Like many observers, I have often cited Facebook, along with Fox News, as one of the most dangerous forces promoting disinformation and polarization. Its algorithms feed you what keeps you engaged, and what keeps you engaged is what makes you angry and upset.
But what if most Facebook users don’t even see news? Nieman Lab editor Laura Hazard Owen conducted a real-world experiment. And what she found ought to give us pause:
Moreover, the top three most frequently seen news sources weren’t the likes of Newsmax, Breitbart and Infowars — they were CNN, The New York Times and NBC News, which epitomize the mainstream.
I asked Owen to clarify whether her definition of news popping up in people’s feeds was restricted to content that came directly from news organizations or whether it included news stories shared by friends. “It was ALL news,” she replied, “whether shared by a news organization or a friend.”
Is it possible that we all misunderstand the effect that Facebook is having (or not having) on our democracy?
Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.
A little more than four years after turning off comments and directing everyone to Facebook, I’ve turned them back on. The move comes at a time when we’re all questioning our dependence on Facebook given the social-media giant’s role in spreading disinformation and subverting democracy across the world.
I will continue to post links on Facebook, and readers will be able to comment either there or here. But if you’d like to reduce your own use of the platform, I urge you to sign up for email delivery of Media Nation (click on “Follow This Blog” in the right-hand rail) and post your comments here. Your real name, first and last, is required.
Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.
It’s probably not a good idea for us to talk about messing around with free speech on the internet at a moment when the reckless authoritarian in the White House is threatening to dismantle safeguards that have been in place for nearly a quarter of a century.
On the other hand, maybe there’s no time like right now. President Donald Trump is not wrong in claiming there are problems with Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Of course, he’s wrong about the particulars — that is, he’s wrong about its purpose, and he’s wrong about what would happen if it were repealed. But that shouldn’t stop us from thinking about the harmful effects of 230 and what we might do to lessen them.
Simply put, Section 230 says that online publishers can’t be held legally responsible for most third-party content. In just the past week Trump took to Twitter and falsely claimed that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough had murdered a woman who worked in his office and that violent protesters should be shot in the street. At least in theory, Trump, but not Twitter, could be held liable for both of those tweets — the first for libeling Scarborough, the second for inciting violence.
Ironically, without 230, Twitter no doubt would have taken Trump’s tweets down immediately rather than merely slapping warning labels on them, the action that provoked his childish rage. It’s only because of 230 that Trump is able to lie freely to his 24 million (not 80 million, as is often reported) followers without Twitter executives having to worry about getting sued.
As someone who’s been around since the earliest days of online culture, I have some insight into why we needed Section 230, and what’s gone wrong in the intervening years.
Back in the 1990s, the challenge that 230 was meant to address had as much to do with news websites as it did with early online services such as Prodigy and AOL. Print publications such as newspapers are legally responsible for everything they publish, including letters to the editor and advertisements. After all, the landmark 1964 libel case of New York Times v. Sullivan involved an ad, not the paper’s journalism.
But, in the digital world, holding publications strictly liable for their content proved to be impractical. Even in the era of dial-up modems, online comments poured in too rapidly to be monitored. Publishers worried that if they deleted some of the worst comments on their sites, that would mean they would be seen as exercising editorial control and were thus legally responsible for all comments.
The far-from-perfect solution: take a hands-off approach and not delete anything, not even the worst of the worst. At least to some extent, Section 230 solved that dilemma. Not only did it immunize publishers for third-party content, but it also contained what is called a “Good Samaritan” provision — publishers were now free to remove some bad content without making themselves liable for other, equally bad content that they might have missed.
Section 230 created an uneasy balance. Users could comment freely, which seemed to many of us in those more optimistic times like a step forward in allowing news consumers to be part of the conversation. (That’s where Jay Rosen’s phrase “the people formerly known as the audience” comes from.) But early hopes faded to pessimism and cynicism once we saw how terrible most of those comments were. So we ignored them.
That balance was disrupted by the rise of the platforms, especially Facebook and Twitter. And that’s because they had an incentive to keep users glued to their sites for as long as possible. By using computer algorithms to feed users more of what keeps them engaged, the platforms are able to show more advertising to them. And the way you keep them engaged is by showing them content that makes them angry and agitated, regardless of its truthfulness. The technologist Jaron Lanier, in his 2018 book “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,” calls this “continuous behavior modification on a titanic scale.”
Which brings us to the tricky question of whether government should do something to remove these perverse incentives.
Earlier this year, Heidi Legg, then at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, published an op-ed in The Boston Globe arguing that Section 230 should be modified so that the platforms are held to the same legal standards as other publishers. “We should not allow the continued free-wheeling and profiteering of this attention economy to erode democracy through hyper-polarization,” she wrote.
