Facing up to the damage wrought by Facebook

Previously published at The Arts Fuse.

Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, by Siva Vaidhyanathan. Oxford University Press, 288 pages, $24.95.

The reason that Facebook is so evil is that Mark Zuckerberg is so good. According to Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, the former wunderkind has drunk deeply of his own Kool-Aid and genuinely believes that his creation is a benevolent force in the world. “Zuckerberg has a vibrant moral passion,” Vaidhyanathan writes in his new book, Antisocial Media. “But he lacks a historical sense of the horrible things that humans are capable of doing to each other and the planet.”

From propagating fake news to violating our privacy, from empowering authoritarian regimes to enabling anti-Semitic advertising, Facebook has become the social network everyone loves to hate. Vaidhyanathan, whose previous books include The Googlization of Everything — and Why We Should Worry (2011), has produced a valuable guide, written in clear, non-academic prose, to the monstrous force Facebook has become. And if his overview of what’s gone wrong with Facebook will seem familiar to those of us who obsess about these things, it nevertheless serves as a worthwhile introduction to the Zuckerborg and all that it has wrought. If only Vaidhyanathan had some compelling ideas on what to do about it. If only any of us did.

Facebook’s malign omnipresence came about quickly. Founded in 2004, it wasn’t until the dawn of the current decade that it became a behemoth. With 2.2 billion active monthly users, Facebook is, for many people, synonymous with the internet itself — the place where your aunt and uncle share photos of their pets, updates from their vacations, and, of course, links to memes and conspiracy theories about George Soros’s non-existent Nazi past and the “deep state” plot to overthrow President Trump.

Such craziness has serious real-world consequences. It may not be an exaggeration to say that Trump became president partly because of Facebook, as Russian propagandists, Cambridge Analytica, and the Trump campaign itself all bought ads to bolster Trump’s message and to persuade possible Hillary Clinton voters to stay home on Election Day. The Facebook effect was probably not as powerful as James Comey’s bizarre obsession with Clinton’s emails — or, for that matter, Electoral College math. But given that Trump was elected by just a handful of votes in a few swing states, it seems plausible that Clinton might otherwise have overcome those obstacles.

There’s nothing new about political advertising, even if Facebook’s tools for microtargeting tiny slices of users based on the information they themselves have provided are unusually precise and pernicious. More ominous, Vaidhyanathan argues, is that the Facebook environment encourages the sort of fragmented thinking and emotional reactions that are antithetical to healthy civic engagement and that helps give rise to an authoritarian figure like Trump. Everything looks the same in your news feed. And since Facebook’s algorithm is designed to give you more of the type of content that you interact with, you become increasingly sealed off from viewpoints you don’t agree with. Vaidhyanathan’s attempt to shoehorn Trump into his overarching theory of Facebook is a bit awkward given that Trump’s social-media drug of choice is Twitter. Nevertheless, he is surely on to something in arguing that the reductive discourse that characterizes Facebook helped fuel Trump’s rise.

“After a decade of deep and constant engagement with Facebook, Americans have been conditioned to experience the world Trump style,” Vaidhyanathan writes. “It’s almost as if Trump were designed for Facebook and Facebook were designed for him. Facebook helped make America ready for Trump.”

Vaidhyanathan is not the first to take note of the distractedness that has come to define the digital age. Nicholas Carr, in his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, laments that the internet has given rise to a culture of skimming rather than deep reading and warns: “As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it — and, eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society.” Carr barely mentions Facebook, which at the time had not yet become a hegemonic force. But there is little doubt that it has only accelerated those trends.

So what is to be done? In a healthier political climate, Vaidhyanathan writes, we might expect our elected officials to act — by mandating greater privacy protections and by forcing Facebook to sell off some of its related businesses such as Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger. But he holds out little hope, even though Europe is moving in that direction. And he identifies a specific reason for his pessimism by describing two competing philosophies of corporate leadership in the United States, neither suited to dealing with the menace we face. One, market fundamentalism, holds that the sole obligation of a corporation is to make as much money as possible for its shareholders. The other, the social responsibility model, sees a role for corporations — but not for government — in addressing environmental and cultural concerns and in helping to make the world better. Vaidhyanathan places Facebook squarely within the latter tradition. Remember, he sees Zuckerberg at root as an earnest if misguided idealist.

