Should news media cut the cord with Big Tech?

By Peter Bale


New Zealand and the U.K.


The symbiotic relationship or maybe more epiphyte (a plant that grows on another but does not parasitise it) relationship between media and technology is something we all wrestle with as Facebook falls out of love with news and we realise how dependent we became on an organisation we loved then loved to hate.

A journalist I admire is looking at that on-again-off-again relationship between media and technology firms, which she increasingly defines as akin to a toxic romance — one where you can’t bear to be together but continue messaging the object of your obsessional affection.

She reckons it is time to split properly and to find our own way in the world.

Natalia Antelava is the co-founder of investigative journalism site CodaStory, dedicated to in-depth reporting and “staying on the story.” She has been based in Tbilisi, Georgia, the former Soviet state where corruption and misinformation have become endemic after a period when democracy and new media flourished. Coda was early to report on the impact of disinformation.

Natalia sees our sometime friends in the technology industry — especially those like Facebook who created social networks or Google with its mission to answer all questions — as guilty of spreading disinformation and amplifying it, undermining their very news “partners.” She’s using a fellowship at Stanford University in California to examine the clash between media and tech.

“To me, the relationship resembles a dysfunctional love affair rather than a friendship,” she wrote in a recent post on Medium. “In it, we, journalists, are the chasers. We complain relentlessly and blame tech companies for destroying our business models, yet we want them to stay. We look at them with disdain, yet we can’t hide our adoration. It’s a ‘we hate them, but can’t stop texting’ kind of dynamic.”

She argues that the way media outlets and most of the major industry think tanks and quasi-academic hubs took money from Facebook and Google for research and to build fact-checking operations to counter so-called disinformation may actually have undermined news organisations, almost creating a reality of fake news by looking so hard for it.

She thinks that really looking at the underlying causes of disinformation — such as a Facebook business model built on generating heat rather than light — became impossible because we and the organisations who might have done the digging were taking money from Big Tech.

“Disinformation is the [news] industry’s collective obsession,” Natalia writes. “As the industry, I believe we made a terrible mistake when we framed disinformation as a ‘fake news’ problem. For a long time, focus on the fake news aspect of the disinformation crisis made us, journalists, reactive, defensive, and focused on symptoms rather than underlying causes of disinformation.”

Now the news industry stands fatally compromised by a relationship that tech companies — especially Facebook — have grown tired of and abandoned, leaving us bereft of cash and, in most cases, of the traffic we used to gain. Now we need to build back direct traffic in a world made cacophonous by the noise generated by social media and mass information.

“The problem with tech platforms is that they never brought new voices into a conversation. They brought them into a shouting match in which the loudest, nastiest, the most outrageous are always poised to win,” Natalia writes in the Medium piece.

“This deafening noise of the information ecosystem, I believe, is a huge reason why journalism — and by journalism I mean high-quality, insightful, inclusive reporting — lost its role as a curator of a public conversation … . Trying to figure out how quality journalism can punch through the noise of the digital ecosystem is, in my view, journalism’s most pressing challenge. It is also the focus of much of my work at Stanford,” she writes of her John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship.

I may not agree with all the points Natalia makes, but I have long admired her as an acute analyst, sharp-eyed observer, and brave reporter in the field — not to mention as an entrepreneur. We know we danced with the devil by embedding ourselves so deeply into the business models of technology companies for whom news was only ever a channel. 

Full disclosure: I am on the advisory board of CodaStory. I also attended the first of Coda’s amazing Zeg (a Georgian word for “the day after tomorrow”) non-fiction storytelling festival.

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About Peter Bale

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