Dear news publishers: how to sift signals from noise about Facebook

Facebook’s two announcements about its ‘news feed’ – that it would make news a lower priority and let users determine quality rankings – triggered an extraordinary explosion of self-pity on the part of the news media. Given Facebook’s reach (2bn users) and the quantity of advertising it has removed from established media, that’s hardly surprising. But much of this indignation is short-sighted. Some advice to newsrooms and those who run them.

  1. Don’t say you weren’t warned. Facebook never guaranteed – as far as I’m aware – any particular income stream to any publisher or that they would not switch their policy and algorithms. As ‘Instant Articles’ came on the scene plenty of wise voices said to publishers: ‘By all means experiment with this, but don’t rely on it. Ever.’ Don’t pretend you didn’t hear this.
  2. But unpredictability is now Facebook’s greatest threat to news media. Instead of trying to blackmail Facebook into returning money you think should be going to you, try something more likely to work. If Facebook wants to make nice to news (and at least part of the company seems to want to), get them to understand early warning of decisions which will affect news publishers’ revenue would be wise.
  3. Beware of striking private deals with platforms. Wider and deeper transparency requirements for platforms (almost certainly enforced by legislation) is the key to making sense and improving the slew of issues around misinformation, election manipulation and other dark arts to which Facebook has lent itself, both willingly and unknowingly. The relationship between a citizen and her/his devices will be central of twenty-first century democracies. How we know what we know (and can trust) is an issue which goes wider than the business agonies of news media. Facebook is first and foremost a gigantic advertising machine but is also now a society machine. Or a politics machine if you prefer. Politics is about how power is allocated in a society. The devices we use to connect and to collect data play an ever-larger large role in that distribution of power. And on the subject of power: try to help Mark Zuckerberg talk about Facebook’s power. The word never comes up in his bland ramblings about ‘community’ and ‘connection’.
  4. Forget any idea that platforms can be forced to pay to prop up mainstream media. Rupert Murdoch took advantage this week of the Facebook fuss to suggest that online platforms should pay news publishers for their content in the same way that cable TV companies pay programme-makers for rights to air their work. Murdoch should send whoever drafted that statement to run something obscure in Tasmania: the parallel is nonsense. Cable companies have nothing to sell to consumers until they have content. Social networks sell advertising space by leveraging network effects between friends. They have no need of news. Given that news has never been more than a low single percentage of Facebook’s total activity and that it set light to a firestorms of controversy, I can easily imagine its executives arguing that they should leave it alone for good.
  5. But that’s not possible. Facebook can’t now avoid being entangled with news. So people in Menlo Park who dream of a news-free network will be disappointed. For now, the network is simply too big and too widely used to sidestep the dilemmas which come with news and all the strong tensions and emotions it provokes. Facebook is part of the infrastructure of free speech. Period.
  6. Let’s bury the phrase ‘fake news’. As an example, British government spokesmen made two announcements this week of initiatives to ‘combat’ (as headline writers like to say) fake news. One change was actually new machinery about detecting misinformation spread by states, a quite different thing. Even making allowance for the fact that the current (Conservative) government is in slow-motion and terminal decline, it is clear that the announcement-makers have no idea what they’re talking about. Quite apart from the problems of defining the news the government doesn’t like because it is ‘fake’, this sort of knee-jerk is liable to reverse long traditions of protecting free speech. A professor of artificial intelligence who goes by the splendid name of Yorick Wilks nailed it: “Someone in Whitehall has lost all sense of what a free society is about if they think government should interfere in determining what is true and false online.” One simple test for evaluating policies about misinformation: is it an exact remedy for a specific harm?
  7. Everyone – journalists and publishers included – has a duty to help Facebook through the philosophical, political and moral issues it has landed in. Treating the platforms as if they are merely technical means of transmission open to exploitation by bad actors is exactly what Facebook, Google and Twitter have begun (at differing speeds) to acknowledge that they are not. Beating up Facebook and gloating over its difficulties is not going to make it go away. These questions of colliding rights (e.g. free expression vs privacy vs right to know) have been giving editors and lawmakers migraines for centuries. Similar countries – across Europe for example – take radically different approaches based on history, culture and experience. Example: the contrasting approach to privacy rights in Spain or France with Scandinavia.
  8. Keep repeating: news isn’t nice. Facebook’s hard problem is the tension between its business model and the public interest value of news. The business model relies on interaction between users and time spent on the network (which Mark Zuckerberg now wants to be ‘time well spent’). That gives priority to emotion and ‘shareability’. Indignation and outrage go viral easily. News published and distributed in the public interest may appeal more to reason than to emotion. It may be unpleasant, complicated. Worse still (from Facebook’s point of view) news may be best conveyed by people who know more than other people, thus undermining any idea that everyone in a social network knows as much as everyone else. News may even insist that you learn what you may not want to know. None of this aligns easily with ‘community’ or ‘connection’, which are so central to Facebook. Tough problem, but not insoluble.
  9. Two things you can repeat to Facebook as often as you like: be transparent and take advice. The network is doing all sorts of research (psychological affects of social media, manipulation risks etc); they share frustratingly little detail. It astounds me that neither Facebook nor Twitter has ever set up advice groups of independent experts to advise them on hard public interest problems. (Google has done so, to good effect). Even better, try to persuade Facebook to combine the transparency and the advice. Allow experts and scholars outside the company to be involved in the research and allow them to talk and write about it. If these questions are really Facebook’s tests for quality of news, they need help to strengthen them. (Powerful academic version of this case from the Dutch scholar Natali Helberger here).
  10. Lastly, stop treating the future of news media as if it’s a zero-sum between journalism on the one hand and platforms on the other. The public don’t see the distinction that clearly (although mainstream media are more trusted). What everyone – users, platforms, news media – has to worry about is how to tell what is reliable from what is not, to verify and authenticate. New problems like the easier faking of video arise all the time. Solving that kind of stuff will take cooperation.

 

 

Share

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *