via social media. The report suggests there will be no quick solution to this complex mix of different but related problems. Although many of the concerns have been around for decades, it is clear that digital and social media have fundamentally changed the rules of the game. Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, points out that: “Truth is no longer dictated by authorities, but is networked by peers.” Attempts to tackle these problems (fact-checking, greater transparency) have assumed that it is possible to rebuild public trust in the media. But as was suggested in a recent Reuters Institute report, it may be hard to persuade people of facts that run counter to their own entrenched beliefs however clearly or transparently stated.
Social media and messaging Several surveys show Facebook usage is high but stagnating. Many countries, especially “developed” markets have reached “peak Facebook” and this is why the reports says the company will be talking less about “reach” and more about “loyalty” and “time spent”. Another sign that the peak may have been passed is the decline in participation on Facebook. This reduction in personal sharing is sometimes called the “context collapse” and is partly related to peoples’ unwillingness to share openly in a network that includes so many different types of friends. As a result, some sharing of personal content has shifted to smaller, ephemeral, or more closed communities, especially for video and pictures. Messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are growing rapidly in general but also for news, while Snapchat resonates most with younger people between 18 and 25. Instagram has also been one of the fastest growing networks over the last two years as it moves to capitalise on new mobile behaviors and richer story-based formats.
Social challenge to traditional television intensifies Mark Zuckerberg is on record as seeing “video as a mega trend” but plans to rival YouTube or Netflix off the back of the news feed have not yet worked out. Facebook Live has not been as popular as hoped while early attempts to create original online shows have failed to turn Facebook Watch into a must-visit entertainment destination. But Facebook’s answer to these setbacks may be to get more serious about video. 2018 is likely to be a pivotal year for Facebook’s ambitions in this area, as well as for other Silicon Valley challengers.
Changing business models The publisher’s survey shows that 62% of respondents believe advertising will become less important over time with 10% saying they are actively planning for a future with little or no display advertising. This is a significant turnaround. Adjacent display worked well in print, was largely ignored on the desktop, and has become irrelevant on a mobile screen. The economics of supply and demand has driven down prices, advertising fraud is rife, and ad-blocking is widespread. In addition, the platforms are taking most of the new digital advertising money because of their ability to target any audience efficiently and at scale. The survey quotes New York Times CEO, Mark Thompson suggesting that the continued rapid decline in both print and digital advertising revenues will lead to growing “economic distress”for many newspaper groups but also to venture capital-funded “pure-players” that may have leaned in too far with a distributed model. Against this background, commercial media companies are looking at pursuing multiple revenue streams, with an average of six different options being considered.
Data, registration, and new permissions The report says 2018 could be the year when media companies recognise how critical data will be to their future success. In the survey, 62% of publishers said that improving data capacity was their most important initiative for the year ahead. Closely related, 58% said registering users was considered very important, with another 25% saying this was quite important. Moving audiences from the “anonymous to the known”,the report says, is critical for publishers looking to create a deeper relationship with audiences and to provide more personalised and relevant services. This is the next battleground for media and having the right data infrastructure and skills will be the key to making it work.
Newsrooms embrace artificial intelligence With tech firms betting their future on artificial intelligence publishers are also looking to understand how this range of complex technologies can be deployed in their businesses. Surprisingly, almost 75% of those surveyed said they were already using some kind of artificial intelligence (computers that in dependently learn over time) to improve outcomes. Respondents talked about projects to optimise marketing, automate fact-checking, and speed up tagging and metadata. Many of these are R&D projects at this stage but a significant number are likely to move into production over the next year. The report says there is no sense that the technology revolution is slowing down. If anything, it seems 2018 will be the beginning of a new phase of disruption. The era of artificial intelligence will bring new opportunities for creativity and for efficiency but also for greater misinformation and manipulation.
In conclusion, the report suggests that in the years to come people will no longer be just asking what is true but asking whether the information they receive is even being generated by a human. News stories will be written by machines, television schedules will be assembled and selected based on personal tastes. People will enjoy the convenience and the choice but will also worry about whether they can stay in control. They will increasingly worry about who programs the algorithms. News organisations, says the report, need to rethink their role in a world where people increasingly do not seek out media but are instead immersed in it. Changing journalistic culture will be a critical part of that together with the right strategies. While AI, voice, AR/ VR, messaging, and the shift to subscription are amongst the key trends ahead, the timing and precise form of these opportunities remain uncertain. Choices will still need to be made about what is most important for a particular organisation at a particular time.