Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist

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23 February 2017

As an media scholar and journalist with an interest in the digital divide, I have long believed that one of the things that media outlets could do a lot better is using their higher profile to give a voice to ‘ordinary people’ who have something to say. I also believe that one of the things that Facebook like other news intermediaries should be trying to do is increase ideological diversity in their feeds. Lastly, I am aware that it is not right to judge what people say online just because it is poorly written technically. And then this happens.

This is my top Facebook recommended story on Facebook’s top trending issue. The story’s summary suggests it is from the Huffington Post, which has some journalistic credibility, but if you visit the story itself and look carefully you will see that it is an un-edited, un-curated self published blog posting.

It is also badly written, bigoted, and dismayingly lacking in concrete, citable facts.

There was a riot of violence and destructions by immigrants in the capitol of Sweden, Stockholm. The police was forced to shoot with ammunition to put and end to it. In Malmö, another city south in Sweden they have struggle with gang violence and lawlessness for years. So when Trump talk about that Sweden have an immigration problem he [Trump] is actually spot on.
It’s well known for Scandinavians and other Europeans that liberal immigration comes with drugs, rapes, gang wars, robbery and violence

(For a more nuanced view of recent events in Sweden, read this.)

In the end, I think that what this underlines is another of my personal tech policy prescriptions – we need to ensure that when technology companies are doing socially important work like influencing what news we see, they do not offload this role onto an unaccountable algorithm. Instead, they should ensure that the algorithms are overseen adequately by humans and that those humans are in turn accountable to the public for their actions.

12 March 2014
Filed under:Current Affairs (World),journalism at3:54 pm

I’d read and heard about the horrific tsunami that hit Japan three years ago, but none of it moved me in the way this simple podcast eyewitness testimony did. Audio is the most intimate of mediums, and lets the mind fill in its own pictures of the events described which I think are more vivid than any video could be. And unlike many conventional documentaries and news programmes, this 15 minute first person format let the witness’ testimony speak for itself.

Carl Pillitteri, a Fukoshima nuclear engineer told this story at a Moth event (the Moth is a non-profit organization which runs events where people talk about their lives live and without notes).

12 December 2011
Filed under:Current Affairs (World) at12:53 pm

Considering that I had no hopes that anything at all would be agreed in Durban I suppose I should be pleased that a binding global climate treaty has been decided… kind of. The Guardian describes this as a breakthrough but there are a few points in the coverage of the Durban deal in the FT which rather deflate my expectations. First of all the treaty will not be “legally binding” but rather an “agreed outcome with legal force” and is not clear how this will be interpreted. Secondly, while the Kyoto protocol will be extended, the length of the extension is not clear and to my astonishment according to the FT, “the countries signing up to the extension are only likely to account for around 15 per cent of global emissions”. I hadn’t realised the extent to which we have exported our pollution to developing countries. Lastly, while we’re promised a deal to be finalised by 2015, it won’t be implemented until 2020 so there will be almost a decade of further unregulated pollution before any deal kicks in.

As a journalist, what strikes me most is that the deal such as it is which in other times would be top news has been shoved off the front pages or into the corners of them by more parochial issues. Both the Guardian and Independent give the front-page lead to the coalition split over Europe which, granted, is a story of great significance but it is the 5th story and just a single paragraph on the Times front page and is not on the Telegraph or New York Times’ front pages at all. If the newspapers are right about this apparent lack of interest in the environment given our other woes there seems little chance that politicians will feel the pressure required from the public to work on an adequately stringent solution. (See Kiosko for today’s newspaper front pages from around the world).

22 August 2011
Filed under:Current Affairs (World),journalism at10:42 am

The pictures that have been circulating for several months of the DIY weapons put together by Libyan rebels tell a great story about the plucky underdog but when I read “@tim_libert: these are the DIY weapons that won Libyan civil war, courtesy of The Atlantic” I was a little stunned. As he noted himself a few minutes later, “Libya also had a LOT of western air support”. Indeed. And it is worth noting that that air support is still presented, officially at least, as being merely “enforcing a UN resolution to protect civilians“. Surely after 7,400 sorties that’s a rather inadequate figleaf for NATO action by now?