Legg told me she hoped her piece would spark a conversation about what Section 230 reform might look like. “I do not have a solution,” she said in a text exchange on (what else?) Twitter, “but I have ideas and I am urging the nation and Congress to get ahead of this.”
Well, I’ve been thinking about it, too. And one possible approach might be to remove Section 230 protections from any online publisher that uses algorithms in order to drive up engagement. When 230 was enacted, third-party content flowed chronologically. By removing protections from algorithmic content, the law would recognize that digital media have fundamentally changed.
If Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook want to continue profiting from the divisiveness they’ve helped foster, then maybe they should have to pay for it by assuming the same legal liability for third-party content as print publishers. Dorsey would quickly find that his tentative half-steps are insufficient — and Zuckerberg would have to abandon his smug refusal to do anything about Trump’s vile comments.
But wouldn’t this amount to heavy-handed government regulation? Not at all. In fact, loosening Section 230 protections would push us in the opposite direction, toward deregulation. After all, holding publishers responsible for libel, invasions of privacy, threats of violence and the like is the default in our legal system. Section 230 was a regulatory gift, and it turns out that we were too generous.
Let me concede that I don’t know how practical my idea would be. Like Legg, I offer it out of a sense that we need to have a conversation about the harm that social media are doing to our democracy. I’m a staunch believer in the First Amendment, so I think it’s vital to address that harm in a way that doesn’t violate anyone’s free-speech rights. Ending special regulatory favors for certain types of toxic corporate behavior seems like one way of doing that with a relatively light touch.
And if that meant Trump could no longer use Twitter as a megaphone for hate speech, wild conspiracy theories and outright disinformation, well, so much the better.
Over the weekend, Donald Trump Jr. posted a shockingly offensive message on Instagram claiming that former Vice President Joe Biden is a child molester. Next to an image of Biden appeared the words “See you later, alligator!” Below was a photo of an alligator with the retort “In a while, pedophile!” (No, I won’t link to it.)
Outrage came swiftly. “The dangerous and untrue charge of pedophilia is the new marker — so far — of how low the Trump campaign will go to smear Biden,” wrote Chris Cillizza at CNN.com. Jonathan Martin of The New York Times called it “an incendiary and baseless charge.” In The Guardian, Martin Pengelly said “most observers” (was that qualifier really necessary?) regarded it as “beyond the pale even in America’s toxic political climate.”
What few analysts noticed, though, was that Trump Jr.’s vile accusation, which he later claimed was a joke, lined up perfectly with a conspiracy theory known as QAnon. Bubbling out of the darkest corners of the internet, the theory claims, in broad strokes, that President Donald Trump is secretly working to destroy a plot led by the Clintons — but of course! — and other Democrats who engage in child abuse and cannibalism. And in order to defeat these malign forces we must heed the cryptic messages of Q, an insider who is helping Trump rout the forces of evil and save the world.
QAnon, in effect, is the ur-theory connecting everything from Pizzagate to paranoia about the “deep state” to regarding impeachment as a “hoax,” as Trump has put it. The Trumps have dabbled in QAnon from time to time as a way of signaling their most wild-eyed supporters that they’re on board. But there’s no exaggerating how dangerous all of this is.
We are living, unfortunately, in a golden age of conspiracy theories. Some, like Alex Jones of Infowars infamy, claim that mass shootings are actually carried out by “crisis actors” in order to give the government a rationale to seize everyone’s guns. Then there’s the anti-vaccine movement, currently standing in the way of any rational response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Indeed, a widely watched video called “Plandemic” falsely claims, among other things, that face masks make you sick and that people who’ve had flu shots are more likely to get COVID.
There’s nothing new about conspiracy theories, just as there’s nothing new about so-called fake news. Never mind the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the subject of a new, weirdly compelling 17-minute song-poem by Bob Dylan called “Murder Most Foul.” A century earlier, there were those who blamed (take your pick) Confederate President Jefferson Davis or Pope Pius IX for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
But conspiracy theorizing in the 21st century is supercharged by the internet, with a significant assist from Trump. Trump has indulged not just QAnon but also Alex Jones, the anti-vaxxers and all manner of foolishness about the deep state — the belief that the U.S. government is run by a shadowy cabal of bureaucrats and military officials who are seeking to undermine the president. At its heart, that’s what Trump seems to be referring to when he tweets about “Obamagate!,” a scandalous crime lacking both a scandal and a crime. And let’s not forget that Trump began his political career with a conspiracy theory that he made his own: falsely claiming that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and was thus ineligible to serve as president.
In recent days, the media have converged in an attempt to explain and debunk these various conspiracy theories. Last week, public radio’s “On the Media” devoted a segment to QAnon and “Plandemic.” The investigative website ProPublica has published a guide on how to reason with believers. The American Press Institute has offered tips for reporters. The Conversation, which brings academic research to a wider public, has posted an article headlined “Coronavirus, ‘Plandemic’ and the seven traits of conspiratorial thinking.”
By far the most ambitious journalistic effort is a special project published by The Atlantic called “Shadowland.” And the heart of it is a nearly 10,000-word article by the executive editor, Adrienne LaFrance, profiling the QAnon phenomenon and how it has infected thousands of ordinary people.
“QAnon is emblematic of modern America’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and its enthusiasm for them,” LaFrance writes. “But it is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end.”
What makes QAnon, “Plandemic” and other conspiracies so powerful is that believers have an explanation for every countervailing truth. Experts and others in a position of authority are automatically cast as part of the conspiracy, whether you’re talking about Dr. Anthony Fauci, Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.
“For QAnon, every contradiction can be explained away; no form of argument can prevail against it,” LaFrance writes. This type of belief system is sometimes referred to as “epistemic closure” — the idea is that believers live in a self-contained bubble that explains everything and that can’t be penetrated by contrary facts.
What can the media do in the face of such intense beliefs? In all likelihood, the answer is: not much. There is a school of thought among some press critics that if only news organizations would push harder, prevaricate less and devote themselves more fully to truth-telling rather than to reporting “both sides,” then a new dawn of rationality would surely follow. But that fundamentally misunderstands the problem, because the mainstream, reality-based media are regarded as part of the conspiracy. Journalism is grounded in the Enlightenment values that LaFrance invokes — the expectation that false beliefs will give way when confronted by facts and truth. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in today.
It should be noted that after Donald Trump Jr. posted his hideous attack on Joe Biden, Instagram neither deleted his post nor took down his account. Instagram, as you probably know, is owned by Facebook and is thus firmly ensconced within the Zuckerborg, which wants us all to believe that it is so very much concerned about truth and hate speech.
Thus does such garbage become normalized. You see a reference to Biden as a pedophile, and it seems off the wall. But then you remember he’s apologized for being handsy with women. And wasn’t he accused of sexual assault? And now look — there’s something on the internet about Democrats and pedophilia. Gosh, how are we supposed to know what to think?
To illustrate how useless the newly unveiled Facebook oversight board will be, consider the top 10 fake-news stories shared by its users in 2019.
As reported by Business Insider, the list included such classics as “NYC Coroner who Declared Epstein death ‘Suicide’ worked for the Clinton foundation making 500k a year up until 2015,” “Omar [as in U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar] Holding Secret Fundraisers with Islamic Groups Tied to Terror,” and “Pelosi Diverts $2.4 Billion From Social Security To Cover Impeachment Costs.”
None of these stories was even remotely true. Yet none of them would have been removed by the oversight board. You see, as Mathew Ingram pointed out in his Columbia Journalism Review newsletter, the 20-member board is charged only with deciding whether content that has already been taken down should be restored.
Now, it’s fair to acknowledge that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has an impossible task in bringing his Frankenstein’s monster under control. But that doesn’t mean any actual good is going to come of this exercise.
The board, which will eventually be expanded to 40, includes a number of distinguished people. Among them: Alan Rusbridger, the respected former editor of The Guardian, as well as international dignitaries and a Nobel Prize laureate. It has independent funding, Zuckerberg has agreed that its decisions will be binding, and eventually its purview may expand to removing false content.
But, fundamentally, this can’t work because Facebook was not designed to be controllable. In The New York Times, technology columnist Kara Swisher explained the problem succinctly. “Facebook’s problems are structural in nature,” she wrote. “It is evolving precisely as it was designed to, much the same way the coronavirus is doing what it is meant to do. And that becomes a problem when some of what flows through the Facebook system — let’s be fair in saying that much of it is entirely benign and anodyne — leads to dangerous and even deadly outcomes.”
It’s not really about the content. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but what makes Facebook a threat to democracy is the way it serves up that content. Its algorithms — which are not well understood by anyone, even at Facebook — are aimed at keeping you engaged so that you stay on the site. And the most effective way to drive engagement is to show users content that makes them angry and upset.