The problem is that both of these philosophies are based on differing notions of corporate libertarianism. Each exalts the business leader as the exemplar to which society should aspire. By embracing a binary view of the corporation’s role, we have, Vaidhyanathan argues, essentially eliminated the public sphere from the discussion of how to solve universal problems. Rather than looking to elected leaders, we look to people like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Laureen Powell Jobs, and, yes, Mark Zuckerberg. We embrace “innovation” rather than real progress that benefits everyone. Given the state of our politics, that might seem like logical behavior. But it’s also behavior based on the nostrum popularized by Ronald Reagan that government is the problem, not the solution. Say something often enough over the course of nearly four decades and it becomes true.

There is some hope. Although Vaidhyanathan doesn’t mention it, there are signs that journalism is becoming less dependent on Facebook. According to the web metrics firm Chartbeat, news organizations are seeing a decreasing amount of referral traffic from Facebook and an increasing amount of direct traffic to their websites and other digital platforms. “The increase in direct traffic matters because it enables publishers to control their own destiny,” writes Lucia Moses of Digiday. “They have more data on reader behavior, which enables them to better target readers with more content and offers for subscriptions and other revenue drivers.” Given the parlous state of the news business, any shift away from Facebook is a positive development.

Moreover, there are signs that we have reached peak Facebook, with young people in particular turning away from the service. According to Hanna Kozlowska, writing in Quartz, Facebook usage among 12- to 24-year-olds is declining, and overall usage in the United States and Canada is starting to shrink as well. That’s not to say Facebook is about to go the way of Friendster or MySpace. But perhaps a shrinking user base, combined with the controversy and legal woes Zuckerberg is dealing over privacy violations and other scandals, will lead to a kinder, gentler Facebook.

Ultimately, Vaidhyanathan says, it’s up to us. “Reviving a healthy social and political life would require a concerted recognition of the damage Facebook has done and a campaign to get beyond its spell,” he writes. “If millions were urged to put Facebook in its proper place, perhaps merely as a source of social and familial contact rather than political knowledge or activism, we could train ourselves out of the habit.” Later he writes: “Resistance is futile. But resistance seems necessary.”

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Beset by bad news of its own making, the ZuckerBorg faces its Myspace moment

When Mark Zuckerberg looks in the mirror these days, does he see Tom from Myspace looking back?

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Is Facebook looking at its Myspace moment? The blockbuster news that data scientists working on the Trump campaign rifled through the personal data of some 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge surely represents a new and disturbing low. But it’s been a long, long time since there was anything even remotely positive to say about the ZuckerBorg.

From creepy psychological experiments to advertising aimed at “Jew haters,” from the manipulation of its Trending Topics feed to the proliferation of Russian-backed fake news, Facebook is looking more and more like a uniquely malign influence in our lives. The question is whether Mark Zuckerberg and company, in their arrogance and greed, have dealt themselves a blow from which they will not recover. No doubt Facebook will be with us for many years to come — after all, Myspace is still with us, sort of. (I’ll bet you didn’t know that.) But Facebook’s reach and influence, already on the wane by some measures, may start to shrink in serious, measurable ways.

The latest, reported jointly by The New York Times and The Observer of London (the Sunday edition of The Guardian), is complex in its details but devastatingly simple in its conclusions. Cambridge Analytica, a voter-profiling operation backed by the wealthy Mercer family, used subterfuge “to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate,” as the Times put it. The data breach — not a theft but, rather, an abuse of Facebook’s rules — enabled an analysis of “whether a particular voter was, say, a neurotic introvert, a religious extrovert, a fair-minded liberal or a fan of the occult,” the Times reported.

“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles,” a whistleblower named Christopher Wylie told The Observer. “And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”

The Cambridge Analytica side of the story is a rich one, and it includes details such as how the Mercers and their hired thug, Stephen Bannon, set up the company as a shell to hide its ties to the British-based SCL Group (it would be a crime for a foreign company to work on a U.S. political campaign) and how SCL, in turn, has ties to Ukrainian and Russian interests (but of course).

