We try to uncover the truth about fake news with Alan Rusbridger, former editor of the Guardian, and Martin Moore, director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power. Why have elections around the world been so easy to hack? Can newspapers survive the age of free'? And is anonymity a friend or an enemy to democracy? Big questions, big answers.
DAVID: Hello, my name is David Runciman and this is Talking Politics. Today we are going to try and uncover some of the truth about fake news: what it did to newspapers, what it did to elections, what it is doing to democracy.
DAVID: [01:03] This is a conversation that I recorded a few days ago in London. It's with Alan Rusbridger, who was the editor of The Guardian for a long time, 20 years. He's got a book out called Breaking News and it's about his experiences as a newspaperman and living through a digital revolution. And also with Martin Moore. And he's the author of what I think is really the best book about—well the title is Democracy Hacked—and it's about what digital technology has done to democracy, not just in Britain, not just in America, not just in Europe, but absolutely everywhere. Martin is the director of the Center for the Study of Media, Communication, and Power at King's College London, so he does that. I started by asking them both, having studied this, worked through this, lived through it, what was the point (if there is one) when they suddenly realised this is all new—so to use Helen's phrase—when did they realise that we weren't in Kansas anymore?
ALAN: I'm old enough to remember Web 1.0 which was squirting it down the wires and doing it on screens. And that was such a huge thing. And I remember Emily Bell, who was the director of digital at the time, coming in and saying, ‘There's this thing called Web 2.0.’ And I said, ‘yeah,’ not imagining that could be a big thing. And she said, ‘It's going to be bigger than 1.0.’ And I couldn't think of anything bigger than Web 1.0.
DAVID: It was also the moment when someone says to you, ‘Google are doing news.’
ALAN: Yeah that was a bad moment, and we looked at it, and they said this involves no people at all. And we thought, we can’t go with that. And I remember Emily Bell saying, ‘There’s this thing called Twitter and its going to do news better than us,’ which seemed a ridiculous thing to say in 2009, or whenever it was she said it.
DAVID: She's kind of the hero of your book because she keeps coming in and saying ‘The future is going to be this.’ And you say, ‘Yeah really?’ And then about three weeks later, she's right.
ALAN: Three weeks or three years, yeah. You do need people like that. I mean, I liked gadgets. I like gadgets, and am interested in computers, but I didn't have the ability to see round corners or over the hill in ways that she could. And actually, quite often, the most interesting people in the building were the tech developers who had come to work for The Guardian because they thought they could use their skills for sort of democratic enlightenment. And of course the journalists didn't really… I mean they didn't know who they were, and they didn't know how to talk to them. They didn't have the sort of language to talk to them. And quite often the developers went away, having come in a sort of utopian glow, disappointed. They left feeling rather disappointed.
DAVID: Martin, did you have… you've been studying it rather than living it, but kind of, we've all been living it. Do you have a moment, a standout moment, where you thought ‘It's just all changed.’
MARTIN: I had a moment when I when I sort of realized how little we understand about, in particular what's going on in politics. That was in the early hours of the morning in November 2016, when I was staring at the television on the computer, and I was staring at that bizarre speedometer The New York Times had, which had Hillary Clinton’s probability of winning at something like 89 percent. And there was… I think was about 20 minutes where suddenly it started veering down, slowing down significantly. And then it swung to the other side, and suddenly, the probability was that Trump was going to win. And this is this was The New York Times, it was 538 with all these phenomenal experts who were not just wrong, but phenomenally wrong about their predictions for the U.S. election. And that was obviously subsequent to Brexit but somehow Brexit, the seismic shock that Brexit was, Brexit was always on kind of a knife edge. But we never ever thought until retrospectively that the U.S. was on a knife edge.
DAVID: When that happened—because we used to do it thing on this podcast where we asked everyone for their experience of that night, and that’s the thing that everyone remembers—but did you think that the explanation, the fundamental explanation for what had happened that night, was driven by this technology? [05:07]
MARTIN: No I didn't think it was technology that night. That night I thought we really don’t understand what’s going on. And I wanted to understand, I wanted to figure out what’s happening. And it was then I started, I suppose, looking around more. And then—it’s only then—that you sort of think, hang on a minute, this is happening everywhere. This isn’t just happening in the UK , in the US. You know you can look at Argentina, you can look at the Philippines. I mean in May in 2016 in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, his election was astonishing. And he ran a very similar campaign to Trump's, or at least at least similar in the sense that it was similarly outrageous and similarly offensive. All over the world you have these elections where almost unknown candidates were coming from nowhere and centrist parties were collapsing. And you think, hang on, there’s got to be some common themes here. And the more I dug, the more I dug, the more it appeared the common theme was the transformation of communications and information systems. And that was absolutely what seemed to be the thread running through all these different elections and referendums.
DAVID: So there are a few things that… well there are lots of things that connect the two stories you tell. There’s a story about newspapers and news, a story about politics. They’re both about information and how information is shared. That’s the basic currency we're dealing with here. So a couple of words: I want to talk through what they mean to you. One is ‘free’ and one is ‘anonymous.’ These are two really important categories for this space. So free is a big part of this—and actually part of your discussions with Emily Bell were about this early on, trying to work out which side you would have to be on in the free, open versus paid, closed as one way of doing it. To start with, what did you think the issue was here—because you've also got, obviously, your famous strap line ‘Comment is free, but facts are sacred.’ We’ll come on to the facts in a second…
ALAN: Well it began thinking about open systems versus closed systems, and the thought that journalism in an age when it wasn't just being done by people who had printing presses, but was an act of communication that could be done by two million more people… that being on the side of open was an interesting way of looking at things. The free bit was more literally, free. We felt we had to be free because The Guardian is a relatively tiny paper in the UK. And if we had put up a paywall in say 2008 it was a small, UK only circulation, who weren't really very wealthy. And we would be like The New Statesman. Nothing wrong with the New Statesman, but that doesn’t seem to be what The Guardian was put on earth to do. Meanwhile, we had millions and millions of people accessing The Guardian every day from the rest of the world. So it seemed like an interesting thing to see if we could grow a large enough global audience to support The Guardian's journalism.
DAVID: The Comment is free, but one of the things that really struck me, you describe talking to… I can't remember when this would be… but talking to Peter Bradshaw, the film critic, about what changed with film criticism in an age where it's not just the critic tells the viewer whether it's a good film or not, and on that basis the viewer decides to go and see the film. The viewers are reviewing the critic. Peter Bradshaw says, ‘Basically I write a review, they've seen the film, and then they review me.’ And that's the world that we're in now where the space that's been opened up is for everybody to have a go. Isn't that the big change?
ALAN: That the whole that thing we’re pointing to, that everybody is a publisher.
DAVID: So everybody is a critic.
ALAN: Everybody's a critic. And the sort of mantras about ‘My readers know more than I do,’ which is in a very real sense true. You know, if you're a medical correspondent, you've never cut open a brain or taken anybody's blood pressure, so it's likely that the doctors amongst your readership will know more than you do. And for the first time in history, they have the ability to critique what you're writing—and they do. So the question is whether you switch all that off, which a lot of journalists want to do. They find it rather offensive and unhelpful, if not moronic. So they say, ‘Well look, we've tried inviting our readers to talk to us and we hate them. So let's turn all that off. If they want to go do that on Twitter that's fine.’ Or you try and bake that into the model of what you’re trying to do, and I thought that was a more interesting thing to try.
DAVID: But then when it’s political opinions… There’s expertise—there’s the doctor who’s done it—but then in this space everyone's political opinions count too, and that's not quite the same, right?
MARTIN: I think one of the things about ‘free’ in free information is, I think it has significant political implications, is how it necessarily leads to an awful lot of information being funded by advertising. And advertising is, Tim Wu writes very compellingly in The Attention Merchants, is really about getting attention, gaining and holding attention. And so once you do that bargain where you say, ‘Actually we're going to make information freely available, but we're going to also seek to get some funding for it,’ then the natural assumption was that funding would be through advertising. And then that if you follow on, follow on, follow on, leads eventually to people seeking as much attention and engagement as they possibly can, and that can mean shouting very very loudly. 10:25
DAVID: Did you find that the climate of political argument that The Guardian came to represent, what appeared not on its pages, but on its virtual pages, that it fundamentally shifted once you opened it up in this way? Because there's that whole question about what goes below the line, how you monitor that space—that's not about, on the whole, medical coverage, though that can be pretty vicious too. I mean the politics of it has rawer, hasn’t it?