Are you a hardcore supporter of President Donald Trump? If so, you are likely to see memes suggesting that COVID-19 is some sort of Democratic plot to defeat him for re-election — as was the case with a recent semi-fake-news story reporting that hospitals are being paid to attribute illnesses and deaths to the coronavirus even when they’re not. Or links to the right-wing website PJ Media aimed at stirring up outrage over “weed, opioids, booze and ciggies” being given to homeless people in San Francisco who’ve been quarantined. If you are a Trump opponent, you can count on Occupy Democrats to pop up in your feed and keep you in a constant state of agitation.
Now, keep in mind that all of this — even the fake stuff — is free speech that’s protected by the First Amendment. And all of this, plus much worse, is readily available on the open web. What makes Facebook so pernicious is that it amplifies the most divisive speech so that you’ll stay longer and be exposed to more advertising.
What is the oversight board going to do about this? Nothing.
“The new Facebook review board will have no influence over anything that really matters in the world,” wrote longtime Facebook critic Siva Vaidhyanathan at Wired, adding: “The board can’t say anything about the toxic content that Facebook allows and promotes on the site. It will have no authority over advertising or the massive surveillance that makes Facebook ads so valuable. It won’t curb disinformation campaigns or dangerous conspiracies…. And most importantly, the board will have no say over how the algorithms work and thus what gets amplified or muffled by the real power of Facebook.”
In fact, Facebook’s algorithm has already been trained to ban or post warning labels on some speech. In practice, though, such mechanized censorship is aggravatingly inept. Recently the seal of disapproval was slapped on an ad called “Mourning in America,” by the Lincoln Project, a group of “Never Trump” Republicans, because the fact-checking organization PolitiFact had called it partly false. The Lincoln Project, though, claimed that PolitiFact was wrong.
I recently received a warning for posting a photo of Benito Mussolini as a humorous response to a picture of Trump. No doubt the algorithm was too dumb to understand that I was making a political comment and was not expressing my admiration for Il Duce. Others have told me they’ve gotten warnings for referring to trolls as trolls, or for calling unmasked protesters against COVID-19 restrictions “dumber than dirt.”
So what is Facebook good for? I find it useful for staying in touch with family and friends, for promoting my work and for discussing legitimate news stories. Beyond that, much of it is a cesspool of hate speech, fake news and propaganda.
If it were up to me, I’d ban the algorithm. Let people post what they want, but don’t let Facebook robotically weaponize divisive content in order to drive up its profit margins. Zuckerberg himself has said that he expects the government will eventually impose some regulations. Well, this is one way to regulate it without actually making judgments about what speech will be allowed and what speech will be banned.
Meanwhile, I’ll watch with amusement as the oversight board attempts to wrestle this beast into submission. As Kara Swisher said, it “has all the hallmarks of the United Nations, except potentially much less effective.”
The real goal, I suspect, is to provide cover for Zuckerberg and make it appear that Facebook is doing something. In that respect, this initiative may seem harmless — unless it lulls us into complacency about more comprehensive steps that could be taken to reduce the harm that is being inflicted on all of us.
The debate over what platform companies owe the news business goes back many years and has come to resemble a theological dispute in its passions and the certainty expressed by those on either side. Indeed, longtime digital-news pundit Jeff Jarvis immediately weighed in with a smoking hot Twitter thread responding to Smith.
Oh FFS, no, the news business crushed itself by relying on protectionism over innovation. @benyt goes all Murdoch & endorses Australia's digital Stamp Act. This isn't media criticism. It's lobbying. "Big Tech Has Crushed the News Business" https://t.co/vZJXLn4L4n
I’m not going to resolve that debate here. Rather, I want to offer some context. First, something like 90% of all new spending on digital advertising goes to Google and Facebook. Second, Google’s auction system for brokering ads destroyed any hopes news publishers had of making actual money from online advertising. How bad is it? Here’s an except from my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls”:
Nicco Mele, the former senior vice president and deputy publisher of the Los Angeles Times, who’s now the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School [he has since moved on], explained at a Shorenstein seminar why a digital advertising strategy based on clicks simply doesn’t work for news organizations that are built around original (which is to say expensive) journalism. “Google has fundamentally shaped the future of advertising by charging on a performance basis — cost per click,” he said. “And that has been a giant, unimaginable anchor weight dragging down all advertising pricing.”
For example, Mele said that a full-page weekday ad in the LA Times, which would reach 500,000 people, costs about $50,000. To reach the same 500,000 people on LATimes.com costs about $7,000. And if that ad appeared on LATimes.com via Google, it might bring in no more than $20. “Models built on scale make zero sense to me,” Mele said, “because I just don’t see any future there.” Yet it has led even our best newspapers to supplement their high-quality journalism with a pursuit of clicks for the sake of clicks.