This is not to say that I have any way of judging how things really played out in Libya, that the Libyan rebels were not valiant fighters or that NATO is unjustified in intervening as it did – it’s just an observation that as with any war press coverage is inevitably subject to spin.

16 June 2011

The LSE recently hosted Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo who delivered a talk (MP3) about their new book Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty.  I had already read about some of their interesting findings– that a small incentive  to attend would encourage a big increase in immunisation among poor people (and reduce the cost per immunisation) and that even hungry people when given more money tend to spend it on better tasting food rather than more nutritious food.   I didn’t expect them also to comment on academic streaming and on electronic voting but in both cases they had interesting things to say about them from the developing world perspective.

Whatever the problems with electronic voting (and there have been many identified) there is some evidence that because they are more user-friendly for the less literate,  in Brazil they apparently helped  to increase successful voting by the poor and thus changed the political complexion in their favour.

As for academic streaming, a common argument against it is that the students who are less capable if they are all lumped together are not inspired by the example of more able pupils, and that the able pupils tend to get neglected because teachers have to concentrate on teaching to the lowest common denominator. This may be the case in some educational systems, but one study they highlighted found that less able students benefited significantly from streaming because, they suggest, teachers in India tend to concentrate on helping the most able students.

Although their work has been criticised in some quarters for neglecting the macrolevel systemic and political problems that cause difficulties for the poor, this seems to be mere quibbling–it is beyond the scope of even the most able scholars to give a complete picture of how to tackle poverty. Their approach which concentrates on finding the best solution to a series of common problems of the poor in different contexts using randomised controlled trials seem to me a refreshing and thought-provoking one and if you can’t afford the book I recommend you have a look around their extensive website which includes links to a profusion of relevant studies.

2 December 2010

Machine of death cover

This podcast interview by Jesse Brown with the creator of Dinosaur Comics and this web interview about the brief but dazzling success of a short story collection, ‘Machine of Death are interesting at a number of levels.

Briefly, a group of well-known web comic creators got together and found contributors from among their readers for this short story collection that they would then illustrate. No mainstream publisher would touch it because it didn’t contain material from authors they recognised, so they thought they would self-publish it. And they organized the fan base they had gathered from their web comic activity to buy the book all at once in order to get media attention. It worked and the book hit number 1 for several hours on Amazon US (though as they said it only took “thousands” of sales to do this – it’s now at #1192). A few days later, they released the full text of the book free as a downloadable PDF.

This phenomenon has naturally excited a number of the proponents of “new authorship” models and it is indeed an impressive achievement, but I would add a few cautionary notes to this tale:

Ryan North says he is able to make a ‘comfortable living’ from t-shirt sales driven by his free online comic strip but wouldn’t say how much this amounted to (and his standards of ‘comfortable’ may have been formed by his recent status as an impecunious grad student).

It benefited from promotion by the fan bases of several well-known web comics authors, was promoted on a number of very prominent sites like boingboing, and falls into the sci-fi/fantasy genre. It may even be a great read (I don’t know yet but I have started downloading the podcast). Taken together this constitutes a nearly ‘perfect storm’ in favour of this book.

The broader question for the future of this model has to be how replicable it is. At the moment this is newsworthy – the economic significance of online-driven publication will be proven when tens of thousands instead of (I’m guessing) a few hundred authors can earn enough in this way to afford to bypass the conventional publishing system.

Of course none of this should take away from the fact that even if this is not the start of an economic revolution for new authors it may well be the start of a cultural revolution enabling many more people to become published authors (even if with a rather different notion of what being ‘published’ means). It is this as much as anything else I intend to explore in my upcoming research.

8 October 2010

Storyful is a news agency based on an interesting idea that a lot of journalism scholars are talking up – journalists as curators, bringing together and highlighting the best news from social media. It is still in beta, so it’s perhaps premature to criticize the product but when I registered and went to take a look at the first story which interested me it had some flaws which indicate some of the potential problems with this kind of service.

Having recently visited Cambodia, the story on Cambodian child prostitution caught my eye. So what do I get? A prominent photo and trailer from a documentary on the subject which is (as far as I can tell) a product of the mainstream media. An introductory paragraph of information and claims, some of them quite controversial but without sourcing of any kind. A tweet from a Chicago-based comedian pointing to a related story – from the mainstream media. “Some informed opinion on the Cambodian sex industry” is two comments selected out of 84 youtube comments found on a two year old Al Jazeera news item. And lastly there are links to and excerpts from the Factbook on Global Sexual Exploitation and Human Rights Watch.