ALAN: Yeah, it definitely has… I mean, Israel, Palestine, you’re always going to have difficult messy sometimes awful conversations; the environment or science, sometimes very good conversations. But I did have this visual image in my mind as I was writing this book of a society that had been arranged on a sort of horizontal axis. We were the experts, or we thought ourselves as experts. We had the printing presses. And we almost literally handed it down to the masses, and they handed their money up And now it seems to me so much communication is on a horizontal path in which all these millions of people are talking to each other and actually feel really resentful towards the people who regarded themselves as experts. You know, what gave you the right to be gatekeepers of information. And we may not like that. We may bitterly resent it We may, as journalists, want to get back to what it was. But I think that's the way that society now works. And it's very difficult for journalists to insert themselves into that and try and get hold of that conversation. And some of it's bad; some of it's good.
MARTIN: Is it like the shift from the theatre to the bazaar? So where previously you had the papers standing on, in some cases, a literal stage, being watched by the audience. Now, as you say, we've had this levelling. And people literally set up their stools and then they sell their wares. We’re in the bazaar. And there’s wonderful things about bazaars: they’re colorful, they're noisy, they’re, you know, very human. But they’re also very difficult to navigate. They can mean people being very aggressive. Is that the sort of change we’ve seen?
ALAN: I think that's right. That's a very good metaphor. It would have been an easy book to write, and I suppose in a way I set out to write this book saying that in a world of information chaos, we want journalism. You know, journalism is the answer. But I was writing it during Brexit. And if you looked at what the British press was doing during Brexit, it didn't seem to me that it was doing its function of helping citizens to make more informed decisions. It was telling citizens what to think. And actually some of the best coverage of Brexit I find on Twitter, you know, where there are people who really know what they're talking about. But nevertheless, you can't, I think, as a journalist, just look at that mass of information of people saying, ‘Well actually this is not working for me. This current political arrangement and economic arrangement’s not working for me.’ We can’t tell them that they're wrong or they're stupid. There's clearly something there, which has to be listened to. I know what you mean about that that 2016 moment because that's what journalists keep feeling. They keep feeling we’re constantly being surprised by events that we couldn't foretell. And that's a very bad look for a journalist because if we’re going to pay journalists anything it's to get things right.
DAVID: One way that it's not like a bazaar is because of the anonymity. I mean, that is a key part of this. Presumably on that image in the bazaar you can still kind of see who's saying what, but with a lot of this you can't. So even if you set up your stall, you can then hide behind a persona or voice or you don’t know whether the story is actually being manned by a human being or not. And that's a key part of the political story that you tell, isn't it? The way in which information flows so freely, but it also is kind of detached from the people who own it.
MARTIN: One of the areas I look at is how the alt-right took over a large proportion of the web in 2016. They successfully managed to, in some ways, distort the public sphere. The way in which much of that community developed was around sites like 4chan and 8chan, and others. Sites where people are properly anonymous, so not pseudonymous. They don't have a consistent identity when you go on. And each time you go on, you could just choose to be anonymous and you get given random alphanumeric number, and it's an image boards so you put up images. What it means in practice is that people collectively and anonymously work together in a sort of hive mind. So they are creating in this case, in the case of politics, creating propaganda, in the case of entertainment, creating lolcats or whatever else, but they are working very very collectively together and entirely anonymously. There's no there's no sort of ownership no concern about who owns what. You develop the most compelling messages, in many cases the most offensive messages, you possibly can. And that… I won't go into detail now because it would take too long, but that it's astonishing how that group, the methods that they adopt, the processes they adopt, is essentially coaxed into the Trump campaign and many of those methodologies used within the Trump campaign to produce some of the most, certainly the most compelling if not some of the scariest, narratives of that campaign, whether it's about the pizza story, Pepe the frog memes, all those stories emerge from this particular community and its particular methods.
DAVID: Because that's slightly tension with one conventional understanding of what went wrong, which is that it's very much the sort of top-down sinister interference, whether it's the Mercers or Putin or whoever, but there is some kind of mastermind who is manipulating this. And you know what that describes… I mean it is the hive mind. It is much much more organic than that.
MARTIN: Absolutely it's more organic.
DAVID: And it's not all a giant conspiracy.
