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.

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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.