But as I’ve argued before, the idea that voters can be manipulated by the dark arts practiced by the likes of SCL and Cambridge Analytica is unproven. The false propaganda spewed daily by the likes of Sean Hannity and Breitbart (another Mercer-backed operation) is far more influential, I suspect, than Facebook ads specially tailored to “neurotic introverts.” What really worries me — and should worry you, too — is not what this says about President Trump’s 2016 campaign but what it says about the risks we take whenever we log onto Facebook.

Not that this should be news, but Facebook makes its money by engaging in the same kinds of psychological manipulation that the Mercers have tried to apply to politics. It uses that manipulation to keep you on the platform for hours at a time, all the while showing you ads based on how you use the service — what you post, what you “like,” what you comment on.

The Cambridge Analytica breach came about through a pretty typical Facebook activity. Several hundred thousand users were paid to take a personality test, and they agreed to share their Facebook usage patterns in return. Incredibly, at the time Facebook allowed researchers to scoop up the same data from the test-takers’ friends, unbeknownst to them, which is how the number grew to 50 million. Facebook’s response is that, well, you know, that’s not what the rules said you could do with the data. Sorry.

Now Facebook is in big trouble — not only in the United States, where, among other things, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has launched an investigation, but in Britain, where SCL is suspected of interfering in the Brexit vote, and where regulation of corporations such as Facebook is taken rather more seriously than it is in the colonies. Even here, though, The Washington Post reports that Facebook could be hit with “many millions of dollars in fines” for violating a 2011 consent decree to protect users’ privacy. (Theoretically the fine could reach $2 trillion, although the Post cautions that’s unlikely to happen.)

Which brings me back to the Myspace analogy. As you may recall, Myspace was the big social network of the previous decade, succeeding a nearly forgotten service called Friendster. Myspace founder and “first friend” Tom Anderson’s smiling face became an iconic symbol of the early days of social media. The service became enough of a mass phenomenon that eventually Rupert Murdoch took notice and bought it. But Myspace’s dominance didn’t last long; in 2008 Facebook took the lead in total users. In the hazy mists of our collective memory, it might seem that Facebook was just better — more technologically sophisticated, easier to use. And that’s true. Myspace tended to look like a vintage 1990s-era Geocities web page.

But Myspace made some huge blunders, too. More than anything, it allowed itself to become a sleazy outpost that ended up driving users away. As Amy Lee of The Huffington Post put it in 2011, “The network had started to flood with scantily clad would-be celebrities, filling the site with highly sexualized photos that led to the site’s tarnished reputation as a hotbed of obscenity.” The result, Lee wrote, was something that internet researcher danah boyd compared to “white flight,” with Facebook emerging as “a safe haven for more elite users.”

Would anyone describe Facebook as a safe haven today? Of course, Facebook is far larger than Myspace ever was, and it benefits enormously from the network effect — that is, its main value is that everyone uses it. Nevertheless, some cracks in the foundation have emerged, and it’s possible that what seems impregnable today will turn out to be more fragile than anyone had imagined.

Consider: TechCrunch reported in January that growth in the number of Facebook’s daily active users had slowed during the fourth quarter of 2017, and had actually dropped slightly in the U.S. and Canada. The market research firm eMarketer has found that users who are 24 and younger are leaving Facebook in droves. And just this week, The Wall Street Journal cited new figures from eMarketer showing that Facebook’s share of digital ad revenues is expected to decline in 2018, from 19.9 percent to 19.6 percent — the first shrinkage ever.

Last month Wired magazine published a massive investigation by reporters Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein on Facebook’s two years of hell, starting with accusations that the service had manipulated Trending Topics to stifle conservative voices and culminating in Facebook’s role in propagating fake news. “It’s not easy to recognize that the machine you’ve built to bring people together is being used to tear them apart,” they wrote, noting that Zuckerberg’s initial reaction to the notion that fake news on Facebook may have influenced the election — “a pretty crazy idea” — was seen even within the company as “clueless and self-absorbed.”

