Facebook has become the “richest and most powerful publisher in history by replacing editors with algorithms”, according to Guardian editor Katharine Viner.
She accused the online platform of having shifted “entire societies away from the open terrain of genuine debate and argument, while making billions from our valued attention”.
In a speech to Guardian staff, members and supporters last night, Viner said the current business model supporting journalism was “collapsing” as Facebook and Google “swallow digital advertising”.
The two web giants, known collectively as the Duopoly, are taking the lion’s share of digital advertising money in the UK and the majority of any new growth in advertising revenues.
Said Viner: “The transition from print to digital did not initially change the basic business model for many news organisations – that is, selling advertisements to fund the journalism delivered to readers.
“For a time, it seemed that the potentially vast scale of an online audience might compensate for the decline in print readers and advertisers.
“But this business model is currently collapsing, as Facebook and Google swallow digital advertising. As a result, the digital journalism produced by many news organisations has become less and less meaningful.
“Publishers that are funded by algorithmic ads are locked in a race to the bottom in pursuit of any audience they can find – desperately binge-publishing without checking facts, pushing out the most shrill and most extreme stories to boost clicks.
“But even this huge scale can no longer secure enough revenue.”
Taking aim at her digital rivals, Viner said that on some news websites, journalists “churn out ten commodified stories a day without making a phone call”.
“Readers are overwhelmed: bewildered by the quantity of ‘news’ they see every day, nagged by intrusive pop-up ads, confused by what is real and what is fake, and confronted with an experience that is neither useful nor enjoyable,” she said.
“Many people get most of their news from Facebook, which means that information arrives in one big stream – which may contain fact-based independent journalism from transparent sources alongside invented stories from a click farm, or content funded by malevolent actors to influence an election.”
Viner said in some cases it was hard to know who was behind the news, with stories and publications produced or owned by the very people they ought to be holding to account.
She said: “Many free local newspapers in the UK are funded by the very councils they should be holding to account. It is asking a lot of individuals to sift the real from the fake when they are bombarded by information – how do they know who to trust?”
Viner said trust was at an “historic low” when it came to the media, adding: “This not a blip, and it should not be a surprise, when so many institutions have failed the people who trusted them and responded to criticism with contempt.
“As a result, people feel outraged but powerless – nothing they do seems to stop these things happening, and nobody seems to be listening to their stories.
“This has created a crisis for public life, and particularly for the press, which risks becoming wholly part of the same establishment that the public no longer trusts.
“At a moment when people are losing faith in their ability to participate in politics and make themselves heard, the media can play a critical role in reversing that sense of alienation.”
Viner said journalists “must work to earn the trust of those they aim to serve” and become “more representative of the societies we aim to represent”.
She said members of the media were “increasingly drawn from the same, privileged sector of society” and that this problem had “actually worsened in recent decades”.
Viner referenced a 2012 government report that said journalism was behind professions such as medicine, politics and law in “opening its doors to people from less well-off backgrounds”.
“This matters because people from exclusive, homogenous backgrounds are unlikely to know anyone adversely affected by the crises of our era, or to spend time in the places where they are happening,” she said.
“Media organisations staffed largely by people from narrow backgrounds are less likely to recognise the issues that people notice in their communities every day as ‘news’ – the discussions inside such organisations will inevitably be shaped by the shared privilege of the participants.”
She added: “If journalists become distant from other people’s lives, they miss the story, and people don’t trust them. The Guardian is not at all exempt from these challenges, and our staff is not diverse enough.
“Because of our history, values and purpose, we are committed to addressing these issues – but there is still a long way to go.”
Viner pointed the finger at the likes of US president Donald Trump in saying that “those in power have exploited distrust of the media to actively undermine the role of journalism in the public interest in a democracy”.
She said: All over the world – in Turkey, Russia, Poland, Egypt, China, Hungary, Malta and many other countries – powerful interests are on the march against free speech. Journalists are undermined, attacked, even murdered.
“In these disorientating times, championing the public interest – which has always been at the heart of the Guardian’s mission – has become an urgent necessity.”
In a Q&A with Guardian political editor Anushka Asthana after her speech, Viner said the Guardian was politically neutral and noted the silence in the room when she said: “I defend our right to back the Conservatives at some point in the future in an election. Who knows.”
She said: “All good news organisations will stick to the facts and that’s what unites all good news organisations.”
Despite earlier claiming Facebook was responsible for “shattering the public square into millions of personalised news feeds”, Viner said: “Reading the Guardian’s journalism on Facebook is great, but it’s what’s around it… reading the news [on the platform] it can be hard to differentiate between something that’s real and [something that’s] fake.”
Picture: David Levene/TheGuardian