Blurred Lines

Late last night I read this excellent piece on The Register, exposing how Apple's PR team blacklisted the site because they wouldn't publish uniformly positive articles. It's a few years old now, but things don't seem to have eased between them. Their conflict is symbolic of the media as a whole though.

The business model of the majority of websites on the internet is to sell ads, but in recent years ad-blockers have started to deprive them of income. As a user - ads are terrible. They are often invasive, data-collecting, and just junk. As a writer - the income is essential for sites to stay open as we - as a society - don't seem able to undo the expectation of free content.

This has led many publishers down a dubious path towards sponsored content and, those most hideous of things, advertorials. Sponsored content done right, with editorial independence can be a good thing. The site gets income, and the sponsor receives independent coverage. Advertorials are just adverts dressed up as writing.

But then the lines blur further in many industries, especially in consumer technology. The fast pace of news means that most sites chase quick articles about the latest releases to get views. Companies like Apple generate a lot of interest, so its only natural that tech publications want to cover them. But there's a difference between becoming a PR mouthpiece for the company and an objective outsider.

If as a writer, or publication, your goal is to get fancy things like free phones, trips away, and dinners out for yourself, then a PR mouthpiece is the way to go. Play nicely with the company, and they'll give you free stuff. But it hardly serves your readers not even to pretend to cast a critical eye over anything.

The race to publish first, and get the most page views was evident when in 2017 Wikileaks published the Vault 7 releases. To, ahem, "help" the journalists Wikileaks created an easily shareable summary of the releases. Except the outline was tantamount to propaganda.

The claims expressed in their summary weren't borne out by the release itself. They claimed the NSA could break end-to-end encrypted systems like WhatsApp - but it just wasn't right. What they were actually alluding to was that the NSA did mention that they could access WhatsApp messages on someone's phone, just as we all do. There was nothing technical or shocking about it. If I have food in front of me, I can eat it.

But journalists gobbled up the nonsense and published copy and paste articles that claimed WhatsApp had been hacked. The comment was so pervasive that you'd be hard pushed to find many people at the time that didn't believe it.

Combined, all these forces on publications and writers cause problems like fake news. There is no time or money for fact-checking or critical thought. Whoever is first wins - for now.

But we all lose in the long run. 


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