Off-Label: How tech platforms decide what counts as journalism

Essay by Emily Bell: “…But putting a stop to militarized fascist movements—and preventing another attack on a government building—will ultimately require more than content removal. Technology companies need to fundamentally recalibrate how they categorize, promote, and circulate everything under their banner, particularly news. They have to acknowledge their editorial responsibility.

The extraordinary power of tech platforms to decide what material is worth seeing—under the loosest possible definition of who counts as a “journalist”—has always been a source of tension with news publishers. These companies have now been put in the position of being held accountable for developing an information ecosystem based in fact. It’s unclear how much they are prepared to do, if they will ever really invest in pro-truth mechanisms on a global scale. But it is clear that, after the Capitol riot, there’s no going back to the way things used to be.

Between 2016 and 2020, Facebook, Twitter, and Google made dozens of announcements promising to increase the exposure of high-quality news and get rid of harmful misinformation. They claimed to be investing in content moderation and fact-checking; they assured us that they were creating helpful products like the Facebook News Tab. Yet the result of all these changes has been hard to examine, since the data is both scarce and incomplete. Gordon Crovitz—a former publisher of the Wall Street Journal and a cofounder of NewsGuard, which applies ratings to news sources based on their credibility—has been frustrated by the lack of transparency: “In Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter we have institutions that we know all give quality ratings to news sources in different ways,” he told me. “But if you are a news organization and you want to know how you are rated, you can ask them how these systems are constructed, and they won’t tell you.” Consider the mystery behind blue-check certification on Twitter, or the absurdly wide scope of the “Media/News” category on Facebook. “The issue comes down to a fundamental failure to understand the core concepts of journalism,” Crovitz said.

Still, researchers have managed to put together a general picture of how technology companies handle various news sources. According to Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University, “we know that there is a taxonomy within these companies, because we have seen them dial up and dial down the exposure of quality news outlets.” Internally, platforms rank journalists and outlets and make certain designations, which are then used to develop algorithms for personalized news recommendations and news products….(More)”