Who fact-checks the fact-checkers?

The recent stoush between POTUS and Twitter on fact-checking and his alleged use of violent invective has rekindled the debate on whether, and how, social media should be regulated. It’s a potential quagmire (especially the issue of free speech), but it also comes at a time when here in Australia, social media is fighting twin legal battles – on defamation and fees for news content.

First, the issue of fact-checking on social media. Public commentary was divided – some argued that fact-checking is a form of censorship, and others posed the question “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (who fact-checks the fact-checkers?) Others suggested that fact-checking in this context was a form of public service to ensure that political debate is well-informed, obvious errors are corrected, and that blatant lies (untruths, falsehoods, fibs, deceptions, mis-statements, alternative facts….) are called out for what they are. Notably, in this case, the “fact” was not edited, but flagged as a warning to the audience. (In case anyone hadn’t noticed (or remembered), earlier this year Facebook announced that it would engage Reuters to provide certain fact-check services.) Given the current level of discourse in the political arena, traditional and social media, and the court of public opinion, I’m often reminded of an article I read many years ago in the China Daily, which said something to the effect that “it is important to separate the truth from the facts”.

Second, the NSW Court of Appeal recently ruled that media companies can be held responsible for defamatory comments posted under stories they publish on social media. While this specific ruling did not render Facebook liable for the defamatory posts (although like other content platforms, social media is subject to general defamation laws), it was clear that the media organisations are deemed to be “publishing” content on their social media pages. And even though they have no way of controlling or moderating the Facebook comments before they are made public, for these purposes, their Facebook pages are no different to their own websites.

Third, the Australian Government is going to force companies like Facebook and Google to pay for news content via revenue share from ad sales. The Federal Treasurer was quoted as saying, “It is only fair that the search ­engines and social media giants pay for the original news content that they use to drive traffic to their sites.” If Australia succeeds, this may set an uncomfortable precedent in other jurisdictions.

For me, much of the above debate goes to the heart of how to treat social media platforms – are they like traditional newspapers and broadcast media? are they like non-fiction publishers? are they communications services (like telcos)? are they documents of record? The topic is not new – remember when Mark Zuckerberg declared that he wanted Facebook to be the “world’s newspaper”? Be careful what you wish for…

Next week: Fact v Fiction in Public Discourse

Looking back on 6 years of blogging

It’s that time of year to reflect on the past 12 months, the season of lists and growing wistfulness (to misquote Keats). Time to think about the year that was, and what might have been. I have been writing this blog for 6 years, and it seems like a good opportunity to take stock, as Content in Context takes a break until the new year.

First, some facts. The most popular post this year has been “I’m old, not obsolete”, even though it was published more than three years ago. In a similar vein, my most popular posts of all time could both be regarded as evergreen articles: one about crate digging in Japan, and another about the new conglomerates (update here). This year’s most popular new posts were both about Blockchain (here and here). In fact, I have mentioned the broader topic of Blockchain, cryptocurrencies and digital assets more than 50 times in the past 5 years, starting with a reference to CoinJar in mid-2013. Not too surprising, given this is where I have been focusing most of my efforts over the past two and half years.

Second, as regular readers will know, I have tried to be very disciplined about the frequency and scheduling of my posts. Whether this is purely for my benefit, or whether it helps my audience, I don’t know – but it seems to work, as I need a regular deadline, and posting on a weekly basis avoids the risk of fatigue (my own and the readers’).

Third, I realise it took me a while to find my voice – and to gain confidence in sharing my thoughts and ideas in public. Some of my early efforts didn’t quite hit the mark, as I was either trying too hard or I hadn’t yet identified what made my content have impact. Over time, based on reader feedback, the more I express my own opinions (rather than regurgitating other people’s’ views) the more that people engage with the content.

Fourth, I have always maintained two key principles in producing this blog: 1) every word is my own; and 2) no cash for comment. Over the years, I have been approached by numerous freelance bloggers who want to produce articles for me (for a fee, of course); and by PR firms who want to push sponsored content on behalf of their clients. I have managed to avoid going down that path. Nothing wrong with either activity, but it’s not in keeping with what I set out to do, and it would undermine my desire to be authentic – plus, I think it would potentially compromise my independence.

Finally, writing this blog often helps me to work out my thoughts, and develop them into ideas that I can use for my consulting work. At the same time, this platform allows me to air my views on topics which don’t immediately relate to my professional life – but which are consistent with my personal perspective and tastes. And while this blog doesn’t define who I am, it does form part of my personal branding, and I also hope it is a true reflection of my beliefs and values.

On that note, my I wish all my readers a safe, peaceful and reflective festive season. Usual output will resume in the New Year.

 

 

 

 

Separating the Truth from the Facts

There was almost a look of horror on Rudy Giuliani‘s face when he realised what he had done in saying “Truth isn’t truth”. His reputation as New York Mayor at its most challenging time, not to say his career as a lawyer, may have been completely undone by this latest pronouncement on behalf of an administration that has increasing difficulty in separating facts from fiction (or “real fakes” from mere “fabrication”?).

“Doh!” Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images/Saul Loeb

In our post-truth age, one where we have had to accommodate “alternative facts” and “fake news”, language, if not the truth, is usually the first casualty in this war of, and on words themselves.

If one was being charitable, it could be argued that the struggle between “facts” and “truth” is like the difference between structuralism and post-structuralism: so, in the former, words have a finite meaning when used in a particular way or structure; whereas in the latter, the same words can have different meanings depending on the context of the audience.

But rather than critical theory, I think we are actually dealing with a phenomenon I first encountered about 20 years ago, while working in China. A report in the China Daily regarding a constitutional matter that was before the courts said that in order to fully understand the issue, it was “important to separate the truth from the facts…”.

Next week: The party’s over

 

Bringing Back Banter

Last week I watched “The Trip To Spain”, the latest in the “Trip” franchise. For anyone who has not yet seen these films (or the TV series from which they are compiled), the narratives revolve around a pair of actors playing fictional versions of themselves, as they embark on road trips to sample some of the best restaurants, hotels and historic locations. The semi-improvised dialogue between the two main characters is classic banter – as in “the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks“.

The gentle art of banter is at the heart of “The Trip To Spain” – Image sourced from British Comedy Guide

Sadly, just as the public discourse has become much uglier in recent years (despite various calls for a “kinder, gentler politics”), it seems there is something of a backlash against neo-banter (or “bantaaaaaaah!” as some would have it). Maybe there is a connection?

If our political leaders cannot engage in the natural ebb and flow of an ideological discussion shaped as informed conversation (rather than embarking on all out verbal warfare), then don’t be surprised if this is the same boorish, belligerent and bellicose tone adopted by protagonists in social media, op eds and parliamentary “debates”. (And I am not defending anyone who uses the term “banter” to excuse/explain the inappropriate.)

Banter can help to explore hypothetical scenarios, suggest alternative opinions, and take a discussion in different directions, without participants being hidebound by the first thing they say. Plus, if done really well, it allows us to see the ultimate absurdity of untenable positions.

Next week: Supersense – Festival of the Ecstatic