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

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

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1931 photo by George W. Ackerman via Wikipedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fake news, false news, and why the difference matters

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

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

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

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

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

How Facebook has weaponized fake news

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

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

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

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

The trouble with Facebook’s ‘Trending Topics’

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

Facebook to conservatives: Drop dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tweaking comments: Moving away from a real-names policy

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I’ve finally decided to implement it. I am taking a tactical step back from requiring real names in the comments section. I will continue to screen every comment before it’s posted, which I’ve come to realize is of much greater value than real names.

Since I first started requiring real names a few years ago, the online conversation has changed quite a bit. Comments at Media Nation and many other websites have dropped precipitously. At the same time, I post links to everything I write on Facebook, which often leads to in-depth, high-quality interactions. As you probably know, Facebook does require real names, and though not everyone goes along, most do. Here is my Facebook profile. We don’t need to be “friends,” since I post blog content to my public feed. In my opinion, the shift to Facebook is far more important than whether I require real names here.

The other reason I’m moving away from real names here is that several of my most regular commenters log in via WordPress under their screen names, forcing me to go in and change it to their real names. It’s a pain in the neck. Then, too, there are the excellent comments from people I don’t know who haven’t used their real names. I’ll often email them and ask them to resubmit under their real names. If I don’t hear from them, their comment goes unpublished.

As with everything in digital media, this is experimental. I may change my mind again or go in a completely different direction. Thank you for reading. If you want to comment here, be my guest, but I strongly recommend looking me up on Facebook.