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Is Distrust of Facebook Contagious?

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This post was first published at the Huffington Post UK on 1st July 2014

What do these three things have in common? Over the course of a week in January 2012 Facebook deliberately manipulated the news feed of almost 700,000 users in order to compare the effects of positive and negative news. In June 2014 Instagram disabled the account of Courtney Adamo after she posted an innocent photograph of her eighteen-month old daughter showing her bellybutton, saying it violated their rules. Research by Psychologist Robert Epstein released in May claimed that Google could, simply by adjusting its search algorithms, influence the outcome of an election by an average of over 12% – easily enough to swing the vote in marginal contests.

All three are within the power and scope of Facebook and Google (Facebook owns Instagram). All three caused public consternation and, in the case of the first two, a popular backlash (it should be emphasized that the third was conceptual rather than actual – the researchers were testing a theory).

When Facebook, Google and other new media behemoths do something that causes public angst or anger they generally apologise and often shift their position.

But they are under no obligation to change their behaviour. These new media behemoths are public companies. As such they are run as autocracies not as democracies. They may perform a positive public role, but only insofar as it suits their aims and continues to support their business model.

As Rebecca MacKinnon wrote of the two big social networks in Consent of the Networked: ‘both Google Plus and Facebook share a Hobbesian approach to governance in which people agree to relinquish a certain amount of freedom to a benevolent sovereign who in turn provides security and other services’.

We know this but often appear to be in denial about it. Yet as we come to rely on these behemoths more and more, we need to remind ourselves that a benevolent sovereign is still a sovereign, and may not always act benevolently.

We need to be especially conscious when it comes to our reliance on these digital sovereigns to perform a civic function. According to the 2014 Reuters Institute Digital News Report Facebook is ‘by far the most important network for news everywhere’. Google, Bing and Yahoo together account for between a third and a half of people’s pathway to news. News is broken on twitter rather than mainstream media.

We may rely on these digital sovereigns, but we have little control over how they perform this civic function, how they choose to evolve it, or when they stop providing it. Google just announced it would be stopping Orkut, one of its social networking platform on September 30th.

In the same way these organisations can choose what content their users are allowed to publish. Breastfeeding photographs fell foul of Facebook’s rules and were removed (the ban was quietly dropped last month). Beheadings were initially allowed, then banned, then allowed again on Facebook. They are now allowed as long as they are posted in ‘the right context’ (hard to imagine what the ‘right context’ is for a beheading).

Local campaigns, that may previously have been led by a local newspaper, are often now organized through Facebook. Whether they are to save a library, to stop a bypass, or find a missing person, these are, by most people’s definition, civic campaigns. Facebook is not obliged to enable people to run these campaigns, and is within its terms of use to censor them – algorithmically or manually.

We should not fool ourselves into believing that algorithms are somehow neutral. Algorithms are like recipes. If you change an ingredient in the recipe, you change the dish. Tweak an algorithm and suddenly, invisibly, the results you receive will change (for good examples see The Filter Bubble).

Algorithms can be as influential in defining an editorial agenda as a newspaper editor. In its experiment Facebook chose to adjust its algorithm to censor specific news updates on the basis of key words. How is this different from a newspaper editor deciding not to publish a news story because of the effect it may have on the reader? Or the advertiser? The chief difference is that people know news stories are chosen subjectively. Many believe that algorithmic results are objective.

This may account for why lots of people appeared to be shocked by Facebook’s psychological research experiment in which its users were the guinea pigs. But this was not the first experiment nor will it be the last.

But whereas one can debate with an editor, or question editorial decisions, it is very hard to see how one can do the same to an algorithm. Especially since these algorithms are closely guarded secrets, the equivalent of the Coke formula.

Revelations about Facebook experiments are waking us up to the fact that these services are not neutral, neither are they simply there for the public good. Yet they are now an integral part of our lives – not just our social but our civic lives too. Our influence over what they do, however, or over what services they provide, or how they use our personal information, is tiny. If you think firing a peashooter at an elephant is ineffectual, try firing emails at Facebook HQ in Menlo Park California.

Written by Martin Moore

July 9th, 2014 at 8:33 am

George Orwell, The Daily Mail and Who Really Hates England

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This post was originally published on the Huffington Post UK on 3rd October 2013

Who else might the Daily Mail accuse of hating England? Who else has criticised aspects of England and Englishness yet still has significant influence over British politics and journalism?

One such author and journalist, writing at the same time as a young Ralph Miliband, was highly critical of aspects of England and Englishness. The English ‘are not gifted artistically’ he wrote. The English ‘are not intellectual’. They have, he wrote a ‘world-famed hypocrisy’. The English could be described, he said, as a ‘sleep-walking people’ whose ‘insularity’ has done them much harm. They are, he says, ‘inveterate gamblers, [who] drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world’. Indeed England is he said, ‘the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly’.