From $50,000 to $7,000 to $20. This is why the advertising model for digital news is broken, and it’s why newspapers have gone all-in on paid subscriptions.
If nothing else, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey proved himself to be a master of timing when he announced last week that his social network will ban all political ads.
Anger was still raging over Mark Zuckerberg’s recent statement that Facebook would not attempt to fact-check political advertising, thus opening the door to a flood of falsehoods. Taking direct aim at Zuckerberg, Dorsey tweeted: “It‘s not credible for us to say: ‘We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad…well…they can say whatever they want!’”
For instance, it‘s not credible for us to say: “We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad…well…they can say whatever they want! 😉”
Not surprisingly, Twitter’s ad ban won widespread praise.
“This is a good call,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who had only recently tormented Zuckerberg at a congressional hearing. “Technology — and social media especially — has a powerful responsibility in preserving the integrity of our elections. Not allowing for paid disinformation is one of the most basic, ethical decisions a company can make.”
Added Hillary Clinton: “This is the right thing to do for democracy in America and all over the world. What say you, @Facebook?”
Oh, but if only it were that simple. Advertising on social media is a cheap and effective way for underfunded candidates seeking less prominent offices to reach prospective voters. No, it’s not good for democracy if we are overwhelmed with lies. But, with some controls in place, Facebook and Twitter can be crucial for political candidates who can’t afford television ads. To get rid of all political advertising would be to favor incumbents over outsiders and longshots.
And let’s be clear: Facebook, not Twitter, is what really matters. Journalists pay a lot of attention to Twitter because other journalists use it — as do politicians, bots and sociopaths. Facebook, with more than 2 billion active users around the world, is exponentially larger and much richer. For instance, the 2020 presidential candidates so far have spent an estimated $46 million on political ads on Facebook, compared to less than $3 million spent by all candidates on Twitter ads during the 2018 midterms.
But is political advertising on Facebook worth saving given the falsehoods, the attempts to deceive, that go way beyond anything you’re likely to see on TV?
In fact, there are some common-sense steps that might help fix Facebook ads.
Writing in The Boston Globe, technology journalist Josh Bernoff suggested that Facebook ban all targeting for political ads except for geography. In other words, candidates for statewide office ought to be able to target their ads so they’re not paying to reach Facebook users in other states. But they shouldn’t be able to target certain slices of the electorate, like liberals or conservatives, homeowners or renters, white people or African Americans (or “Jew haters,” as ProPublica discovered was possible in a nauseating exposé a couple of years ago.)
Bernoff also suggested that politicians be required to provide documentation to back up the facts in their ads. It’s a good idea, though it may prove impractical.
But we may not have to go that far. The reason ads spreading disinformation are so effective on Facebook is that they fly under the radar, seen by tiny slices of the electorate and thus evading broader scrutiny. In an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, Ellen L. Weintraub, chair of the Federal Election Commission, argued that the elimination of microtargeting could result in more truthful, less toxic advertising.
“Ads that are more widely available will contribute to the robust and wide-open debate that is central to our First Amendment values,” Weintraub wrote. “Political advertisers will have greater incentives to be truthful in ads when they can more easily and publicly be called to account for them.”
Calling for political ads to be banned on Facebook is futile. We live our lives on the internet these days, and Facebook has become (God help us) our most important distributor of news and information.
Earlier this week The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the IRS had approved its application to become a nonprofit organization, making it the first daily newspaper to take that step. Unlike The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Tampa Bay Times, for-profit newspapers owned by nonprofit foundations, the Tribune will be fully nonprofit, making it eligible for tax-deductible donations.
Nonprofit news isn’t exactly a novelty. Public media organizations like PBS, NPR and, yes, WGBH are nonprofit organizations. So are a number of pioneering community websites such as the New Haven Independent and Voice of San Diego. And if the Tribune succeeds, it could pave the way for other legacy newspapers.
Last May I wrote about what nonprofit status in Salt Lake could mean for the struggling newspaper business. This week’s announcement is a huge step forward.
Imagine for a moment that you run a small community newspaper or website. You have a Facebook page. But people tell you that even though they’ve “liked” it, they almost never see content from your page show up in their News Feed. And thus one of the most important channels for distributing journalism in the social-media era isn’t working for you.
According to some estimates, “organic reach” — that is, the percentage of users who’ve liked your page and who actually see your content — can be as low as 2 percent. What can you do? Well, you can give Mark Zuckerberg access to your credit card, which will boost your reach considerably. But if you can’t afford to pay, you’d be better off handing out refrigerator magnets with your website’s URL on them than depending on Facebook.