So what happens next? Last October, The New York Times published a roundup of ideas for “How to Fix Facebook.” ranging from reducing anonymity to transforming the company into a nonprofit organization. My own suggestion would be for a startup to launch a competing social network without advertising. Users would pay a modest fee — say, $10 a month. And all of the perverse incentives to keep us online and sell us stuff would go away.

I should add that this is not likely to happen. But no one thought Myspace’s time in the limelight would be so short-lived, either. In the digital age new, compelling ideas can catch on very quickly. Just ask Tom.

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Zuckerman’s latest changes show why news needs to break the Facebook habit

1931 photo by George W. Ackerman via Wikipedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Until recently I had thought my digital news-consumption habits were as archaic as heading down to Newspaper Row to peruse the headlines pasted in the window. Now, with Facebook moving toward a break-up with the news business, it appears that I may have been ahead of my time.

My morning ritual begins with the iPad and coffee. I read The Boston Globe or The Washington Post — I switch back and forth — and then read the other on my iPhone while taking the train and subway to work. I’m not just scanning headlines; I read both papers pretty thoroughly, the way we used to engage with print. Sometime during the day I’ll check in with The New York Times as well.

Now consider the strategy pursued until recently by many publishers. They would post many if not most of their stories to their Facebook page, with headlines aimed at enticing users to click and share. More clicks and more shares meant that more stories from that publisher would show up in your news feed. Finally, more clicks meant that more users visited the publisher’s website or app, where they would encounter advertising — and, as is the case with many quality news outlets these days, be asked to become paid digital subscribers.

Flimsy though that strategy may have been, publishers didn’t believe they had much choice. With more than 2 billion active users, Facebook has, for many people, essentially become the internet. Recently, though, Facebook upended everything by announcing that news posted directly by publishers would be all but eliminatedfrom the algorithmically determined news feed in favor of more social sharing by family and friends. If one of your family members shares a story from the Globe — or from Alex Jones, or from a fake-news content farm run by Macedonian teenagers— then you will still see it. But if you want to read a story posted directly by the Globe, you’ll have to visit the paper’s Facebook page. (You can change that by fiddling around with the settings, but my purpose is not to write a tutorial.)

“For publishers who have come to rely on traffic from Facebook — which for some still drives the majority of their traffic; for many others, 30 or 40 percent — this is awful news,” wrote Joshua Benton at the Nieman Journalism Lab. Mother Jones senior editor Ben Dreyfuss told the Columbia Journalism Review’s Mathew Ingram that it could be “an extinction-level event” for some publishers.

What drove the change? In a message to users, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said he wanted to “encourage meaningful social interactions with family and friends over passive consumption.” No doubt Facebook’s tortured relationship with news, fake news and Russian propaganda had something to do with it. On Monday the Post’s Elizabeth Dwoskin reviewed the “tumultuous 18-month struggle by Facebook to come to grips with its dark side.” Roger McNamee, described as an investor and mentor of Zuckerberg’s, told her:  “The problem with Facebook’s whole position is that the algorithm exists to maximize attention, and the best way to do that is to make people angry and afraid.”

As news executives contemplate what it will be like to live in a post-Facebook world, they should be thinking about what it would take to revive the media habits that prevailed before Facebook became our most important news distributor. It won’t be easy. But consider the path that the Post has taken since Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos bought the paper in 2013.

The Post has relied on Facebook as heavily as any newspaper, but always with an eye toward restoring the primacy of what Bezos called the “bundle” — that is, a digital version of the local, national and international news, sports, culture, business, entertainment, the crossword puzzle and everything else that made up the traditional print newspaper. It has worked spectacularly. Today the Post has more than a million paid digital subscribers and has been profitable in each of the past two years, according to publisher Frederick Ryan.