Did the author ‘hate’ England? Are these quotes enough to damn him in the pages of The Daily Mail?

I’ve deliberately cherry-picked these quotes from an essay by George Orwell from The Lion and the Unicorn. The essay looks at patriotism and at what makes the English, well, English. If these quotes are taken in context it is clear that far from hating England George Orwell was devoted to it.

As well as the hypocrisy and anti-intellectualism, Orwell noted the ‘gentleness’ of English civilisation. ‘It is a land’, he wrote, ‘where the bus conductors are good-tempered and the policemen carry no revolvers’. He described ‘the English hatred of war and militarism’, and how most people hold a quiet patriotism, not ‘the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff’. It is a country in which ‘such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in’.

There is another characteristic of Englishness that Orwell says is ‘so much a part of us that we barely notice it’. This is ‘the privateness of English life’. We are, Orwell writes, ‘a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans’.

It is this privateness, and what he calls the ‘liberty of the individual’ to pursue this privateness, that makes the English so distinctive. This has ‘nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit’. It is ‘the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above’.

As ever with George Orwell, he writes about what he observes. He is neither unnecessarily complimentary nor needlessly critical. For this reason his picture of the English is nuanced, accurate and human.

The Daily Mail does not fit well into this picture of England that Orwell draws in his essay. The Mail’s boasting and flag-wagging do not equate to the quiet patriotism Orwell sees in Englishness. The Mail is far from gentle and, as seen in its exchange with the Labour leader Ed Miliband, is not quick to stand down or apologise.

Though where the Mail really falls foul of Orwell’s essence of Englishness is in its approach to privateness. The Daily Mail, and particularly its online version, makes its money from prying and poking into people’s privateness. It makes a living by exploiting others for profit. This is not a pejorative statement, but simply a statement of fact.

Its routine and systematic plundering of individual liberty – as described by Orwell – runs directly counter to this definition of Englishness. ‘The most hateful of all names in an English ear’ Orwell writes, ‘is Nosey Parker’.

Yet as much as the Daily Mail is un-English, so it would be un-English in any way to constrain its freedom to print its venomous opinions. The English commitment to a free press, Orwell shows, is integral to its character. Even in 1941, a year of being at war, ‘newspapers and pamphlets abusing the Government, praising the enemy and clamouring for surrender are being sold on the streets, almost without interference’ Orwell writes.

The natural – and most effective – English response to bullies, says Orwell, is laughter. The goose-step, Orwell said, was the quintessential exemplification of the bully, ‘an affirmation of naked power’. It’s ugliness, he writes ‘is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me’, like the bully who makes faces at his victim’. But the goose-step could never be used in England because ‘the people in the street would laugh’. Such ‘military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army’.

The response to the Daily Mail should be the same. The Mail is desperate for its views to be taken seriously. It wants democratically elected politicians to be afraid of its opinion. Yet people are laughing at it. On blogs, in social networks, and on twitter, people are treating the Daily Mail as a joke. ‘It’s like having that embarrassing racist grandparent at a party’, said one tweet. No reaction could be more effective at diminishing the paper’s power, and no reaction could be more English.

We need newspapers to hold politicians to account, and to be integral to public life. It is not just the Daily Mail that is diminished by its attack on Ralph Miliband but British public life.

Written by Martin Moore

October 18th, 2013 at 6:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Mail and intrusion into grief – an isolated incident?

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The post was originally published on the Media Standards Trust site on 4 October 2013

When a Mail on Sunday journalist intruded on a private memorial service for Ed Miliband’s uncle the editor of the Mail on Sunday, Geordie Greig, apologised and suspended two journalists. It was a ‘terrible lapse of judgment’ he wrote, and said that it was ‘completely contrary to the values and editorial standards of the Mail on Sunday’.

It would be more difficult for Paul Dacre to claim that such actions were completely contrary to the values and editorial standards of the Daily Mail.

Why? Because based on the evidence of formal complaints made to the Press Complaints Commission, the Daily Mail has a track record when it comes to intruding into grief.

Even during the Leveson Inquiry itself, from November 2011 to December 2012, the Daily Mail found itself having to apologise and publish corrections for intruding into grief on nine separate occasions. This is three times more than any other national newspaper during this period.

In most cases the Daily Mail resolved the issues privately through a letter, a donation to charity, and removal of the offending article from its website. But then, a month or so later, it did a similar thing again.

Here is a list of the nine cases, with brief summaries attached – most taken directly from the PCC website (with links).