Now imagine that you’re the publisher of a major national news organization like The New York Times, The Washington Post or BuzzFeed. The Zuckerborg is about to bestow upon you millions of dollars. That’s because you’ve agreed to be part of Facebook News, a new tab in the service’s mobile app for curated, reliable journalism. (The feature is being rolled out slowly, and I have not seen it yet.)
There are many reasons to be skeptical of Facebook’s latest foray into news, but surely one of the most important is this: At a time when local news is under unprecedented economic pressure, the News Tab will only widen the gap between relatively well-off, highly visible national news organizations and small local projects. The national sites will get paid; the local sites will be billed monthly.
It’s possible that this could change over time. According to Facebook’s announcement. “we’ll showcase local original reporting by surfacing local publications from the largest major metro areas across the country, beginning with New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Philadelphia, Houston, Washington DC, Miami, Atlanta and Boston. In the coming months, we’ll include local news from Today In, our local news and community information tab, which recently expanded to over 6,000 US towns and cities.”
So, at least at first, it sounds like large regional news organizations will be included. But it’s not clear how or if any of that money will ever trickle down to the laid-off community-news reporter who’s trying to start a hyperlocal site, or to the volunteers who provide coverage that their chain-owned weekly ignores.
There are other potential hazards as well. Let’s start with the conflicts of interest posed by news organizations choosing to do business with our most controversial tech company.
“Payments to publishers for stories that Facebook might otherwise aggregate for free is a boon for journalism,” wrote Emily Bell at the Columbia Journalism Review. “The idea that there will be a daily, regular newsfeed that’s not filled with nonsense is a boon for Facebook users. The delineation of news as a category distinct from other ‘content’ is a boon for democracy. Yet the readiness with which publishers are seemingly embracing this new business arrangement is discomfiting, given Facebook’s track record, and the total lack of regulation. Will News Corp. [parent company of The Wall Street Journal and Fox News, both part of the News Tab] and others disclose their relationship with Facebook when they cover the tech world? One can only hope so.”
Another problem is the very odd presence of Breitbart News as part of the News Tab. It’s one thing to want to include a conservative-leaning news organization; it’s quite another to add weaponized propaganda to a list that is supposed to be comprise factual, verified journalism. More than anything, the inclusion of Breitbart appears to be part of Zuckerberg’s continued efforts to suck up to right-wing critics who accuse Facebook and other social-media platforms of liberal bias.
Finally, there is the question of whether Facebook this time will stick with its newfound embrace of news. Over the years the company has alternately accepted its role as a platform for journalism and walked away from it. About a decade ago, it unveiled a program called the Social Reader, inviting news organizations to use it and set up shop inside Facebook. The Washington Post and The Guardian, in particular, had considerable success with it. And then Zuckerberg changed his mind.
David Beard, a veteran journalist who was working on social-media strategies for the Post at that time, told me in a 2015 interview that he began developing email newsletters for the paper in direct response to the Social Reader fiasco. “For a while, we had tons of readers in India and the Philippines and some other places,” he said. “And then Facebook changed the algorithm, and we suddenly had none. So my learning from that episode was, is there something we can do without a mercenary, where we own the machinery?”
Now, once again, news organizations are relying on Mark Zuckerberg’s machinery. Will it be different this time? I hope so. Zuckerberg is under fire from all directions these days. He may sincerely hope that leading people away from disinformation and toward real news will not only ease the pressure on him and his company, but will be good for democracy as well.
But few things are more vital for fixing democracy than bolstering local news. At the very least, Facebook News is off to an unacceptably slow start at the local level. If that doesn’t change, then Zuckerberg’s latest idea may wind up being just one more example of a promise unfulfilled.
Jeff Bezos is our most elusive famous billionaire. With his shaved head and gnomish smile, it sometimes seems like he’s perpetually in our midst. Yet unlike Mark Zuckerberg, who’s forever explaining himself and his intentions, or the late Steve Jobs, always ready with a boast or a putdown, Bezos only rarely puts his thoughts into words.
When he does, he is intentionally obscure. “Bezos made a statement saying all the correct and anodyne things, but he was not terribly revealing,” David Remnick wrote shortly after Bezos announced he would buy The Washington Post. You could say that’s the way Bezos has operated at Amazon, the company that made him the world’s richest person. Or how he has lived his life.
Yes, he was forced to reveal some of his most intimate secrets when The National Enquirer reported that he was having an affair and threatened to publish embarrassing photos. But even then, he acted so that he could disclose his secrets on his own terms, thus denying his enemies the satisfaction of humiliating him. It worked. If there really were any photos, they have not surfaced.
