30
May 17

A little (election) manifesto for Facebook

When an issue starts to surface at literary festivals, you can tell that it’s gone middle-class mainstream. Over the weekend, TV celebrity Stephen Fry recommended that Facebook be classified ‘as a publisher’ in order to tackle ‘fake’ news and online abuse.

With an election on in the UK right now, Facebook is the weapon of choice for political parties wanting to spring surprises. The network is being credited with almost magical powers of persuasion and manipulation – largely because few people understand how it works. I live in a marginal constituency in London and printed political nonsense comes through our letterbox every day; I’ve no need to look at Facebook to see people fiddling with the truth.

So how should worry about Facebook be usefully focussed? In a public exchange with Facebook’s Adam Mosseri recently I urged Facebook to think much wider and to worry about helping to rebuild faith in truth in societies where that trust has begun to break down. Unsurprisingly, someone researching platforms asked me what on earth I meant. What follows is based on my reply.

When I talked about a ‘reconstruction effort in civil society’, I was compressing too much into a short phrase. Many journalists were thinking very narrowly about fake news, factchecking and misinformation. That is to say that the concerns about it are perfectly real (as are the solutions which are being tried out and multiplying), but the issue goes wider.

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20
Apr 17

Two faces of Facebook

This morning’s headlines are about the Facebook’s progress in connecting your brain to their social network. Their scientists, led by the ex-head of the American defence research agency Darpa, foresee the day when you won’t even have to lift a finger to press a ‘Like’ button. You’ll think it and it’ll happen.

The focus on Facebook’s announcement at their F8 developers conference in California is understandable. But my eye was caught by something quite different in what the network’s founder Mark Zuckerberg said. Something which shines a light on what a split personality Facebook is becoming on the issue of its effect on human society.

Zuckerberg talked about pictures and how much easier Facebook would make it to edit them. There’s a coffee cup in a picture of you: the touch of a key will add a whisp of steam or a second cup. You could make it look, he said, as if you’re not drinking coffee alone. Facebook will help us be ‘better able to reflect and improve our life experiences.’

New products would focus on the visual. And that, Zuckerberg said, is ‘because images created by smartphone cameras contain more context and richer information than other forms of input like text entered on a keyboard.’ Boring old words: so tiresome, so time-consuming, so slow.

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22
Mar 17

Cut clutter, clarify and care about every word: Robert Silvers, RIP

Much has been written about Robert Silvers, one of two founders of the New York Review of Books, who died the other day. I never met Silvers but almost feel as if I knew him, despite the fact that he almost never wrote in the NYRB as an author. To read the NYRB was to read the minds of many knowledgeable people; one was also reading the mind of Silvers. His mark was on every paragraph.

That was of course because he edited every word. People who create ideas which last simplify and clarify. Listen to Silvers in this interview from four years ago. I can imagine that his voice might, to some, sound ‘elitist’ and arrogant in its certainty. But hear the clarity of purpose – and the watchful care to have that expressed in every word and comma. Lazy writing is lazy thinking, and vice versa.

The only statement of editorial mission the NYRB ever needed appeared in the first issue in 1963:

“This issue … does not pretend to cover all the books of the season or even all the important ones. Neither time nor space, however, have been spent on books which are trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation, or to call attention to a fraud.”

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06
Mar 17

Dear Google, your algorithm went walkabout

In the past couple of years Google has moved more and more openly into creating editorial content, albeit material assembled by computers and not by people. One algorithm experiment in this line reveals a terrible muddle about truth.

The version of machine-created material most often seen in a Google search is the box which flips up on the right hand side of a screen to summarise what Google knows about the main subject of a search. I asked Google for the nearest branch of the restaurant chain Wahaca to my home in London:

For this kind of search, such panels work just fine. I get links to Wahaca locations on the left and a summary of the things I’m most likely to want to know about Wahaca neatly laid out on the right. This is the sort of thing that search does well with what the early pioneers of online called ‘ease of do’. Exact factual information, in a split second.