Formal complaints to the Press Complaints Commission about intrusion into grief between November 2011 and December 2012*

(does not include complaints resolved directly with the newspaper or coverage/intrustion where no formal complaint was made, and does not include complaints made about other breaches of the code)

December 2012: the father of 17-year-old Edmund Smith, who tragically committed suicide, received a private letter from the Daily Mail and a contribution from the paper to charity after he made a complaint under Clauses 1 (Accuracy), 3 (Privacy), 4 (Harassment), 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock), 6 (Children) and 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge).
PCC link:

November 2012: The Diarrassouba family complained to the Press Complaints Commission that the newspaper had published an article following the death of her brother [sic] which, in addition to being intrusive and insensitive in breach of Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock), wrongly reported that he had been shop-lifting at the time of his death in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). The Daily Mail sent a private letter of apology to the complainant, altered the online article, and published an apology on its website.
PCC link:

October 2012: the Daily Mail appeared to suggest a link between substance abuse and the tragic death of 15-year-old Harry Harling, in addition to other inaccuracies. A complaint was made on behalf of Harry Harling’s parents to the PCC that the Mail had breached the terms of Clauses 1 (Accuracy), 3 (Privacy), 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) and 6 (Children). The Daily Mail removed the online article, sent a private letter of apology, made a charitable donation and published an apology on page 2 apology of the paper.

September 2012: the family of Rosie Whitaker, who died tragically, complained to the Press Complaints Commission that the newspaper had published an article in breach of Clauses 1 (Accuracy), 3 (Privacy), and 5 (Intrusion into grief and shock). The Daily Mail changed the article online, removed photographs of Rosie Whittaker and made a donation to the Rosie Whitaker Memorial Fund.

August 2012: a complaint was made to the PCC about the Daily Mail’s reporting of the death of 9-year-old, Kaian Burford under Clauses 3 (Privacy) and 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock). The Daily Mail removed the photographs from the article.

June 2012: Ms Lindsay Greenway complained to the Press Complaints Commission that an article in the Daily Mail, which reported the death of her sister, had breached the terms of Clauses 1 (Accuracy), 3 (Privacy) and 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock). The Daily Mail removed the online article.

March 2012: A man (who wished to remain anonymous) complained to the Press Complaints Commission that the newspaper had intruded into his grief and his privacy by publishing an article following his mother’s death, which named her and included photographs of their house. The Daily Mail removed the online article.

February 2012: Nathalie Dye complained to the Press Complaints Commission that the newspaper had published inaccurate and insensitive information in several articles on its website about her late husband, Michael Dye, shortly after his death, in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock). The Daily Mail sent a private letter of regret, removed several articles from its website, and appended a correction and apology to four articles about the complainant’s husband.

November 2011: Mrs Maria Blamires, mother of Suzanne Blamires, complained to the Press Complaints Commission that the newspaper had breached Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code by publishing stills taken from the CCTV footage of her daughter’s murder by serial killer Stephen Griffiths. The pictures showed her daughter shortly before her death and her killer after the murder. The matter was resolved privately between the parties.

Shortly before the Leveson Inquiry, in an incident with echoes of the Miliband memorial service, the Daily Mail visited the house of Mrs Vicky Cattell following her daughter’s funeral and only left after being repeatedly asked (PCC record here).

* these are the dates the complaints were resolved by the PCC. It is not clear exactly when each complaint was made or the articles to which they refer published.

You can see all 438 PCC published cases of intrusion into grief from 1997 to the end of 2012 at

This piece was amended on 7th October 2013 to take account of changes made to a Guardian article speculating that Paul Dacre had tried to stop Grieg apologising. This was strongly denied and the Guardian article changed

Written by Martin Moore

October 18th, 2013 at 6:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The two faces of the press on regulation of private investigators

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The press defended PIs from regulation, then turned around and asked why they hadn’t been regulated.

The post was originally published on The Staggers at the New Statesman on August 2nd 2013.

The revelation that firms from two of this country’s biggest industries may have commissioned corrupt PIs – without facing prosecution – will fuel concerns that corporations potentially involved in the unlawful trade in private information have so far escaped proper investigation

Tom Harper, The Independent, 25th July 2013

There has been a rising volume of consternation in parts of the press about why non-media companies that used private investigators – who have been found to have acted illegally – were not pursued and prosecuted by the authorities.

What none of the reports to date have explored is why many of these cases were not pursued in 2007/08. Instead they have given the impression that the press was unfairly singled out.

The reason why many of these cases were not pursued in 2007/08 was because the press prevented it. It did this by campaigning aggressively and successfully to block the increase of sanctions for this type of crime. Without such an increase it was, the Information Commissioner said, almost impossible to justify the pursuit and prosecution of the culprits, let alone their clients.