Now both The New Yorker and The Atlantic have weighed in with lengthy pieces aimed at answering the question of what drives Amazon — and Bezos. The two articles, which run more than 13,000 and 11,000 words respectively, take very different approaches.
In The New Yorker, Charles Duhigg presents us with a classic business story, deep on details, both the good and the bad — some of which is very bad indeed, such as the company’s brutal work environment and its carnivorous relationship with companies that sell products on its site. Much of the ground Duhigg covers is familiar to those of us who’ve obsessed over Amazon. The most novel insight Duhigg offers is that Amazon, based as it is on a set of ideas (Bezos’ famous 14 Leadership Principles), can be likened to General Motors in its early decades — nimble and adaptable enough to enter and dominate industries entirely unrelated to its original mission of selling books.
Amazon Web Services, the server farm that powers organizations from Apple to the CIA, would be a paradigmatic example of that, but so would the rise of Amazon Prime as a media service that offers television, movies, music and, yes, one of the world’s great newspapers. By contrast, companies like Google and Facebook are similar to Ford in those early years, tied to search and social networking for the bulk of their revenues as firmly today as they were when they were founded. Amazon, like General Motors before it, is a “process company.” Google, Facebook and Ford are “product companies.”
All this is too mundane for Franklin Foer, who, writing in The Atlantic, offers a fanciful theory of Bezos. What really motivates Bezos — what pushes him to keep earning more and more money, far more than any person, or any 10,000 people, would ever need — is that he wants to go to outer space. Or, to put it more realistically (OK, not that much more realistically), he wants humanity to colonize space before we have made the earth entirely uninhabitable. Thus the founding of his rocket company, Blue Origin, which, Foer notes, Bezos has called his “most important work.” Foer adds, “With his wealth, and the megaphone that it permits him, Bezos is attempting to set the terms for the future of the species, so that his utopia can take root.”
Bezos does not like to talk to journalists. He rarely gives interviews — not to Brad Stone, the author of a 2013 book about Amazon called “The Everything Store.” Not to Duhigg. Not to Foer. Not even to The Washington Post, although he’s been quoted when he’s addressed the staff or participated in events such as a public conversation with the Post’s executive editor, Marty Baron.
And not to me. When I was researching my 2018 book on a new breed of wealthy newspaper owners, “The Return of the Moguls,” I spent months sending emails and snail-mails to Bezos and to various other people at the Post and at Amazon. The closest I got was a brief phone conversation with a top Amazon official who said he’d talk with Bezos about my request. No dice. A colleague even suggested that I fly to a place where Bezos was giving a speech and try to ambush him afterwards for a few quotes.
I decided not to. First, I had no confidence in my ability to stake out the right spot so that I could accost him as he was passing by. Second, I had even less confidence that he would stop and say anything — at least anything that wasn’t “correct and anodyne.” Other wealthy newspaper owners, including John Henry of The Boston Globe and Aaron Kushner, formerly of the Orange County Register, spoke with me at length. But Bezos proved as elusive with me as he does with everyone else.
So what’s next for Bezos and Amazon? At cultural moment when our love affair with all things tech is turning sour, the next few years could be unpleasant. Duhigg traces the history of antitrust law, explaining that, in recent decades, the government lost interest in breaking up monopolies unless they engaged in behavior that resulted in higher prices for consumers. Since Amazon’s stranglehold on the digital marketplace has resulted in lower prices, there was no reason to think there was a problem. Same with Google and Facebook, which, after all, are free.
Now, though, the antitrust worm is turning. Older ideas that monopolies are harmful to the economy regardless of their effect on prices are being embraced by everyone from antitrust regulators in President Trump’s Justice Department to Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who has vowed to break up the tech monopolies. And, as we know, Trump has attacked Amazon repeatedly because of his fury over how the Post has covered him.
“We may be at a breaking point now,” writes Duhigg, who quotes the historian David Farber as telling him: “It’s like the 1880s or the 1930s all over again. The pressure is going to continue building, the powerful are going to continue being watched and criticized and gawked at, until something pops.”
What Bezos has always had going for him was his embrace of the long view, even unto the stars and beyond. “If you look at why Amazon is so different than almost any other company that started early on the internet, it’s because Jeff approached it from the very beginning with that long-term vision,” Brad Stone quotes Bezos’ friend Danny Hillis as saying in “The Everything Store.” “It was a multi-decade project. The notion that he can accomplish a huge amount with a larger time frame, if he is steady about it, is fundamentally his philosophy.”
Will Amazon keep getting bigger and bigger? Or are we at peak Amazon (and Google and Facebook), poised on the brink of a future that may look very different from what has come before? Bezos may still embrace the long view, but he’s 55 now, an age when most people in his position begin thinking about their legacy.
No doubt Bezos will continue to say correct and anodyne things. But as Duhigg and Foer make clear, he now faces a challenge unlike anything he’s had to deal with — the challenge of surviving the political and culture wars that have sprung up around him and, ultimately, becoming a good corporate citizen.
Bernie Sanders is an unlikely savior of journalism.
The iconoclastic senator has long had a prickly relationship with the press in his home state. According to Paul Heintz, a staff writer with the alt-weekly Seven Days, Sanders hasn’t granted a full-fledged interview in more than four years to the paper, which touts itself as the state’s largest. And Seven Days is not alone. “I would say that it’s highly unusual for an elected official in Vermont to not regularly speak to Vermont reporters,” Heintz said. “I think it’s problematic.”
Then, last month, Sanders claimed without evidence that The Washington Post covered him critically because of his attacks on Amazon, whose founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, also owns the Post. “The remark sounded an awful lot like the kind of criticism leveled by someone else,” said NPR’s Domenico Montanaro. That someone else: President Trump.
But apparently you don’t have to love the media to appreciate its vital role in a democracy. Because last week Sanders, an independent socialist who is once again seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, outlined a solid media-reform proposal in an essay for the Columbia Journalism Review.
“Real journalism requires significant resources,” he wrote. “One reason we do not have enough real journalism in America right now is because many outlets are being gutted by the same forces of greed that are pillaging our economy.”
Sanders devoted much of his piece to rehashing the financial crisis that has brought news organizations to their knees, especially at the local level. But he also offered some specific ideas that fall into three categories:
• Opposing media mergers such as the proposed combination of the GateHouse Media and Gannett newspaper chains as well as the CBS-Viacom deal. Media companies would be required to detail how many journalism jobs would be lost in such mergers. Employees would have an opportunity to buy their media companies. Unions would be strengthened. And ownership caps would be re-imposed on broadcast outlets for the first time since 1996 in the hopes of restoring localism and diversity.
• Swinging the antitrust club at Google and Facebook, which, as Sanders observed, now vacuum up some 60 percent of all digital advertising revenues. It’s not clear how any actions Sanders might take against the two internet giants would benefit journalism. He doesn’t help his cause by citing a flawed study claiming that, in 2018, “Google made $4.7 billion off reporting that Google did not pay for.” (Well, no, not really.) But there’s little question that both companies have benefited from free content provided by newspapers and other media outlets. At the very least, Sanders seems likely to support a temporary antitrust exemption that would allow the news business to negotiate some sort of revenue-sharing deal.
• Taxing targeted advertising — that is, ads served up based on the data that has been collected about you — and using it to fund “nonprofit civic-minded media.” This is an idea that has been promoted by the media-reform organization Free Press “to support local-news startups, sustain investigative projects, seed civic-engagement initiatives, and lift up diverse voices that have long been excluded from traditional media coverage.” Government funding of journalism is bound to be controversial, even though it already takes place to a limited degree with public radio and television. But there are ways to insulate such funding from political interference — though skepticism is certainly warranted.
But parts of Sanders’ plan are likely to resonate with the public — especially his targeting of Google and Facebook, which are increasingly unpopular for violating our privacy and harming democracy. Indeed, Sanders’ rival Elizabeth Warren beat Sanders to the punch by many months in proposing to break up Google, Facebook and Amazon.
One way that corporate media owners succeed in defending their turf is by controlling the terms of the debate. Thus you will hear that Sanders proposes to impose new regulations on an industry that, for the sake of the First Amendment, ought to be as unregulated as possible. But as the media scholar Robert McChesney has observed, the alternatives are not regulation or deregulation; rather, they come down to what kind of regulation we want — in the public interest, or in the corporate interest?
This is especially true in the case of broadcast media, which must be regulated because there are only a limited number of frequencies available. Sanders, to his credit, is not proposing the return of anti-free-speech policies such as the Fairness Doctrine and equal-time provisions. Rather, he seeks to ensure diversity of ownership while letting the content take care of itself.
Sanders may not like journalists very much, but he understands the importance of journalism. Far from being radical, his plan pulls together some strands that have been around for quite a while. Teddy Roosevelt would praise his stance against mergers and in favor of taking some sort of action against the monopolistic practices of Facebook and Google.
Whether Sanders becomes our next president or not, his proposals amount to a serious attempt to wrestle with the forces that have harmed journalism and have concentrated media power in the hands of a few. Voters and his fellow candidates should take notice.