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20
Feb 17

Mr Zuckerberg’s education has further to go

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14
Nov 16

Zuckerberg: news ought to be ‘authentic’ and ‘meaningful’

No great surprise that the election of Donald Trump was a tipping point for opinion about Facebook. Now people are really asking the questions about the influence of social networks and the mix of human intervention and algorithms that power their selection of news.

This is not a post about the causes of the American election surprise and its implications of journalism (there’s an informative survey of opinions here). This is another bulletin on the progress that Facebook is making in absorbing and acting on the fact that it has moral and democratic responsibilities which stem from its colossal informational power.

At the weekend, Facebook’s chief honcho Mark Zuckerberg responded to charges that Facebook had influenced the election outcome, in particular by circulating fake news stories. No surprise either that Zuckerberg guesses not. But he is guessing. And I’d guess that subsequent research may show infuence. We’ll see.

Fake news is an issue, but it is not the heart of the question. The question which matters is how Facebook – the techies, the software and your community – decides what to show you. Anyone with a smartphone can now distribute information, true, false or debatable. The group of people who used try to sift the truth information likely to matter to society (aka journalists) no longer control the distribution of what they produce. Facebook is the first news distribution platform which operates at scale across the whole planet. Plainly that gives it power and influence; we just don’t yet know precisely how that works. Facebook’s responses to the dilemmas raised by this have been hesitant, crabwise, half-admissions that it may have some ‘editorial’ responsibilties and is not only a big, neutral tech-only company.

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24
Oct 16

News on Facebook: clever people still not (quite) getting it

Six weeks after unleashing a small tornado of criticism for mistakenly taking down a legendary news picture, Facebook’s top honchos have responded to the criticisms they attracted and switched policy.

Their global ‘community standards’ will be adjusted to allow exceptions for ‘newsworthy’ material. So say Justin Osofsky and Joel Kaplan, two Facebook Veeps, in a blog post. This is the key paragraph and the entire description of the tests they will use:

‘In the weeks ahead, we’re going to begin allowing more items that people find newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest — even if they might otherwise violate our standards. We will work with our community and partners to explore exactly how to do this, both through new tools and approaches to enforcement. Our intent is to allow more images and stories without posing safety risks or showing graphic images to minors and others who do not want to see them.’

On the surface, this is fine and I’m glad that Facebook has learnt from its recent experience. But the surface is the problem. If the Facebookers don’t dig under he surface of these brief, bland phrases soon, they will rapidly find themselves up to their armpits in more controversies. Last weekend’s flare-up was a reported internal row over whether or not Trump-supporting posts should be taken down because they qualify as hate speech. At the rate Facebook seems to be thinking about these dilemmas at the moment, there will be plenty more of this to come.

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27
Sep 16

A few clues to how Facebook should think about news

Among the mainstream online/print news media, anxiety about Facebook has turned to aggression. The attacks are the product of fear.

Facebook is a large enough corporation to generate headlines almost every day. But the row over the social network taking down a historic, and still powerful, picture taken in 1972 during the Vietnam War handed the pundits who worry about the future of journalism a golden opportunity.

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-11-50-23Facebook was beaten up for good reason: taking the picture down was idiotic and asking for trouble. But the ferocious aggression is not about Facebook’s failure to tell the difference between kiddie porn and a legendary piece of photojournalism. It’s about Facebook hoovering up advertising revenue which once went to pay for newsrooms.

A great many journalists aren’t thinking straight about Facebook (notable exception here). In an attempt to clarify, this post is in the form of advice to Facebook. That’s because I don’t think sniping at Facebook is working (although I’ve had a go at its executives before now myself). Least of all do I think that publishers can seek protection from social news distrbutors from governments. With the distribution of news now decoupled from the organisations which generate news, power now lies with the distributors. Facebook’s daily news audience is at least 600,000 people and growing; it’s the most popular news-sharing site in America.

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