MARTIN: It’s not all a giant conspiracy. For me, what it told me was that actually the way these communities and these platforms are structured has a huge impact on how they work, whether they work in a healthy friendly way or whether they work in a very dark way. There's a fascinating thing, a book by Jessica Beyer, who looks at different communities, and she actually compares some of these communities like World of Warcraft with 4chan. And World of Warcraft, which is this huge, multiplayer global game where actually you get really quite coherent and cohesive and friendly communities, and she’s trying to understand why on earth are these differences. Whereas 4chan is very very aggressive, very offensive. And actually, she looks at how you have consistently, pseudonymous site of World of Warcraft, but you have a consistent identity within there. You work within a team. And you have a reputation within that team. You can be thrown off that team by the team leader. The structures of this site are such that you actually are encouraged to work collaboratively in a positive way and to nurture your reputation, as opposed to working entirely anonymously with actually no cost whatsoever and no accountability for what you produce.
DAVID: Alan, you when you opened The Guardian up and you did basically tear down the barriers between the journalist and the reader, one set of anxieties would be around, as it were, what would swarm in without any barriers in place, but then the other increasing contemporary fear is of manipulation, that actually it's not people storming the barricades, it's Russian bots or whatever. Was there a shift in that? Did you worry about that second thing at all? Did you think that news was more likely to be manipulated if you tore down these barriers?
ALAN: I stopped half way through 2015 and I think that was sort of pre-bot. That's not to say that there weren't organized, semi-organized Russians who were beginning to intervene every time Luke Harding, our Moscow correspondent wrote something. You could see that beginning to happen. But luckily I didn't have to actually deal with the mass creation by machines or content.
DAVID: So fake news as a category, was post-that in your mind?
ALAN: I think I just managed to avoid fake news. I’m not saying we got everything right…
DAVID: Today's story, literally today's one about Russian bots, was that the last Jedi, the last Star Wars… you see it’s the last franchise films, so it's the one that's thought to have broken the franchise because all the fans turned against it because they said it's not what we want from a Star Wars film. We want our Star Wars films to be about good and evil and this has become soft and liberal and feminized. Today's story is that those were bots, those were Russian bots. Those weren't Star Wars fans, and that Putin's people had worked out the way to break the West was to break the Star Wars franchise. And we laugh… this was a serious scientific study that said as far as one could tell, over 50 percent of what was passing as comment on that film was coming from Russian bots.
MARTIN: And in parallel they were apparently seeking to change the Macedonian name change and intervening to suppress the vote so that they wouldn't change the name and would not gain access to NATO.
DAVID: [19:23] How seriously should we take the other half the equation? So there’s the hive-mind thing, there’s the opening up, there's the fact that the reader is the critic, the critic is the reader and so on. And that's democratising at some basic level. And then this is also simultaneously… we haven’t even got on to Facebook or Cambridge Analytica yet… this is simultaneously the world in which Putin can manipulate elections around the world.
MARTIN: The two, I think, are not in any way mutually exclusive because I think what we're seeing is we're going through this period of remarkable transition. Alan writes about it very compellingly, about how huge the period of change we're going through is. And when we go through a period change like that in terms of communication systems, it's inevitable that many opportunities will open up for new people to emerge, for new players to emerge, in politics, for new parties and campaigns and movements to emerge. And at the same time, many opportunities will open up for doing politics and communication in different ways. And one of the things I look at and the first part of my book is how people can manipulate the new communication systems to help them, whether that's about creating synthetic popularity and synthetic controversy, whether it's about coordinating very fast collective action to raid or to harass or to lynch etc., or whether it's about, in the case of the top down, whether it's about collecting huge amounts of personal data and then using that personal data to target very very specific messages to very specific people and often without their knowledge as to why they're being targeted.
DAVID: Alan, can I ask you a specific question about anonymity, which is that… the anonymous op-ed in The New York Times… that view that in the current political climate, certain traditional forms of journalism are too constraining and that we actually have to allow anonymity, not just at the bottom, but, as it were, in the form of what kinds of exposés we publish. What was your… Would you have published it anonymously?
ALAN: I think the question there is who was Mr. Anonymous, Mrs. Anonymous. I mean, think because I trust The New York Times… that act was so risky that I assumed that they know that the author is somebody of real weight. I mean if it transpired it was some you know junior intern in the West Wing, the damage of The New York Times’ credibility would be enormous, so I kind of take it on trust that The New York Times knows that that is John Kelly or someone.
DAVID: Although it has of course fueled rumours from the other side side that it precisely is… I think the current rumour is that it's a junior speechwriter to Mike Pence.
ALAN: Yeah, well in which case I would disappointed. I would have done it, I would do it if it was you know, I suppose, Alastair Campbell rang up at the height of the Blair government. You know, there’s obviously no way he would write that under his own name. Or if Ed Balls had rung up to denounce Gordon Brown, then I think you might do that. You might say, ‘Look we know who this person is. You should trust us and believe that if we're if we're publishing this it's because we have got very good reason to believe the state is in danger.’
DAVID: Is it a reflection of how exceptional the Trump administration is? Because it's quite hard to think of this sort of Campbell, Balls analogies because part of the implication of it is that we're dealing with someone who is essentially outside the bounds of what we thought of as normal political behavior, and so our response has to be outside those bands too, which I don't think anyone ever claimed, even about Gordon Brown, never mind Tony Blair, that it was… that we really were in new, uncharted territory here for accountability and so on.
ALAN: And that's what the piece was about. I mean he was describing the near insanity of an incredibly powerful leader…
DAVID: Rather than making the case for anonymous reporting as the new way to go because we'd find out more if we did it that way.
ALAN: I mean newspapers on a daily basis use anonymity because that way they can genuinely inform people more, better because some people will say things that are true only if they can hide behind anonymity. So it's a sort of regular, daily occurrence that you will tell people information that people will not put their names to, but in order for that to work, the reader has to believe that you’re doing what you say and that you're not flaming it up. The senior cabinet sources a senior cabinet source and not somebody you've just invented. That's why newspapers will never abandon anonymity. Nor should they in my view, but it has to be used sparingly and with integrity.
DAVID: Is a danger in an age where the people who trust The New York Times almost are committing now to trusting it implicitly because it's a political act to trust The New York Times, and the people who don’t trust The New York Times wouldn't believe them even if they'd put a name to it. There is always a danger that almost anything you do just deepens that divide because, as you say, it's a basic question of trust, and there is no trust.
DAVID: And there's no trust from the people that you want to reach.
ALAN: And vice versa. The people who trust Breitbart…
DAVID: So no minds will be changed in the act of publishing this. [24:14]
ALAN: I think The New York Times is probably in enough of the center-left ground still to command attention and some respect that Breitbart doesn’t.
DAVID: Facebook, which connects the two stories as well—and another word that we could use here, which is monopoly. I mean, suddenly we have relatively recently moved into a space where there are monopoly platforms even if they're not then monopolizing the news that is seen on those platforms. But it's a huge part of the story of news, the story of politics. Have we exaggerated it? Because it's almost gone from nowhere, partly thanks to Carole Cadwalladr and others, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have just become this kind of shorthand for what's gone wrong. Are we now focusing too much on one particular location of the problem? Is Facebook at the heart of the problem?
MARTIN: It’s at the heart of one problem. It's natural that we focused on Facebook at the moment because it has such a profound influence on the news and communications industry, and has had a very profound influence on elections in referendums. So I think it's natural that we're looking at Facebook. And of course the scale of it… it's so difficult I think to really actually understand the scale of Facebook, when you're sort of dealing with 2.2 billion active users.
And when, in many countries, the Internet is Facebook, it's inevitable that one sees an awful lot of things through that guise.
DAVID: And actually that includes many Asian countries doesn't, it? I mean, in particular, we’re probably not aware of the extent to which parts of Asia, parts of Africa, Facebook is simply the only way you can access the internet.
MARTIN: Well especially in Southeast Asia and parts of Africa, as you say, where Facebook… they did these deals with local telecoms companies to offer free service, free basic service to the Internet as long as you went via Facebook. So
there are countries throughout Southeast Asia—Malaysia, Indonesia, and other countries—where over 80 to 90 percent of people who are on the Internet are on Facebook. It's not only that it's where people spend an awful lot of time during the day—in the Philippines, they're spending four hours a day on social media, and most of that’s on Facebook—but it's also where you go to shop, it's where you go to work. So this is the public square. It is the space where people communicate. So in that sense, we’re not exaggerating. I think where we have to be careful is that I think we've forgotten about the other platforms. We sort of let the other platforms do their thing. And actually, I think we're going to start to see is the attention shift significantly to some of the other platforms because I think actually, in the long run, what some of them are doing will make Facebook pale slightly in significance.
