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.
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.
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.
Facebook 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.
Andy Mitchell, Facebook’s director of news and global media partnerships, arrived at the (superb) international journalism festival in Perugia last week to speak about news on Facebook. Thirty per cent of American adults get their news via Facebook (27% in the UK); 88% of millennials in the US do so (71% in Italy). Each month, 1.4bn people use Facebook. That makes Mitchell one of the most – if not the most – powerful news distributors on the planet.
And what Mitchell had to say was straightforward in most ways (full video here) and extremely odd in one important omission.
Facebook wants to improve the “experience” (this word cropped up a lot) of people getting their news on mobile to improve. Links to clunky news sites load slowly and Facebook is talking to major sites (such as the New York Times and Buzzfeed) about embedding their journalism directly in Facebook. Every statistic underlines how much people like getting their news on Facebook.
This was all fascinating, but there wasn’t any mention of how Facebook sees and handles its role as a news gatekeeper, influencing both the detail and flow of what people see. The issue didn’t come up right till the end when a Scandinavian questioner asked Mitchell about instances of Facebook cutting out material from the news linked from his organisation and an Italian student followed up. Mitchell batted both questions away without addressing either directly.
As an antidote to grim March weather, here are two stories to lighten gloom. Struggling to keep up with new media, older people burble that digital social networks carry nothing but trolls and trivia. Many (older) journalists remain sternly pessimistic that their work can survive its bumpy transition to new technologies whose users seem so little interested in serious news and opinion.
At a supper last week organised by Tech City Insider, I had the good luck to sit next to a bearded, energetic man called Michael Sani. He began life as an actor and teacher and founded one of the campaigns trying to improve the falling voter registration rate among young people.
The campaign is called Bite the Ballot and early this year it organised a week-long registration drive. There wasn’t much choice that promoting the apparently-boring cause of registering to vote had to be done on social networks. Besides being the natural online conversation of the 18-24 age group that Sani and his volunteers were aiming at, getting people to relay your message by making it go viral is cheap. Which was good because bitetheballot didn’t have much money.
Long story short: 441,000 new voters were registered in that week. That set a world record for the numbers of voters (as a proportion of the potential electorate) put on the list in a week, outstripping America’s Rock the Vote drive in 2004. New voters registering had a 72% completion rate doing the 5-page form, which might also be a record. The campaign projected pictures onto Big Ben, went to community centres, worked Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat…and spent a grand total of £200.
The founder of the planet’s largest social network, Mark Zuckerberg, has been thinking about books and, fortunately, he likes them:
I’ve found reading books very intellectually fulfilling. Books allow you to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today. I’m looking forward to shifting more of my media diet towards reading books.
I have to admit I laughed when I first read this (how old do you need to be to get this?). But Zuckerberg was saying that books had depth and that intellectual depth was a value he looked for in media. And that instinct is right on a trend I wanted to highlight.