News is now not just outside newspapers, it is outside newsrooms. It is impossible for humans to filter efficiently the vast numbers of images, videos, tweets and updates created and shared by humans, bots and devices. By 2020, according to consultants Gartner, there will be 20bn devices connected to the internet, and they will all have something to say for themselves. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp and what’s next are and will continue to be making editorial decisions on our behalf. Costolo taking his first editorial stance is significant because he was public and unapologetic about removing material that he felt did cultural and economic damage to Twitter. The Facebook algorithm, and other sorting processes, are both more opaque and less accountable. The decline of the newspaper, and the subsequent closure or shrinking of newsrooms, not only leaves news unbound, it also removes the culture of editorial filtering. Centuries of human debate over cultural values, expressed in everything from intrusive splashes to grandiose editorials, are disappearing to be replaced by a black box.
Accountability is not part of Silicon Valley’s culture. But surely as news moves beyond paper and publisher, it must become so. For a decade or more, news organisations have been obeisant to the power of corporate technology, nodding and genuflecting at the latest improbably impressive magic. But their editorial processes have something to offer technologists too.
Transparency and accountability have to accompany the vast, important role our key information providers now play in society. It is understandable why platforms such as Facebook strenuously resist being labelled as “publishers”, but it is no longer realistic. It takes very little narrative imagination to grasp the ethical complexities ahead; every policeman wearing a camera, every terror cell with a Twitter feed, every face in a crowd rendered recognisable.