DAVID: At what point were you aware… I think Emily Bell gave a lecture a couple of years ago basically called ‘How Facebook Ate the News.’ I think it was literally called that. At what point were you aware that this thing that started off as something that was sort of tangential to the business you were in…
ALAN: Well again it was happening. There was a very interesting book recently called something like Chaos Monkeys, which was written by a developer describing what it was like inside Facebook. It was only really about 2013 that they finally cracked it and then it was a sort of unstoppable beast; they were fumbling around a bit up to that point in terms of monetization. And then it did eat everybody's lunch and their breakfast and their dinner. It is terrifying. And again, in terms of my book, it would have been an easy book to write saying Facebook evil, but then, you know, you have to explain Martin's figure of 2.2 billion. If it so evil, why are all those people on it? Why do they like it? And in some countries it's a great democratic, enlightened force. And the other point is that people keep drawing the analogy with Gutenberg and saying, you know, we're about 10 minutes into Gutenberg time, and I think the… you know, we're 10 minutes into Web 2.0, the social web, and expecting these companies to solve this overnight is unrealistic. And so I don’t really like… I mean I think it's absolutely right that we should hold them to account, investigate them, advertise the problems and the dangers that they create, but I feel anxious about overreacting and charging in to regulate them or them down or… no, I wouldn't mind taxing them. [28:37]
DAVID: Do you think that we need to, as it were, trust-bust them? That part of the problem here is precisely the kind of monopoly aspect of it…
ALAN: Probably, probably.
DAVID: But who would that?
ALAN: Yeah, I mean it's interesting when you go to talk to them. I’m sure Martin has too. Because what you see is people overwhelmed by the nature of the problem that has been unleashed on the world. And if they hadn't done it somebody else would. And when I see Zuckerberg testify, he looks rather, sort of a frightened man to me, that he is awestruck by what he has done. I don’t think that makes him evil. And you have these interesting conversations with Facebook where they say, ‘Okay, so you the newspaper industry want us to support real journalism. What does real journalism look like?’ I mean, genuine question, you know. Should we be supporting The Sun, The Daily Mail? Should we be supporting that kind of Brexit coverage? Is that real journalism? And I think journalism itself hasn’t sort of stopped to ask itself the questions about what journalism in the public interest thinks it looks like, which may, in a world in which there may not be an economic model supplied by the market that would support it, may actually be rather different from what it looks like at the moment.
DAVID: Just give us a glimpse of what you think that model might be, the public interest journalism that isn’t supported by the market.
ALAN: Well its happening already, isn’t it? That towns and cities and entire communities are now not sustaining a local newspaper.
DAVID: News deserts.
ALAN: New deserts. But let’s say that we agree that societies can’t really be run unless you know what’s true or not, unless somebody is monitoring the people who are in power. So you need somebody who can point and say this is true, that’s not true, somebody independent, and yet the market's not going to provide that. So you have a need that the market doesn't provide, well how are we going to define what that looks like, and how is it going to be paid for? I mean these are big, big questions that I think people aren’t asking really at the moment because they think we can beat Facebook into submission and somehow people will realise we’re bloody good at what we do, and they'll start paying for it. Which, you know, it was lovely being a journalist when you did own the printing presses and you were handing it down.
There was nothing not to like, from the journalistic point of view. But I can’t imagine that were going to get back there. [30:59]
DAVID: Martin, you said that maybe we're not focusing enough on some of the other platforms, and we tend to run together Facebook and Google and Amazon, but they're very different in lots of different ways. So one of the really chilling and fascinating things about your book is it, towards the end, suggests that what might be happening to the news or the information space that we're most familiar with is small fry compared to the wider ambition, which is health care, which is education. And maybe Amazon, rather than Facebook, is where we should be focusing our attention… on a business model which is not about free advertising as such, but is about just undercutting everyone's margin in a whole range of industries, including potentially care industries, education industries, and others. And coming to own those industries too. I mean there is… the big tech companies have moved into the healthcare space. They have increasingly moved into the education space. And that's potentially on a different scale, isn’t it?
MARTIN: It's an absolutely different scale. I don’t think they see—again, it again comes back to what I was saying about how they view this—and I think they see it as simply about undercutting competitors.
DAVID: What about Bezos. Isn't that his mantra? ‘Show me your margin and I'll show you my opportunity?’ And you can apply that to health, you can apply that to education.
MARTIN: But if you if you took what they say seriously, many of them, in terms of what their belief is as to how they view the future, their vision of the future is very very technologically driven, but their vision of the future is on a platform. That we all live on platforms in all different areas of our lives, and they are the gateway. So whether it's in terms of healthcare—let's take that as our example, you mentioned Amazon, but Amazon, Apple, and Google are all seeing healthcare as the next really really big area that they're moving into. And, I mean, you probably will have seen recently that the new Apple Watch can do electrocardiograms. People were saying that that was an attempt to appeal to the over 65s; it wasn't an attempt to appeal to the over 65s. It was Apple’s move into making its devices healthcare devices. So their vision is that in the future what will happen is we will all track ourselves all the time, healthfulness through tracking devices: watches, phones, probably sensors in our beds, and sort of things. That information will be stored on the platform. We can put that information through various different apps and self diagnose. And if we choose to, we can send it to our own personal health representatives. They will be the filter, they will be the gateway to all of this. They view this as being both a more efficient world, a more effective world, and a world in which, probably in their case of healthcare, a healthier world, because they see it as a way to encourage better living and better quality of life. Again, a bit like Facebook, and open and connected, they see this as a very benign direction in which they are going. Of course, what is implicit within their vision is, a) the absolutely central role of technology and b) the absolutely central role of them. So they become the gateway to our public services, whether that's healthcare, whether that’s education, whether that's transport, whether it's energy.
DAVID: And in a way, in that model, the equivalent of the newspapers, in what we've been talking about before, is the state itself. I mean, the state becomes the analogue gatekeeper that gets swept away. The platform replaces the nation state.
MARTIN: The state becomes much much more etiolated… becomes a much smaller state. It becomes a much… I say at one point in my book that it will be more material, I think, for some people in the future, to change their platform than to change their government. For very reason that it would involve a hugely bigger shift in terms of…
DAVID: It would be harder, as well, to change their platform… Some of this strays close to… sounds like science fiction, dystopian or utopian, you can take your pick. Does it? You’ve lived through an earlier version, you’ve lived through the 1.0, 2.0 version of this… that sounds like 4.0.
ALAN: I do, to some extent, and you know huge questions of trust I suppose will… Well not will, are coming into play. When we were doing all the Snowden stuff and writing about the capability of the state to have incredible knowledge of every one of us, which was virtually inescapable, people used to say, ‘Well why are you targeting the state? Why aren’t you targeting Google or Facebook?’ And at the time, I sort of, kind of, liked Google, and in fact I do still quite like Google and do a lot of stuff on Google—less so Facebook now. But hearing Martin talk about Google having all my health records, I don't find a reassuring prospect, although the state is effectively trying to do that, and will probably do worse than Google.
DAVID: [35:50] Just to finish, there is one final model which maybe is the nightmare model, and it's the one that's closest to being real, which is in China, which is where the monopoly platform and the state are basically joined at the hip. And that one, I mean, if that's the future, it's nearer in some respects than these other ones because China has gone quite a long way down that road already. I mean, we probably don't spend quite enough time because we think of Silicon Valley as the center of this universe. But the big Chinese platforms, Alibaba, Baidu, and so on—the scale is the same, but the politics… I mean, at least Facebook and the American state are at some level in opposition to each other.
ALAN: Well to some extent. I suppose that's what Edward Snowden was trying to flag up, that, you know, if it became routine for the state to be able to go into a backdoor in Google or Facebook and read all our information then there is no distinction really between Google and the state. And I'm not sure people quite understood the dramatic nature of what he was trying to say, but maybe people now understand that now.
MARTIN: And you're right. We don’t need to look 10 years or 20 years to see a future. You can see that in China. I mean, particularly the social credit system. The degree of collaboration there is between the Chinese state and these platforms, particularly now with Alibaba, because most people now in China, or a huge proportion of people, much bigger than the U.K. and the U.S., are using their phones for payments.
DAVID: It is quite close to a cashless economy, I believe, I've been told, in places.
MARTIN: And of course many of those transactions, a bit like PayPal here, although much, much bigger, are going through and AliPay, are going through the Alibaba payment system. So Alibaba is capturing everything that you buy. And since it's also running the social credit system at the moment, it's recording that and feeding it in to your credit score, your trustworthiness as a citizen. We are already at the point in China where, as you say, the state and these huge, huge private companies, which record our lives all the time, are working very closely together to manage their citizens.
DAVID: And as you say, that is a trustworthiness score, and it's not about how much we trust them, but the basic metric is how much they trust us.
And it’s simultaneously nightmarish, and, from what one hears of China, not particularly contentious, in the sense that it's so folded into people's lives. It is where they live, as you were saying, in many places in the world. It's not that there's an online world and then a real world—that's where you live.
ALAN: Exactly, I mean, I was in Norway earlier this week and I tried to sell a copy of my book for somebody and they literally said, ‘Well I have no way of paying you.’ She wanted to ping me, whatever pinging was, but she couldn't ping me, so I had to give it to her.
MARTN: I think much of the problem here, and we see it in China, is the frog in boiling water, because China was far earlier than most other governments to see the potential disruptive impact of the digital. So back in 1997-98, China was already building its great firewall, and it was building in protections… in 2014, when it first decided to introduce the social credit system… So from a citizen's perspective, these things have built up and built up. And so now, as you say, in some ways, there's an acceptance that this is just the way things are done, but that's partly because it's just ratcheted up. I think we shouldn't be too smug in the sense that if we look at the numbers of areas of our lives when most of us are already rated, whether it's in terms of our Uber rating or our rating on TripAdvisor… it's not collected, it's not it's not centralized, but we do have a whole series of different systems, which are already rating us reputationally, which in some cases have really significant material effects on people.
DAVID: In a way it goes back to that Peter Bradshaw point. I mean, maybe journalists felt it sooner, which is the flipping around. We're no longer rating, we're being rated. Peter Bradshaw is no longer giving five stars to the films, film viewers are giving him five stars, or one star.
ALAN: And if we make the tiniest mistake there will be hundreds of people pointing it out very publicly on some social media platform, and that's incredibly uncomfortable. I mean you can perfectly understand why journalists hate this sort of transparency and constant scrutiny and constant criticism, but it's obviously not all bad. I'm aware now, as I begin to write a piece, that if I get anything wrong, I will be mocked and laughed at and criticized, and it makes me a more careful writer than I think I probably was 20 years ago.
DAVID: Do you read what's below the line about your pieces? Do you have the stomach for it?
ALAN: Yes I do.
DAVID: Because I mean a lot of people do… I have to say, I find it quite hard.
ALAN: I found it hard when I was editing, but I’m just a civilian now so people are less nasty to me than they used to be. But it is sometimes quite salutary, and sometimes they have a point, you know, they point out stuff that is wrong or could have been better or could have been clarified or could have been amplified or there was stuff that I could have referenced if I was more widely read, and all that's useful. So it's like everything—it's pointless saying it's all good or all bad.
DAVID: Your career at The Guardian, it coincided with this amazing period. You had these extraordinary moments, sort of set piece moments, with Snowden and so on, and it must have been incredibly exciting, apart from anything else. So if you were starting out now, do you think someone with an equivalent career, if people have careers, are going to have the same kind of moments? Because there is a bent that has become not just pessimistic but fatalistic, but to edit The Guardian over the next 10 years—do you think it's… would your heart sing at the thought of it?
ALAN: Oh yeah I think so because, I mean, I do believe that if you edit something to a very high quality, and you're properly resourced, and you do the basic function of journalism, which includes investigations, and you do that to a high level, and you're prepared to defend them… that's what people think journalism should be. And I think that The Guardian has now got 800,000 people who are prepared to pay for it voluntarily and to keep it open so that people can read it—because it's a dangerous dark place where good news lives in a sort of gated community and everyone else has to make do with crap. If you can get to a place where people say, ‘Well I trust and admire The Guardian. It is on my side. It is truthful and brave. Then I will pay for it…’ You know, the opportunity is huge. I don’t find myself plunged into gloom about where we are today.
DAVID: Or nostalgia. The future is open.
ALAN: Well that’s different. I feel quite nostalgic.
DAVID: [42:44] We’ll tweet the links to Alan and Martin's books. We’ll also tweet a link to the episode that we did with John Naughton and Jennifer Cobbe about Cambridge Analytica. Next week we're talking to Francis Fukuyama. After that, we are going to come back to talk about America because there has been an awful lot going on. We've got Sarah Churchwell, the historian of America First, among many other things, and she's going to be joining us before the midterms with Helen. And then we're doing our special, the morning after the night before, when we will try and make sense of what the voters think.