It could be that the effect of Facebook’s latest changes will not be as dire as the most apocalyptic predictions would have it, or that it could even be good news for some. In his message to users, Zuckerberg said that news would fall from 5 percent of the news feed to 4 percent. That’s a 20 percent drop, but it’s not a zeroing-out. Moreover, Zuckerberg said the company is taking steps to ensure that “the news you see, while less overall, is high quality.” That caused investors to boost the price of New York Times Co. stock by nearly 9 percent, according to Rani Molla of Recode. It also led Rupert Murdoch to demand that Facebook start paying for that quality content through “a carriage fee similar to the model adopted by cable companies.” I assume Murdoch is self-aware enough to have been suggesting his Wall Street Journal as a candidate for such quality-based payments rather than the Fox News Channel or the New York Post.

Facebook has always been a lousy partner for journalism. That’s not because Zuckerberg is especially evil. It’s because he’s in one business and news organizations are in another. News is good for Zuckerberg if it results in more users spending more time on Facebook and seeing more ads. It’s bad if it causes unneeded controversy and raises the specter of government regulation.

We’re not going back to the days when newspapers would paste headlines in the window or even when flipping through the pages of a print newspaper was mainstream behavior rather than a niche activity. What we can do is to come up with strategies aimed at encouraging readers to engage with journalism directly instead of through Facebook and other third-party distributors. Sharing on social media should be dessert, not the main course. Because, in the end, Zuckerberg is going to take all the ice cream for himself.

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Changes to Facebook’s news feed is one more blow the news business doesn’t need

Mark Zuckerberg. Photo (cc) 2012 by JD Lasica.

News publishers have been railing against Facebook ever since the gigantic platform began scooping up — along with Google — the lion’s share of digital advertising. But though people in the media business have long feared that they can’t live with Facebook, many of them have also concluded that they can’t live without it.

That second proposition is now being put to a serious test. Last week Facebook announced that it was changing its news feed to give priority to content posted by family and friends, thus downgrading journalism. As The New York Times put it, “Prioritizing what your friends and family share is part of an effort by Facebook to help people spend time on the site in what it thinks is a more meaningful way.”

Like many journalists, I have long relied on Facebook (and Twitter) to promote my work and to engage with my audience. It’s not exactly clear — at least not yet — what this will mean to individuals who post links to news content as opposed to, say, pictures of their cat. But the implications for publishers are clear enough. And at a time when the news business is besieged on multiple fronts, Mark Zuckerberg’s latest brainstorm is one more thing to worry about.

“For publishers who have come to rely on traffic from Facebook — which for some still drives the majority of their traffic; for many others, 30 or 40 percent — this is awful news,” wrote Joshua Benton at the Nieman Journalism Lab. Benton added that digital-only news sites that rely on free content, massive audiences and online advertising will be hurt the most. Newspapers that have had some success in getting readers to sign up for digital subscriptions won’t be hurt as badly, he added, although they will suffer from a loss of traffic, too.

At the Columbia Journalism Review, Mathew Ingram predicted that some publishers may go out of business as the result of the change:

Moving from an advertising-focused model to one that relies on reader subscriptions may be the prudent move, but getting from point A to point B could be difficult, and some companies may not be able to make the transition. For them, Facebook’s latest algorithm could be what Mother Jones Senior Editor Ben Dreyfuss called “an extinction-level event.”

There’s no question that a decreased emphasis on news may make life easier for Zuckerberg and company. Facebook’s fecklessness in the “fake news” wars has damaged the company’s reputation, and eschewing journalism, fake or otherwise, in favor of heartwarming family updates is, as Benton noted, more in keeping with Zuckerberg’s original vision.

Yet I can’t help but be concerned that this is one more blow that the news business doesn’t need. Maybe the solution is to develop a news product for legitimate publishers that would be separate from the news feed. That would require Facebook to hire journalists and make editorial judgments. But it could also be a contribution to democracy — an idea that Zuckerberg often pays lip service to with very little in the way of action to back it up.

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Why we should all be concerned about Google’s power over our virtual lives

Facebook and Google may dominate our virtual lives, but it’s Facebook that catches most of the flak. From its role as a platform for fake news to its wildly exaggerated claims about the reach of its advertising to its just-revealed involvement with Russian trolls during the 2016 campaign, Mark Zuckerberg’s creation has become the behemoth that everyone loves to hate.

Now, though, it’s Google’s turn for some long-overdue criticism. It started last week, when The New York Times reported that Barry Lynn, a critic of monopolies, had been fired by a think tank called the New American Foundation after he wrote approvingly of European antitrust regulators for hitting Google with a $2.7 billion fine. Google is a major funder of New America.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Fake news, false news, and why the difference matters

Overlooking the content farms of Macedonia. Photo (cc) 2010 by Pero Kvrzica.
Overlooking the content farms of Macedonia. Photo (cc) 2010 by Pero Kvrzica.

On Friday, my students and I were talking about fake news on Facebook and what to do about it. Our focus was on for-profit content farms like the ones run by those teenagers in Macedonia, who made money by promoting such fictions as Pope Francis’s endorsement of Donald Trump (he also endorsed Hillary Clinton, don’t you know) and Clinton’s pending indictment over those damn emails.

Facebook and Google had already announced they would ban such fake news sources from their advertising programs, starving them of the revenue that is their sole motivation. And we agreed that there were other steps Facebook could take as well—tweaking the algorithm to make it less likely that such crap would appear in your newsfeed, or labeling fake sources for what they are.

But then one of my students asked: What should Facebook do about Breitbart? And here is the dilemma in dealing with fake news: not all fake news is created equal. Some of it is produced in sweatshops by people who couldn’t care less about what they’re doing as long as they can get clicks and make money. And some of it is produced by ideologically motivated activists who are engaging in constitutionally protected political speech. Facebook is not the government, so it can do what it likes. But it is our leading online source for news and community, and thus its executives should tread very lightly when stepping into anything that looks like censorship.

Read the rest at WGBH News. And talk about this post on Facebook.

How Facebook has weaponized fake news

Illustration (cc) 2012 by the Free Press/Free Press Action Fund.
Illustration (cc) 2012 by the Free Press/Free Press Action Fund.

Not long after Bill Clinton became president, rumors began circulating that he had covered up the existence of a cocaine-smuggling operation in Mena, Arkansas, when he was governor. It wasn’t true, of course. But the Clinton conspiracy theorists—yes, they have ever been among us—began badgering newsrooms and demanding to know why this galactically important story wasn’t being investigated.

Now there are growing concerns about the rise of fake news on the internet, and especially on Facebook. I think we all need to be worried about the effect that false information has on our democracy. And there’s no doubt that Facebook, with its 1.8 billion users, has weaponized the spread of conspiracy theories in a way that wasn’t possible previously. But the Mena craziness, which lives on to this day, shows that the internet is not now and never was a necessary precondition for the spread of politically motivated falsehoods.

Read the rest at WGBH News. And talk about this post on Facebook.

The trouble with Facebook’s ‘Trending Topics’

I still haven’t gotten around to writing anything more substantive about the controversy over Facebook’s “Trending Topics.” But this Storify lays out my main arguments.

Facebook to conservatives: Drop dead

If Facebook wanted to call its trending news section “Editors’ Picks” or some such thing, then it wouldn’t matter if the stories reflected liberal leanings, conservative leanings, or whatever. In fact, it is simply called “Trending.” And it’s not illogical for us to believe that it’s an accurate reflection of news that Facebook users are sharing.

Now the tech site Gizmodo is reporting that Facebook editors have actually manipulated the trending-news list to suppress stories that are favorable to conservatives or critical of Facebook. Michael Nunez reports that a source told him “that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.”

Let’s be clear about what was going on. This wasn’t the New York Times putting together a front page that reflects the liberal biases of its editors. This was much more like the phone company deciding to blocks calls from people and organizations if it doesn’t like their views.

It’s bad enough that we don’t understand the algorithms that go into deciding what we see in the news feed. Trending news is supposed to be transparent and on the level. I can’t say I’m surprised to learn that it isn’t, but I’m horrified nevertheless.

Gizmodo reports that no one from Facebook would comment on its story. So we don’t know whether the company admits this took place in the past or, if it is, if it’s still going on.

Update: Facebook has issued a statement in which it says that it’s taking the Gizmodo allegations “very seriously.”