To see what happened one has to go back to 2006 and the publication of a report by the Information Commissioner. It was evidence from this report, and other police operations, on which the 2008 SOCA report was based. This is the same SOCA report that has been the focus of so much current attention.

This 2006 report, What Price Privacy?, outlined the scale of the illegal trade in personal information, citing the industrial scale blagging being done on behalf of newspapers, but making clear that the trade was certainly not restricted to the media.

As well as journalists, the report said, illegal information gathering “involved finance companies and local authorities wishing to trace debtors; estranged couples seeking details of their partner’s whereabouts or finances; and criminals intent on fraud or witness or juror intimidation”.

The report contained a short section on each these non-media clients, and even specified the amount being spent by some non-media clients:

Documents seized from the tracing agent working for finance houses and local councils revealed that one agent was invoicing for up to £120,000 per month of positive tracing.

The problem, the ICO said, was that even if it pursued and prosecuted the private investigators guilty of gathering and selling this information then “those apprehended and convicted by the courts often face derisory penalties”.

These penalties – often only £100 or £150 fines – did not act as a deterrent and did not justify the police, ICO and prosecution time to pursue.

The chief recommendation of the 2006 report was, therefore, that sanctions should be increased so that they would act as a deterrent. At the same time it would make it more justified for the authorities to pursue cases and prosecute the private investigators and their clients.

“The Information Commissioner calls on the Lord Chancellor,” What Price Privacy? said, “to bring forward proposals to raise the penalty for persons convicted on indictment of section 55 offences to a maximum two years’ imprisonment, or a fine, or both; and for summary convictions, to a maximum six months’ imprisonment, or a fine, or both”

But when the report was published, the media, rather than focus on the private investigators, the insurance companies or other clients, focused almost exclusively on the potential effect of the increase of sanctions on the media.

In the second report the ICO published in 2006 (What Price Privacy Now?) the Information Commissioner remarked on the media’s response and again stressed that, despite the media’s concerns, the problem went much wider than the press:

Some of the press coverage since the report has highlighted the intrusion into the lives of high profile public figures by the media but it should not be forgotten that this trade also affects the lives of people not in the public eye and is very often unrelated to media activity.

The Commissioner’s efforts were in vain as the press continued to focus, for the following 18 months, almost entirely on the implications of the ICO’s recommendations for the press, and began a campaign to prevent the increase of sanctions.

Leveson describes the consequences of the ICO reports and recommendations:

The first was the mobilisation of a political lobbying effort by the press against the campaign [of the ICO for increased sanctions], directed to the heart of government. The second was the hardening of the attitude of the press (now unmistakably represented by the PCC) towards the ICO.

p.1024, Vol.3

Two of leaders of the press campaign, according to the Leveson report, were Murdoch McClellan (then Chief Executive of the Telegraph Group) and Guy Black (also at the Telegraph Group).

In the summer of 2007 the editor of the Daily Mail (Paul Dacre), Murdoch McClellan of the Telegraph and the Les Hinton of News International had dinner with the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to persuade him to help them stop the increase in sanction going through.

The campaign stepped up its efforts through early 2008 with some media interests “lobbying the Conservatives heavily in favour of removal” of the amendment to the law to increase the sanction (quote from the Information Commissioner, 25 March 2008).

Leveson was scathing about the objectives of this campaign:

The argument that the prospect of custody would have a differential “chilling” effect on lawful and ethical journalism from the prospect of a financial penalty is one which it is barely respectable for national press organisations to advance at all. Its necessary implication is that the prospect of a criminal conviction can, of itself, be regarded as a tolerable business risk, and a criminal fine a tolerable overhead, in journalism. This says little more than that “unchilled” journalism is an activity which takes calculated risks with deliberate and indefensible criminality. This is an argument for criminal impunity including (as it was put before the Inquiry) by way of a plea for indemnity from the otherwise universal application of criminal penalties; it amounts to special pleading to be placed above the law.

p.1091, Vol.3

Yet the press campaign was successful. Even though the amendments were drafted in section 77 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, they were never commenced. They have still not commenced.

As a consequence, the authority responsible for pursuing cases of blagging and related offences – the ICO, continued to be severely constrained in the action it could take.

Certain news organisations, in other words, effectively prevented the pursuit of organisations that were illegally acquiring personal information in 2007/08 and onwards. These same news organisations are now claiming the failure to pursue these organisations is evidence of an unfair singling out of the press through the Leveson Inquiry.

Written by Martin Moore

October 18th, 2013 at 6:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized