Mark Henderson was getting ready to throw in the towel on his dreams of becoming a successful media entrepreneur. He had suspended his two-year-old online community news project, the Worcester Sun, after a brief, failed experiment with a weekend print edition. So in February 2018, he started pulling his resume together and getting ready to look for a job.
First, though, he had one more idea he wanted to try. Since 2012, when he was still a top executive with the Massachusetts city’s daily newspaper, the Telegram & Gazette, he’d been thinking about building a local version of a social network. Back then, the timing wasn’t right. But maybe things had changed. He remembers sitting down one day in the early afternoon and starting to code a prototype.
Eight years ago, Western observers were appalled when then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak cut off internet access in the midst of the Arab Spring uprisings. Back then, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media were seen as tools of liberation, empowering ordinary citizens to stand up against the forces of repression.
Alec Ross, a top aide to Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state, went so far as to call the internet “the Che Guevara of the 21st century,” enthusing: “Dictatorships are now more vulnerable than they have ever been before, in part — but not entirely — because of the devolution of power from the nation state to the individual.”
What a long, ugly trip it has been since those hopeful days. How bad has it gotten? When the Sri Lankan government shut down Facebook and other social platforms following Sunday’s deadly terrorist attacks on churches and hotels, many people applauded, citing social media’s seemingly unlimited potential to spread dangerous rumors and incite more violence. Leading the charge was Kara Swisher, a longtime technology journalist who now writes a column for The New York Times.
“It pains me as a journalist, and someone who once believed that a worldwide communications medium would herald more tolerance, to admit this — to say that my first instinct was to turn it all off,” Swisher wrote. “But it has become clear to me with every incident that the greatest experiment in human interaction in the history of the world continues to fail in ever more dangerous ways.”
Ivan Sigal, the executive director of Global Voices, a project founded at Harvard Law School for the express purpose of giving a voice to citizen journalists across the world, took to Twitter to praise Sri Lanka’s action, as noted by CNN. “A few years ago we’d view the blocking of social media sites after an attack as outrageous censorship; now we think of it as essential duty of care, to protect ourselves from threat,” said Sigal. “#facebook your house is not in order.”
Needless to say, we’ve learned a lot since those heady days when we believed that social media would bring people together, leading to a utopian world community overflowing with peace, love, and understanding. The dark side has become ever more prevalent in recent years as Facebook and its ilk have fostered the rise of right-wing populism from the Philippines to Hungary, from the United Kingdom to the United States.
Sometimes it’s because bad actors have manipulated the platforms, as the Russians did during the 2016 U.S. election — or, more tragically, as the military in Myanmar did in whipping up genocidal violence against that country’s Muslim minority. Sometimes it’s because the platforms work exactly the way they’re supposed to. Facebook, with its 2.3 billion active monthly users, relies on algorithms that keep those users online and engaged — and the most effective way to do that is to serve up content that appeals to their sense of outrage and grievance.
In his book “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy,” Siva Vaidhyanathan argues that the company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, is naive and idealistic rather than deliberately destructive — but that makes him no less nefarious an actor. “Mark Zuckerberg is profoundly uneducated,” Vaidhyanathan writes. “He lacks an appreciation for nuance, complexity, contingency, or even difficulty. Zuckerberg has a vibrant moral passion. But he lacks a historical sense of the horrible things that humans are capable of doing to each other and the planet.”
As BuzzFeed News noted, not everyone applauded the Sri Lankan government’s social shutdown. Some pointed out that Facebook and other platforms are among the few means that ordinary people have to stay in touch with their friends and family members and to check on their safety. Others said that the privileged (not to mention the terrorists themselves) would not be affected, as they could simply use a VPN — that is, a virtual private network — to get around the censorship decree.
“Curbing civil liberties and civil rights doesn’t make people more safe,” Allie Funk of the nonprofit organization Freedom House told Wired. “These are societal issues that are going to take long-term solutions.”
Facebook itself said in a statement: “People rely on our services to communicate with their loved ones and we are committed to maintaining our services and to helping the community and the country during this tragic time.”
CNN’s daily media newsletter asked: “Have we really reached a moment where a government being able to shut down the world’s most important social media platforms is better than having the platforms up and running after a terrorist attack, misinformation and all?”
It would appear that the answer to that question is yes. Yes, it is better. Simply put, social media, and especially Facebook, have not just failed to live up to their promise — they’ve been a detriment across the world, undermining democracy, stirring up hatred, and costing lives.
Do you find it more difficult to read a book these days? Or even a long article? Do you catch yourself pausing every so often (OK, make that every few minutes) to see what’s new on Facebook, scroll through Twitter, check email, or possibly all of the above? Has concentration given way to distraction?
The latest entry in what has grown into a burgeoning list of digital jeremiads is an essay that appeared in The New York Times over the weekend. The piece, by Kevin Roose, is headlined “Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain.” Over the course of nearly 2,500 words, Roose describes in anguished detail how his smartphone had left him “incapable of reading books, watching full-length movies or having long uninterrupted conversations.” Social media, he adds, had made him “angry and anxious.”
Roose’s solution: A detox program overseen by Catherine Price, the author of “How to Break Up with Your Phone.” Without going into detail (after all, you can read about it yourself), by the end of the program our hero is happier, healthier, and less addicted to his phone.
Digital dependency is a real problem, and it’s hard to know what to do about it. I know that as well as anyone. Over the years, my writing has become symbiotically enmeshed with the internet — I look things up and fact-check as I go, and I can’t imagine returning to the days of writing first, checking later, even though the result would probably be more coherent. Social media and email are ever-present impediments to the task at hand.
But it’s a lot easier to describe what we ought to do than to actually do it. I recommend mindful reading either in print or on one of the more primitive Kindles. In reality, I read the news on an iPad while admonishing myself not to tweet any of it — usually without much success. I need to be on social media for professional purposes, which makes it all the harder to stay away from energy-draining non-professional uses.
We are not doing ourselves any favors. “You know the adage that you should choose a partner on the basis of who you become when you’re around the person?” writes Lanier. “That’s a good way to choose technologies, too.”
The problem is that we didn’t choose our technologies. They chose us, backed by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, whose billions grow every time his engineers figure out a way to keep us more addicted and less able to break ourselves of the habit. We need solutions. I’ll get back to you on that. Right after I check Facebook. Again.
Looking back at a deal gone bad
More than a quarter-century after the New York Times Co. bought The Boston Globe for the unheard-of price of $1.1 billion, the transaction remains a sore point in some circles. As I’m sure you know, Red Sox principal owner John Henry bought the paper for just $70 million in 2013, which turned out to be less than the value of the real estate.
In her new book, “Merchants of Truth,” former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson is blisteringly critical of the 1993 acquisition. Describing the Times Co.’s strategy of that era, she writes: “Some recent business blunders had made the structural damage inflicted by the internet even more painful. The worst was the purchase of The Boston Globe at precisely the moment the glory days of newspaper franchises were ending.” (My “Beat the Press” colleague Emily Rooney interviewed Abramson for our most recent broadcast, and she did not shy away from asking some tough questions about errors in Abramson’s book as well as credible accusations of plagiarism.)
In a recent interview with the newspaper analyst Ken Doctor, Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson described what he and his fellow executives were up against in late 2012: “The thinking at the top of the company when I arrived was that the Times should sell The Boston Globe, and that it was going to be fantastically difficult to manage the Globe in a way where it wasn’t going to become over time a net depleter of the total business, rather than something that was going to add to the success of the company.”
So was the Times Co.’s decision to pay all that money for the Globe really such a boneheaded move? When I was interviewing people for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” I got some pretty strong pushback to that proposition from former Globe editor Matt Storin and current editor Brian McGrory.
Storin told me that the Globe turned a profit of some $90 million in one of its first years under Times Co. ownership. “Imagine today if you made a $90 million profit,” he said. “I mean, those classified ads were just a gold mine. The Times knew that, and I think that’s one of the reasons why they bought us. They didn’t foresee that that was going to disappear, obviously.”
McGrory sounded a similar theme. “For 15 to 18 years there were Brinks trucks driving down I-95 with tens of millions of dollars every year, amounting to hundreds millions over that time, taking money from Boston to New York,” he said. “They made their investment just fine.”
The reality is most likely somewhere in the middle. From 1993 until about 2005, the Globe earned plenty of money for the Times Co. But then things went seriously south, with the Globe losing $85 million by 2009, a situation so dire that the Times threatened to shut down the paper unless the unions agreed to $20 million worth of givebacks. (They did.)
For the Times Co., the real mistake wasn’t in buying the Globe — it was in keeping it for too long.
Naturally, the FCC is pushing ahead with this anti-consumer proposal. So now advocates of local do-it-yourself media are asking supporters to sign an online petition to Congress asking that lawmakers stop the new rule from taking effect.
“PEG [public, educational, and governmental] access channels provide local content in communities that are not served by the broadcast industry and are increasingly under-served by newspapers,” says the petition. “They help prevent ‘media deserts’ in towns and cities across the U.S. and ensure diversity of opinion at the local level.”
Will it matter? I suspect that elected members of Congress from both parties will prove more amenable to public pressure than FCC chair Ajit Pai, who led the campaign to kill net neutrality. But we won’t know unless we try. So let’s try.
The ongoing struggles of Boston’s two daily newspapers. What Facebook should do about falsehood-spreading hatemongers like Alex Jones. The FCC’s latest assault on truth, justice, and the American way. And, of course, our 21st annual roundup of outrages against free speech.
With 2018 entering its final days, I thought I’d look back at what I wrote during the past 12 months. Unlike last year, I’m not going with my 10 most-read columns. Instead, I’ve chosen 10 columns that address a range of different issues, presented here in chronological order.
1. Standing up to presidential power — in 1971 (Jan. 17). With President Trump regularly attacking journalists as “enemies of the people” and purveyors of #fakenews, what could have been more welcome than a feel-good movie about the last time the press confronted an out-of-control president? “The Post,” directed by Steven Spielberg, told the tale of The Washington Post’s desperate struggle to catch up with The New York Times, which had beaten them in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. By agreeing with executive editor Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks) that the Post should go all in, publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) established the Post as a great national newspaper — and paved the way for its later coverage of the Watergate scandal, which ultimately destroyed Richard Nixon’s presidency.
2. The Boston Herald’s new budget-slashing owner (Feb. 14). When previous Herald publisher Pat Purcell took the tabloid into bankruptcy in late 2017, it was supposed to end in a prearranged sale to GateHouse Media, a hedge-fund-owned chain of newspapers known for its cost-cutting. Instead, another hedge-fund-owned chain with an even worse reputation, Digital First Media, swooped in late in the process and bought the Herald for a reported $11.9 million. The Herald has been decimated by Digital First, although the journalists who are still there continue to do good work. How bad did it get? Recently, Herald editor Joe Sciacca was made the editor of seven daily papers and several weeklies in Massachusetts and upstate New York. No doubt Sciacca will do the best he can. But it’s an absurd situation created by owners who clearly don’t care.
3. The 2018 New England Muzzle Awards (July 3). Since 1998, I’ve been writing a Fourth of July roundup of enemies of free speech, first for The Boston Phoenix, and since 2013 for WGBH News. (My friend Harvey Silverglate, a prominent civil-liberties lawyer, writes a separate story on censorship at New England’s colleges and universities.) This year’s Muzzles were especially eclectic, featuring not just bogeymen of the right like President Trump and former White House communications chief Anthony Scaramucci but also former president Barack Obama and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a progressive favorite. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. As the late, great defender of the First Amendment Nat Hentoff memorably put it (quoting a friend), “Censorship is the strongest drive in human nature; sex is a weak second.”
4. Boston Globe owner John Henry expresses his frustrations (July 25). Five years into his announcement that he would buy the Globe, I conducted an email Q&A with the billionaire financier, who is also the principal owner of the Red Sox. And though Henry insisted that he planned to hold onto the Globe “during my lifetime,” he said he was frustrated with the paper’s ongoing losses and failure “to meet budgets.” Cuts were made in the newsroom and elsewhere throughout the fall. The situation reached a public impasse just recently, when the Boston Newspaper Guild, which represents the Globe’s editorial employees as well as many on the business side, denounced management for bringing in the “union-busting” law firm Jones Day. The Columbia Journalism Review has described the firm as “notorious for aggressive anti-union tactics that journalists and union leaders say have helped downgrade media union contracts and carve employee benefits to the bone.” See more here, including a statement from Henry this week that the Globe is now “profitable.”
5. Remembering John McCain (Aug. 27). On the occasion of Sen. McCain’s death, I republished a story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix in February 2000, when I followed McCain and George W. Bush around South Carolina as they campaigned in that state’s Republican primary. Bush defeated McCain and went on to win the presidency. I think I had more fun reporting this story than just about any other I can remember. Regardless of what you thought of his politics, Sen. McCain was a great American and a raconteur who enjoyed sparring with the press. Unfortunately, he seems like an anachronism in the poisonous, hyper-polarized atmosphere of 2018.
6. Alex Jones and the privatization of free speech (Sept. 27). Two cheers for Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms for deleting Jones’ accounts. He’s not just a right-wing conspiracy theorist; he spouts falsehoods that put actual people in real danger, including the Sandy Hook families and the parents of murder victim Seth Rich. But what have we given up when we’ve turned over our First Amendment rights to giant corporations with their own interests and agendas? Social media has become the new public square. And the public has no say in how it’s governed. These days we are all rethinking our relationship with Facebook. We need some sort of public alternative.
7. Our undemocratic system of government (Oct. 10). When the founders wrote the Constitution, they gave us a republic, believing that the will of the majority should be reflected by and tempered through the wisdom of men of their own social and intellectual class. What they did not believe was that the minority should govern the majority — but that’s what we have today. Thanks to a system that favors smaller states, Republicans control the presidency, the Senate, and the Supreme Court despite being supported by far fewer voters than their Democratic opponents. Reform is long overdue.
8. What ails local journalism? (Nov. 12). Probably my favorite topic, and one I’ve turned to on several occasions during the past few years. I decided to highlight this particular column because I used it to concentrate not on the familiar supply side of the crisis (greedy corporate newspaper owners, a diminishing ad market, and technological changes) but on the demand side. In other words, do people really care enough about what is going on in their local communities? And if they don’t, how can local news organizations survive? We need a crash course in civic literacy. After all, you can’t get people interested in news about what’s taking place in city hall unless they understand why it matters.
9. The FCC targets community access TV (Nov. 28). Having already destroyed net neutrality despite an outpouring of public protest, the FCC is now going after a vital source of information at the local level: community access television, the folks who bring you city council meetings, school concerts, and DIY news reports. Under a rule change proposed by the telecommunications industry, local cable providers would be able to deduct the cost of funding public access from the fees they pay to cities and towns. As Susan Fleischmann, executive director of Cambridge Community Television, told me, “This is like a taxpayer saying to the city, ‘I am clearing my sidewalk of snow and keeping the leaves out of the storm drains, and I have also decided to take care of the trees in front of my house. So, I am counting this against the real estate taxes that I owe.’” U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, among others, is trying to protect funding for local access, but FCC chair Ajit Pai has shown little inclination to act in the public interest.
10. My evening with Rachel and Sean (Dec. 6). With news about the Mueller investigation reaching one of its periodic crescendos, I decided to spend an evening watching the two top-rated cable news programs: Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC and Sean Hannity’s on Fox News. And though I found the liberal Maddow to be considerably more respectful of actual facts than Hannity, a conspiracy-minded Trump sycophant, I came away thinking that both are contributing to the polarization that is tearing us apart. In nearly 40 years we’ve gone from “And that’s the way it is” to “And here’s the way we will reinforce your pre-existing prejudices.” What a loss.
Finally, my thanks to WGBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2019.
In just a few years, #fakenews has moved to the top of what we worry about when we worry about the news media.
Recently the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, based at Harvard’s Kennedy School, released a report seeking to document efforts to fight fake news, from Facebook, Google, and Twitter to academic institutions, from entrepreneurial start-ups to nonprofit foundations. The report, titled “The Fight Against Disinformation in the U.S.: A Landscape Analysis,” was written by Heidi Radford Legg, a journalist who is the director of special projects at Shorenstein, and Joe Kerwin, a Harvard senior.
“Trust in news has fallen dramatically and the rise in polarizing content, created to look like news, is being driven by both profiteers and malevolent players,” Radford Legg and Kerwin write. “Add to this a president that undercuts the credibility of the press on a daily basis and who has declared the press as an ‘enemy of the people.’ American journalism, already shouldering practically non-existent revenue models that have led to the decimation of quality local news, is in deep defense.” (Disclosure: My work is briefly cited in the report.)
What follows is a lightly edited email interview that I conducted with Radford Legg.
Dan Kennedy: You’ve provided a comprehensive overview of efforts to fight disinformation. What is the main takeaway? How do you hope your paper will be used?
Heidi Radford Legg: When I arrived at the Shorenstein Center, as a journalist trained to give context to a situation and who had long worked in upstart or for-profit media, I was fascinated by all the people in academia and in the foundation world who were stepping up to solve this existential crisis for our society. It became immediately clear to me that this was the story. Here was Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, which essentially disrupted the newspaper classified revenue stream, giving $70 million to journalism and the fight against disinformation.
As an entrepreneurial journalist, having founded TheEditorial.com, I was all about disruption and innovation. However, we are now in this acute moment when a deluge of disinformation and misinformation plagues our information ecosystem — exponentially, thanks to this digital age. Local news revenue is being decimated, platforms are absorbing all of the attention economy dollars, and rogue players are penetrating our information pipeline. It is the perfect storm.
Thankfully, a few bold leaders have stepped in to try to put some guard rails in place while we wait for the platforms to self-regulate or be regulated. My hope is that this paper will inspire other funders and civic leaders to get involved, because the effects of disinformation and the breakdown of traditional journalism models are quickly eroding the ability to have an informed citizenry in our democracy.
Radford Legg: I wonder if Postman might think he was too cheeky about the whole thing and should have warned us more desperately — the same way climate change advocates worry we are being too apathetic about the dire risks of climate change today. I will say, it is hard not to see that we are dumbing down as a society, with our attention span reduced to nanoseconds. I know some digital experts disagree with me and think we are at a point of great societal leaps with artificial intelligence. I am not there. I would take basic education on civics and critical thinking for all Americans, and an informed citizenry, at this point. Computer code is still binary. It is based on “this equals that.” While transformative and our future, I still believe in the ethical fortitude of the human when taught critical thinking and empathy.
Kennedy: Your section on how Facebook is fighting misinformation is appropriately skeptical, yet I sense that you accept the company’s assurances that it’s sincere about its efforts. I’m wondering if your views have changed since you finished writing this report given the never-ending stream of bad news coming out of the Zuckerborg. Siva Vaidhyanathan argues in his book “Antisocial Media” that Facebook can’t be fixed because it’s working the way it was designed to work. What do you think?
Radford Legg: I tried to stay unbiased in the reporting to list actual measures being taken by platforms at the time of the writing of this paper. I had two terrific Harvard student interns this summer, Joe Kerwin and Grace Greason, who spent hours tracking the media reports on measures the platforms were taking. We would compare the PR version to news articles by Wired, BuzzFeed, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Harvard’s Nieman Lab. You will remember that from April to August, there was a mad flurry of deplatforming of Facebook sites, scourging of Twitter accounts, and general clean-up by the social media giants — who likely knew they were being asked to testify in front of Congress in September. Our research leads up to the moment Twitter’s Jack Dorsey finally booted Alex Jones and Infowars off the site. We tried to stick to the facts.
I do think the platforms are taking steps, but what I would really like them to address is that they are now news organizations. Rather than media entertainment companies, they need to accept that they are owning the news, and it is time they begin to hire journalists and editors with a small percentage of the insane profits they reap in this new Attention Economy. This revenue, in the form of advertising fees, was what once funded local newsrooms, and that breakdown is part of the problem.
The Shorenstein Center’s Platform Accountability Project, IDLab, and Media Manipulation Case Studies Project are all working together to create a body of research and knowledge that will put pressure on the platforms and educate Congress on what is happening in the space. One way for people to join the effort is to fund our research at the Shorenstein Center. Our goal is to be at the intersection of media and politics and help inform legislation and policy around this urgent problem as we lead up to another Presidential election in 2020.
Kennedy: You describe an impressive set of initiatives by Google to help news organizations find their way toward financial sustainability and to keep disinformation out of its search results. Ultimately, though, I wonder if what Google really needs to do is work out a system of paying for the news content that it uses. I realize that’s probably outside the purview of your study, but do you have any thoughts on that?
Radford Legg: I write in the study that “one part of Google’s effort funds journalism while the other builds tools to sell back to them. Its approach is equal parts philanthropy and capitalism. Google’s tagline makes its intent clear: ‘To help journalism thrive in a digital age.’” The question remains, for whose benefit? Ours or their bottom line? I’m hoping for the former.
What I would really like to see is for the Google News Initiative, led by Richard Gingras, to fund a number of major research projects at leading media centers like ours around revenue models for local news. The Shorenstein Center’s Elizabeth Hansen has been studying membership models like the Texas Tribune and how small and medium-sized newsrooms compete in this global digital economy. Ethan Zuckerman at the MIT Media Lab is working on a project that could share ad revenue from major platforms with the journalists or outlets that wrote a particular story. Take Flint, Michigan. The journalists who broke that story should get the largest financial gain. Today, that is not the case. Google, Facebook, and any platform or major outlet profiting from the story with clicks, should help support that local journalism.
The platforms have all the access today. Facebook alone has 2 billion users and a cash balance of $41 billion and market cap of $407 billion. Google has a cash balance of $106 billion and a market cap of $731 billion. They should start to pay and hire vetted reporters and editors steeped in the tenets of journalism — to report facts and first-person accounts. One might say it is time they grow up and be the civic leaders in the room.
Kennedy: As you note, the Berkman Klein Center has documented asymmetric polarization, which shows that consumers of right-wing media are far more susceptible to disinformation than those whose sources are more mainstream or left-leaning. What can we do about this without arousing suspicions — and anger — that we are simply seeking to impose our own liberal and elitist views?
Radford Legg: Again I go back to local news. If people who are being radicalized on the web by polarized content were instead reading about the people who live next to them and consuming news about their own city’s innovation, challenges, and progress, I believe the country would be better off and less divided. Without a trusted and reliable source on the ground in their local communities, Americans are susceptible to dogma being sold by harvesters of the Attention Economy, who are polluting the information ecosystem with untruths and content intended to polarize and divide our nation.
We should work harder to be inclusive with those in other areas of the country. As reporters, the more we can cover those stories, the better for democracy. My dream is to find paths to having journalists funded in those towns who understand the people and culture, and who can bring local back into the national conversation. This will require funding, and that is where the platforms should step up.
Kennedy: We live at a time when the president himself is our leading source of disinformation, and he has managed to convince his most committed followers that he is the ultimate source of all truth. How difficult is it to fight against disinformation in such a climate?
Radford Legg: At the Shorenstein Center’s Theodore H. White Lecture, I sat at a table with a number of our Joan Shorenstein Fellows, of whom you were one. We debated this. Should we cover the president or should we ignore him and instead cover local news and stories of progress? Should we ensure that headlines don’t repeat lies? The table was divided. But at what point do we turn away from the media circus and return to the basics? What is going on in your city hall? What ideas are changing the way you live and work in your city, town, state? What can we as a nation learn from what is going on in Corning, New York, or Beaufort, North Carolina, Portland, Oregon or Maine, or McLean County, Kentucky? I am a local kid. I think that is where the lifeblood of a democracy lives.
Kennedy: Is there any hope?
Radford Legg: Always.
Today, given the dire state of revenue models for local news, we need the wealthiest and most influential to fund and promote the research and innovation experiments desperately needed today in local journalism, and we need everyone who believes in journalism to get involved, vote, and help bridge the polarization. The late Gerry Lenfest’s legacy gift in Philadelphia is a case study many of us are watching in local news. He put the fabled Philadelphia Inquirer and sister properties into a trust and endowed it with $20 million. That’s commitment to local and that is hope. Let’s hope it inspires more of the same.
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. As my friend from DFY Links says, 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.