Frenemies: reinventing the Big Tech versus journalism dynamic (RightsCon 2022)

Report of the session at RightsCon 2022


Frenemies” points out to this type of complicated relationship in which, despite the issues the different parts still need each other. One could notice that journalism and digital platforms have this kind of inseparable “love to hate” relationship, remarked the moderator of the session, Courtney Radsch, Tech policy strategist at GFMD and Co-coordinator of the DC-Sustainability.

The digital convergence has upended the news media’s traditional business model while at the same time online disinformation has become an issue of global concern. Journalism “trust initiatives” strive to build a stronger digital news ecosystem and ensure users have access to high-quality news even as Google and Facebook create their own products focused on news media. This session examined several of these efforts to build trust in reliable news sources, some of which show promise and others that have struggled to gain traction, with a specific focus on their relevance and utility for supporting independent media in the "Global South" and non-English media. The session introduced how projects such as The Trust Project or Ads for News work, and how the emergency response to the invasion of Ukraine triggered new forms of collaboration between tech platforms and media support organisations and what lessons have been learned so far.

After a brief presentation, the audience splitted in breakout groups to discuss and explore new approaches to trust online, what needs are these news integrity initiatives addressing, and what are their implications for journalism? Furthermore, the audience also questioned if these approaches can be inclusive or scalable, and if (and how) more localized efforts interacted with the global initiatives?

How familiar was RightsCon audience with news integrity initatives?

During the session we asked our audience about their familiarity with the different initiatives that were introduced in the session. The Trust project was one of the more known initiatives, with 65% of the audience stating that they were familiar with the initiative. 60% of the audience was also familiar with Facebook’s journalism integrity work. Although not least important, only a bit more than a third of the audience was familiar with Ads for News. Although this was not a surprise for Jason Lambert, Senior Director of Media Business at Internews, hopefully, for the other 68% of the audience, Ads for News was one of the big discoveries made during the session.

Protecting news integrity: initiatives in and out digital platforms

There is a link between local news and being able to hold accountable those in power, healthy democracies and thriving environments and open markets.” Jason Lambert, Senior Director of Media Business at Internews

Over the last years of digital transition, which were accelerated by COVID, the big ad spend money that was going to print and broadcast, did not go to digital to the same extent. Big tech companies have become intermediaries through their digital platforms between content producers, advertisers and consumers. This has gone against the news media. In addition to that, Jason Lambert, Senior Director of Media Business at Internews pointed out that some big brands decided not to advertise in news because they do not want to have their ads placed next to “negative” stories like COVID, or Black Lives Matter, or Ukraine, for example. “And that's really damaging” Jason said, “Having brands pull their money away from news is catastrophic ''. For that reason, the initiative of Ads for News tries to bring back brands to trusted local news as a way to protect news integrity in the digital sphere.

On the other hand, The Trust Project started in 2013 with the aim of helping news organisations strengthen their presence in the digital space. “The idea behind The Trust Project is to ask news organisations to step forward to describe who and what is behind their news organisation, behind that individual news story, so people can make an informed choice about whether to trust this news.” explained Sally Lehrman, founder and CEO of The Trust Project. This builds on the idea that journalists should not be saying what their audiences should believe, trust or vote, but, on the contrary give the information to the public so they can make their own decisions.

Not only the donors or the general public use these indicators. Digital platforms are also joining the efforts to protect news integrity. Their approach, similar to The Trust Project, is to assist users to make their own judgements on what and how they consume by labelling content in the platforms, always making sure that is done in a transparent way. “The challenge that platforms are facing is that there are lots of indicators and really good work that everyone is doing. But the implementation is really the challenging part.” expressed Sarah Shirazyan, Content Policy Manager at Facebook. However it is still difficult to assess whether, for example, an entity is a state media or not. The platform’s team needs to decipher any information available, like ownership indicators. “There isn't a list that really says all of these organisations are funded or supported by X, Y, and Z governments.” Sarah stated, “similarly for the local news, we have to scramble.”

I think there is this misconception that Facebook and platforms in general are not interested in high quality content. But it is quite the opposite: high quality and diversified content is really at the core of the long term sustainability of digital platforms.” Sarah Shirazyan, Content Policy Manager at Facebook.

How are these initiatives used?

The Trust Project formulated eight trust indicators, as a result of extensive research with news users. At the moment, these trust indicators are being applied by 265 news organisations in various countries around the globe: Europe, North and Latin America, Asia…

  • Expertise, who is the journalists,

  • Labelling news versus opinion versus paid content.