Facebook has become the Internet—and that’s bad for news

Mark Zuckerberg in 2013. Photo (cc) by JD Lasica.
Mark Zuckerberg in 2013. Photo (cc) by JD Lasica.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Facebook is sucking the life out of the Internet because, for many of its users, it has become the Internet. That has serious implications for anyone seeking to publish online while keeping some distance from Mark Zuckerberg’s social-networking behemoth. Worse, Facebook’s utter dominance makes it increasingly difficult for independent journalism to thrive—or even to get noticed.

Consider some numbers. According to the Economist, Facebook has 1.6 billion users, more than 60 percent of whom are logged on for at least 20 minutes each day. By contrast, the Washington Post, whose web traffic now exceeds that of any other American newspaper, received just 73 million unique visits during the entire month of March. And people who drop in on news sites spend an average of one to three minutes per visit.

Now consider a few recent developments in the world of online news, rounded up by media analyst Ken Doctor for the Nieman Journalism Lab. BuzzFeed, the recent subject of a gushing Fast Company article on how its chief executive, Jonah Peretti, was “Building A 100-Year Media Company,” has stumbled some 90 years short of its mark, falling well below its revenue targets. Layoffs and budget cuts have hit digital media properties such as Salon, the Huffington Post, Mashable, and Gawker. Yahoo could be headed for the glue factory.

There are several possible explanations for the problems these media organizations are experiencing. But surely a significant challenge is that their would-be readers are spending most of their time on Facebook.

I realize I am oversimplifying, and that most news organizations already publish on Facebook as well as on their own websites. The Washington Post, for instance, shares all of its journalism as Facebook Instant Articles, which load on mobile devices—as the name suggests—instantly. But though Instant Articles (and Apple News, a much smaller competitor) offer certain advantages, including the ability to evade ad-blockers, the revenue potential can’t compare with drawing an audience to your own website, especially if you can get them to pay up.

Even though the Post is trying to build its digital subscription base, it doesn’t dare eschew Facebook, says Shailesh Prakash, the Post’s chief information officer. “To get the exposure we need of our brand and our great storytelling ability, we need to go where the users are,” Prakash told me recently. “For us to not piggyback on that platform, especially with our national and international aspirations, I think would not be the right strategy.”

A news organization like the Post, owned by Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, a peer of Zuckerberg’s, is one thing. After all, Bezos has already made the Post’s national digital edition part of Amazon Prime, and if he doesn’t like the deal he’s getting from Facebook there are presumably other steps he can take as well.

But what about a regional newspaper like the Boston Globe? I “like” the Globe’s Facebook page, but its journalism shows up in my newsfeed haphazardly at best. (Fortunately for the Globe, I’m already a paying subscriber.) The same is true with other news sources that I like. Facebook may be essential for media organizations. But the algorithm that determines what you actually see in your newsfeed is one of life’s great mysteries, determined (supposedly) by your behavior, but not in any transparent way you can control. The challenge is as great or greater for small local news sites whose proprietors built their business models around the idea that their readers would visit them on the web, and who must now depend on Facebook for much of their audience.

“Something really dramatic is happening to our media landscape, the public sphere, and our journalism industry, almost without us noticing and certainly without the level of public examination and debate it deserves,” said Emily Bell, director of the Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, in a recent address. The title of her talk as republished in the Columbia Journalism Review: “Facebook is eating the world.”

“Social media and platform companies”—but mainly Facebook— “took over what publishers couldn’t have built even if they wanted to,” Bell added. “Now the news is filtered through algorithms and platforms which are opaque and unpredictable.”

The first half of the digital news revolution that began in the mid-1990s was defined by disaggregation—the break-up of the traditional newspaper bundle into a plethora of specialty sites and blogs devoted to interests such as local news, sports, and celebrity gossip.

The second half has been defined by re-aggregation at the hands of Facebook. And that trend is only accelerating. Mark Zuckerberg is not just the unimaginably wealthy founder and chief executive of the world’s largest social network. He also exercises enormous control, whether he ever wanted to or not, over how we receive the information we need to govern ourselves in a democratic society. That is an unsettling reality, to say the least.