Leaving aside problems of design and implementation (which can be fixed) this suggests two linked problems. First, that because of digital divide and linguistic difficulties, it can be hard to find social media sources for news from outside the industrialized world and that as a result a lot of what one can find eventually links back to the work of (more or less) mainstream journalists rather than citizen journalists. Also see Gonzalez-Bailon (2009) on how the mainstream news organizations and those they link to get most online buzz and Paterson (2007) on how the online news environment is still dominated by output from two major news agencies.

This is not in any way to denigrate the work of those behind storyful and other projects – it’s just to point out that social media does not (yet?) provide would-be news providers easy-to-process rich seams of raw news material unless such material is on subjects that appeal to social media users (see Thelwall 2010) and in countries where social media use is widespread. What’s needed first is more citizen journalistic capacity building in developing countries by organizations like the World Service Trust, OneWorld and Global Voices and more and cheaper internet there (eg you can’t get decent citizen journalism out of the Central African Republic if broadband costs 40 times the average salary there).

PS UK readers may be interested that there is an (as far as I know unrelated) BBC Three programme about sex trafficking in Cambodia coming up next Thursday at 21:00.

27 August 2010

I have long known one of the UN’s key prerequisites to help reach the target Millennium Development Goals is that developed countries should donate a paltry .7% of their GNP to aid projects (at present nearly all fall well short of this). I just found out (via the Economist) that there’s another even more ambitious but contrasting target. It seems that poor old NATO is suffering because most of its member nations are not spending up to the 2% of GDP target it has set for military expenditure. Would it be too much to ask that countries reach the .7% aid target first?

20 January 2009

I must tune in to Obama’s speech so I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren about it. I’ll catch the stream on the BBC.

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed…

Hey the text of the speech isn’t being provided live as well – only highlights. But it must be around somewhere… google google… Nope. Hey I should microblog about that… tap tap tap… Hm. I don’t feel like the speech is really moving me as I’d hoped. I’ll blog about that too.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.

Ah that’s a good bit – I’ll blog about that. As soon as the BBC feed catches up. Tap tap tap…

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.

Oh – over already? Well that was historic… but I don’t know that I’ll be able to give much of an account of what it was like to be watching! I guess the habits of reporting over experiencing I developed in my stint at BBC News Online haven’t left me…

8 October 2008

Even though I am a media junkie and have been following the financial crisis I have until now found it difficult to find trustworthy sources that would explain to me in simple terms:

1) Why is it all going pear-shaped?
2) To what extent will the US government’s plan fix the problem?
3) What will it cost (because the $700bn figure is not all going to just get spent without any return now or in future to the taxpayer)?
4) Is there a better way to try to solve the problem?
5) Who is to blame and what can we/should we do to them?

The This American Life radio programme helped once before with their excellent Giant Pool of Money episode on sub-prime mortgages. They have rushed out a new episode, Another Frightening Show about the Economy from the same reporting team (Alex Blumberg and some folks from NPR news). I have to say I found it less enlightening – probably because it had to fit a lot more in – but it still helped. If you don’t want to listen to the programme (though I think you should) here’s what I took away:

1) Greedy speculators found ways to gamble on the health of companies without facing government regulation that would have limited the amount of leverage they could use.
2) It’s not clear if the bailout will work, but hey we’ve got to try something!
3) We don’t know how much of the money we’re putting on the table we’re likely to lose.
4) We should be pushing Paulson to use the latitude built into the legislation to push for “stock injection” instead of just buying up bad debt. In other words don’t just give the banks money to bail them out for their crappy decisions, insist on some equity so if the bailout works the government has some assets for all that spending.
5) TAL doesn’t really tell us who to lynch – looks like the decision not to regulate was made in a bipartisan way.

PS the NPR team also has a daily weblog Planet Money and podcast to help you track developments. A good summary of their answers to questions 3 and 4 is here.

If anyone has alternative answers to my questions I would be interested to hear them – send me a comment!

Update: I see that the UK bailout looks like the stock injection option that NPR suggests most economists would favour…

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