  • Referencing, when stories are more controversial or based on investigative work, show the sources to the audience so they can check the accuracy and reliability of the story that is being told.

  • Local knowledge, demographic expertise, knowing the community which also leads to the following indicator:

  • Including the diversity of voices and perspectives.

  • Allowing the audience or public to give feedback, to better engage and include them in the reporting.

  • Methods and explanation of the practices.

  • Best practices are really important since they show the why and how the public service agenda is retained, as opposed to an agenda that just serves whoever the owner is or the governments.

Regarding their effectiveness, multiple studies have been conducted and the results show that using those indicators enhances people’s perceptions of the credibility of the site, the news, the reporter, and also stimulates a desire to engage. “In essence,” Sally affirms, “the indicators work''. In practical terms, Facebook has used the indicators when trying to separate news from other types of content, so have Bing and Google to surface reliable and reputable news via the rater guidelines. However, rebuilding trust in this era of uncertainty and polarisation that has been triggered by mis- and disinformation forces:

Trust indicators are one way to address this but not the only one. The last piece is in our news feeds, by starting to focus less on the conflict and both sides, and really showing more diverse news. That will help tamp down polarisation in both sides” Sally Lehrman, founder and CEO of The Trust Project

Ads for News has a list of 8000 news media websites, focusing primarily on local news websites in over 30 countries. The project has been active for over two-three years, “it’s been a pretty hard work” Jason admitted, “but we have some great partners”, Ads for News has an agreement with one of the world’s largest advertising agency to get a percentage of all their clients spend in the Asia Pacific region and give it to the trusted local news list of Ads for News. “Our definition of local news is that it is an organisation that employs journalists at the municipal level to hold to account those in power at that level. And that will also include national media, independent national media”

But it is not an easy work: in order to drive more money to local news and to generate these lists used by Ads for News, there is a need to have a team dedicated to continuously fundraising from donors and have teams in each country to index local news. As Jason noted, it is not a sustainable model. For that reason, Jason’s team are looking for other approaches, like having a group of volunteers working with them in each country, indexing trusted local media according to the standards and the set criteria. This approach embeds the concept of social profit in their initiative. The idea behind this concept is that:

“All of us in order to have profit or to gain benefit from a system, whether it's a business that we're running or our careers, we all need to do things which are good for society in order to take that profit back out. The social profit for these volunteers is that they will do a good thing and they will also get recognized as knowing what trusted news is, they'll get recognized for being associated with an initiative like this, which feeds money towards trusted local news.”

It is still to be seen if this idea of social profit can be embedded in the whole news ecosystem, to get people to look after the markets that they operate in and help identify the quality and trusted content, so the malicious or misleading one can be defunded.

Supporting local news: Ukraine

The Global Forum for Media Development is a network of more than 120 small, local, regional and international organisations in more than 50 countries that promote freedom of expression and freedom of the media by supporting journalists, journalism organisations and independent media in these countries. As Mira Milosevic, GFMD’s Executive Director, stated, “GFMD’s core mission is providing a convening space for the local independent community voices to give input, especially in the digital sphere, on how to build a more fair, inclusive and equitable digital environment”. This convening space is also used to bring different assistance to organisations in certain countries in times of crises. So, when the invasion of Ukraine started, GFMD quickly reacted by organising weekly meetings bringing together different organisations that were providing assistance to journalists, media organisations or human rights activists. During these meetings, organisations shared what they were doing, what was needed, and how to better coordinate among themselves and among others to better assist media outlets and journalists in the field. One of the main issues quickly identified during these meetings was that many local voices were not recognised by platforms as credible and trusted voices.

As it has been noted above, before the invasion of Ukraine, Facebook had already started investing many efforts in supporting news integrity and news quality in their platform, by, for example, creating a dedicated teams that work with organisations and experts to synthesise and understand the different trust indicators and ensuring that the input received is channelled in their own policy and product development process. During the second week of Ukraine’s invasion, Facebook reached out to those different experts and organisations that had helped their work in supporting news in their platforms, like GFMD, this time, looking for recommended trusted and credible sources of information in Ukraine and the region. In response to that call to action, and being already identified , GFMD created a list of trusted local organisations by crowdsourcing information with their members and partners who not only subscribe to GFMD’s code of practice but also to the very elaborate vetting that include indicators from GFMD partners such as Internews and the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI), and similar indicators as the ones in the Trust Project.

