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Press: TikTok more influential than ghost newsrooms

15 December 2023

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HOW much longer will there be a recognisable press staffed by recognisable journalists? One way of looking at this question is to look at the American magazine Sports Illustrated, which has just sacked its Chief Executive Officer, Chief Operating Officer, Media President, and Corporate Counsel (she’s the lawyer).

I have no idea what the other people do, but they are all obviously more important than the editor, and more responsible for the scandal that has engulfed the magazine. They were caught running articles generated entirely by AI, along with bylines, headshots, and author bios that were also all made up by an AI. I mean, would a human put their name to an article pointing out that it is difficult to learn to play volleyball if you don’t have a ball to practise with, like one that Sports Illustrated published?

Obviously, no human wrote that. I have to wonder whether anyone human read it either, until Maggie Harrison at the Tech news site Futurism nailed the story. She also caught a financial newsletter whose AI-generated guide to getting rich was a list of five numbered points — all numbered “1”. Would you take financial advice from someone who can’t count to five, Futurism asked.


MEANWHILE, The Wall Street Journal published an article on “ghost newsrooms”: local papers without a single reporter.

This is, increasingly, the pattern of local papers in this country, where centrally or regionally generated content is repurposed into differently branded and supposedly local papers. All this is a result of the great migration of advertising online, and of advertising revenue to the social-media groups. Even the Mail Online, one of the biggest websites in the world, which publishes up to 1500 stories a day, is considering a paywall round some of them, the Press Gazette reports. The Guardian remains free, or at least nagware (free trial software) on the web, but it has put a partial paywall around its mobile apps.

What is so interesting about these convulsions is that the publishing industry is using machine learning at the wrong end of the process. The influence, as well as the money, is going to those organisations that use “AI” to edit what readers see, and humans to produce the content that the algorithms select among.


THE TIMES
, among other papers, reported an absurd, but potentially catastrophic, end to weekly carol services in the East End of London. An estimated 7000 people turned up to Columbia Road, on Wednesday of last week, for an outdoor carol service organised by St Peter’s, Bethnal Green, videos of which went viral on TikTok. It seems that this wasn’t entirely spontaneous, in that there had been a BBC television snippet on the service last year. Presumably, that supplied the video clips, which TikTok then spread.

The remaining services in the series have been cancelled, at the urging of the police and local shopkeepers, as well as through the good sense of the vicar. The would-be carol singers have been urged to go to their local churches instead, although I think it unlikely that many will.

It is very difficult to imagine a human-edited story in a newspaper that would have that kind of impact on its readers. And, of course, for TikTok, it’s all clear profit. The clips that spread the story were made by amateurs and supplied for free, and the algorithms that spread it were trained on observational data that the users also supplied for free, if quite unwittingly. No newspaper could know its readers in such detail; few printed stories could stir them into action in that way.


NEWS LINES, a web publication focused on the Middle East, carried a story by Jessica Roy about an uptick in conversions to Islam driven by TikTok coverage of the war in Gaza. In a video that got 1.1 million views, a young woman, Megan B. Rice, said: “No, but can we talk about the Palestinian faith real quick? Because it’s unlike any I have ever seen. I have quite literally seen videos of people who have lost everything, even their children, and they are holding their dead children in their arms and still thanking God, still asking God to take care of their children from there.”

The day after that, she decided — not to read, of course — to listen to an audiobook of the Qur’an; on 11 November, she formally professed her faith in front of 8000 people on TikTok, live. “In less than a month, Rice had gone from irreligious to a devout Muslim, her conversion sparked specifically by the ongoing events in Palestine. During the same period, her followers more than tripled, from 227,400 to 832,100. (Rice now has nearly 922,000 followers).”

Because of the way in which the algorithm works, all these followers will tend to find more and more of their feed taken up with similar stories, until they can feel part of a huge social movement, even if it doesn’t exist in the world outside TikTok at all. Newspapers — even The Daily Telegraph — are far less effective at insulating their readers from external reality. And TikTok is ultimately controlled by the Chinese government.

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