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Press: Informed journalism can be entirely wrong

01 June 2018


ONE of the most treasured photos on my phone is a front page of The Guardian for 9 November 2016. “5:30am special”, it says: “After 240 years and 43 men, the US votes for its first woman president. Clinton makes history.” In the event, of course, we had to use a rather different front. This one is pinned up in one of the paper’s executive offices to remind us, I suppose, that there once was a better future; but also, I hope, that the smart money is sometimes entirely wrong.

Just so with the result of the Irish abortion referendum, at least with its margin of victory. So far as I can tell, that caught the Irish papers by surprise as much as it did the British ones. I read with fascination a long post-mortem in The Irish Times on the campaign as it appeared from the headquarters of both sides, from which it emerges that the No side thought that they would win until two days before the vote.

This was, in one sense, superbly informed journalism. The people reported on were entirely frank, since they were talking for posterity, and they were as well informed as anyone in Dublin. But this superbly informed journalism, which did everything right, was none the less entirely wrong. Here is a lesson for us all.

In the aftermath, people looked for hidden, unreported factors. Two aspects of the social-media struggle are worth noticing. The first was that, in this campaign, Facebook just didn’t matter very much. What the No side were using mostly was YouTube, and it was Google’s decision to stop foreign-funded political ads across its network (which includes YouTube), which provoked furious accusations from the No side that Google was a foreign firm interfering in the Irish democratic process by stopping other foreigners from interfering.

The second was a volunteer effort to draw up a list of trolling accounts on Twitter, whether automated or not. These would heckle and abuse women who expressed pro-choice views online. Sixteen thousand were identified (and only nine people on that list complained they were wrongly there). Seventy per cent of them were American, and many appeared to be newly started accounts. Some were straight up blood-and-soil types, for whom legal abortion and immigration were two aspects of the same “genocide”.

Yet it seems to me that there was a real difference here between these accounts and those that are run by Russian troll factories: the Americans commenting on the Irish referendum were expressing their sincere opinions voluntarily. The difference between professional and amateur propagandists is worth preserving. They should not both be subsumed under the name of “troll”.


STILL on a technological theme, the launch of the Church of England’s Alexa skill — a set of canned responses which the Amazon smart speaker will use to answer relevant questions — drew an amazing amount of coverage (News, 25 May). Even Fox News got in on the act. But all of the former broadsheets, the Mail, the Express, The Economist, and the tabloids covered the story.

The Economist got furthest away from gee-whizzery. “Curious agnostics can quiz Alexa on how to pray, what Christians believe and who the Archbishop of Canterbury is. . . The app, which the church hopes also to launch on Apple and Google’s voice platforms, is the latest stage in a belated digital push. Before Mr [Adrian] Harris and his team of five were hired in 2016, the church’s digital strategy was overseen part-time by one junior staffer with an annual budget of £10,000 ($13,500). . . With 78,000 Facebook followers, England’s 500-year-old established church is still just behind Scunthorpe United football club.”

I myself went round to the office to play with the device. “Alexa,” I said, “ask the Church of England how I may be saved.” But the only answer was a silence easily interpreted as embarrassment. The same response greeted the cynic who called across the office “Alexa, what is ‘Good disagreement’?”

I also asked the widget whether God exists, and was treated to a human voice telling me how wonderful it was to talk to Him, which is not really answering the question — but, as one press officer observed, showed excellent message discipline. Incidentally, if you ask the same question of Google, its robot voice just replies that everyone has their own opinion about religion, which is not really answering the question either.


THE last technology link-up of the week was mediated by ethnology: a fascinating paper picked up by a US journalism think tank, the Nieman Lab, about how well-educated conservative Christian Americans parse the news to decide what they believe.

The answer, according to Francesca Tripodi, is that they apply to news sources the same approach as they give to their Bible readings. They study the “mainstream media” closely, looking for contradictions, and, when these are found, take them to be evidence of error. There must, they assume, be one correct reading of the world — and, armed with this faith, they can and do strengthen their own beliefs by studying the words of those who disagree with them.

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