As a result, in seven days, GFMD managed to crowdsource a list of organisations in Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and other countries in the region, including the very few independent Russian organisations that provide independent information in Russia. The list, however, did not only inform one of the big digital platforms, but GFMD also sent it to Twitter, seeking their assistance to “give the blue tick” to the organisations that GFMD members worked with in the region. GFMD and its members and partners continue updating and improving the list, keeping the communication’s channel open with both tech platforms to ensure that local voices are heard despite the ongoing turmoil.

Conversations in the breakout groups

AI and Content Moderation

One of the issues that arose in the different groups was about content moderation and the use of Artificial Intelligence technologies or other kinds of algorithms to moderate and recommend content in the digital platforms. One group outlined the problems with current moderation practices, such as:

NGO quasi-journalistic blogs getting mixed up with malicious actors and not appearing in algorithms,

The use of moderation tools by savy malicious actors to grow misinformation

And how the current system keeps amplifying extreme content, emphasising conflict, creating a distorted reality

Although not in the same room, other groups also recognised that AI does not precisely detect differences in media content and, despite that, AI is scalable and is being used by the ad industry. It was also said that AI is conservative: “as an example, a decision on news content with keywords such as ‘Ukraine’ would be seen as the content being negative (due to the Russian invasion/war) and AI will advise the advertiser to pull ads from that content” shared one participant. Moreover, since the lack of transparency in moderation can be harmful, one group came up with some actions that platforms could undertake to improve their moderation practices:

Involve the broader public

Come to a set of agreements/guidelines just for NGOs

Have more conversations to assist building up the guardrails.

Recognizing trusted partners who can develop those guidelines

Context, Scale and Diversity

Another problem that was flagged was that different media environments could have different impact on journalism trust projects (e.g. polarised media contexts such as South Asia/MENA or elections/disinformation-related situations, as in the Philippines). Therefore, indicators should be contextually sensitive: one participant from the Philippines explained how during the 2016 elections, Facebook was used as a platform to spread disinformation, while, at the same time, trust in traditional media outlets and journalists was as rapidly eroded as it was their own safety: harassment and hatred were directed towards journalists and media workers, or anyone who, at some point, expressed criticism on Duterte. Bloggers and influencers filled the online information space that once belonged to journalism, without self-regulatory bodies or ethical councils that could redress the spread or mis- and disinformation or safeguard freedom of expression and ensure plurality of views.

Building trust: a pressing issue

One thing is clear: trust in the media is linked to trust in institutions. If the trust in mainstream media is eroded, it directly impacts the trust in the democratic institutions. But platform recognition of who is a credible news source presents also some challenges: It can seem really ad-hoc, and it can pose a challenge for media development organisations to decide about which media outlets to work with and where to spend money. Moreover if this also affects decisions related to platform takedowns, for example, in the case when a platform might not consider a certain news outlet as a news source therefore it will not consider their takedown complaints as a legitimate journalism issue.

Lessons Learned

“In our research” Sally mentioned ”we found a lot of uncertainty and anxiety”. Because of that, people are vulnerable to be exploited by toxic forces, “platforms could do more, we ought to do more to address that group.” To not leave anyone behind, Sally also recognised the collective need to uplift local BIPOC and other undercovered and often attacked voices. At the same time, local organisations struggle to find a channel to speak with tech platforms about the different issues that they face in the digital environment. This happens not only in the context of war or crisis, but also in peaceful times.

There is definitely a need to speak about more inclusive, meaningful representation, and for us, as a civil sector to come together to create mechanisms for all these credible voices to be systematically represented, and not only in the times of crisis.” Mira Milosevic, GFMD’s Executive Director

Nonetheless, although GFMD’s list has helped both local organisations and global tech platforms, similarly to the case of Ads for News initiative, some concerns arise about the sustainability of this model. Building those lists involves different teams updating them and crowdsourcing information, and, in addition, ensuring transparency in all the stages of the process, including who is contributing to the lists, needs to be a priority. While platforms are relying on such tools to uplift local voices, trusted media and journalist’s content, for Sarah, a question remains: “how can we, as a community, create more practical implementations for those trust indicators?

Although the question might remain unanswered for now, as perhaps there is no right or unique answer, the discussion in small groups flagged many issues and posed different ideas regarding ways to disentangle this puzzling but necessary relation between digital platforms and journalism. Since many things are left to be resolved, the conversation will need to remain open.

To stay up to date on the most relevant issues of the field sign up for the official mailing list for the Dynamic Coalition on the Sustainability of Journalism and News Media here.

Shared resources

This spreadsheet shows the geographic spread of media that have received funds from Google and Facebook's various journalism/news initiatives (from Prof. Charis Papaev presented at #ica22)

Recommended reading: Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech under Surveillance Capitalism, Jillian C. York (2021)

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