Researchers dig up embarrassing data about Facebook — and lose access to their accounts

Photo (cc) 2011 by thierry ehrmann

Previously published at GBH News.

For researchers, Facebook is something of a black box. It’s hard to know what its 2.8 billion active users across the globe are seeing at any given time because the social media giant keeps most of its data to itself. If some users are seeing ads aimed at “Jew haters,” or Russian-generated memes comparing Hillary Clinton to Satan, well, so be it. Mark Zuckerberg has his strategy down cold: apologize when exposed, then move on to the next appalling scheme.

Some data scientists, though, have managed to pierce the darkness. Among them are Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy of New York University’s Center for Cybersecurity. With a tool called Ad Observer, which volunteers add to their browsers, they were able to track ads that Facebook users were being exposed to and draw some conclusions. For instance, they learned that users are more likely to engage with extreme falsehoods than with truthful material, and that more than 100,000 political ads are missing from an archive Facebook set up for researchers.

As you would expect, Facebook executives took these findings seriously. So what did they do? Did they change the algorithm to make it more likely that users would see reliable information in their news feed? Did they restore the missing ads and take steps to make sure such omissions wouldn’t happen again?

They did not. Instead, they cut off access to Edelson’s and McCoy’s accounts, making it harder for them to dig up such embarrassing facts in the future.

“There is still a lot of important research we want to do,” they wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed. “When Facebook shut down our accounts, we had just begun studies intended to determine whether the platform is contributing to vaccine hesitancy and sowing distrust in elections. We were also trying to figure out what role the platform may have played leading up to the Capitol assault on Jan. 6.”

In other words, they want to find out how responsible Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and the rest are for spreading a deadly illness and encouraging an armed insurrection. No wonder Facebook looked at what the researchers were doing and told them, gee, you know, we’d love to help, but you’re violating our privacy rules.

But that’s not even a real concern. Writing at the Columbia Journalism Review, Mathew Ingram points out that the privacy rules Facebook agreed to following the Cambridge Analytica scandal apply to Facebook itself, not to users who voluntarily agree to provide information to researchers.

Ingram quotes Princeton professor Jonathan Mayer, an adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris when she was a senator, who tweeted: “Facebook’s legal argument is bogus. The order “restricts how *Facebook* shares user information. It doesn’t preclude *users* from volunteering information about their experiences on the platform, including through a browser extension.”

The way Ingram describes it, as well as Edelson and McCoy themselves, Facebook’s actions didn’t stop their work altogether, but it has slowed it down and made it more difficult. Needless to say, the company should be doing everything it can to help with such research. Then again, Zuckerberg has never shown much regard for such mundane matters as public health and the future of democracy, especially when there’s money to be made.

By contrast, Facebook’s social media competitor Twitter has actually been much more open about making its data available to researchers. My Northeastern colleague John Wihbey, who co-authored an important study several years ago about how journalists use Twitter, says the difference explains why there have been more studies published about Twitter than Facebook. “This is unfortunate,” he says, “as it is a smaller network and less representative of the general public.”

It’s like the old saw about looking for your car keys under a street light because that’s where the light is. Trouble is, with fewer than 400 million active users, Twitter is little more than a rounding error in Facebook’s universe.

Earlier this year, MIT’s Technology Review published a remarkable story documenting how Facebook shied away from cracking down on extremist content, focusing instead on placating Donald Trump and other figures on the political right before the 2020 election. Needless to say, the NYU researchers represent an especially potent threat to the Zuckerborg since they plan to focus on the role that Facebook played in amplifying the disinformation that led to the insurrection, whose aftermath continues to befoul our body politic.

When the history of this ugly era is written, the two media giants that will stand out for their malignity are Fox News, for knowingly poisoning tens of millions of people with toxic falsehoods, and Facebook, for allowing its platform be used to amplify those falsehoods. Eventually, the truth will be told — no matter what steps Zuckerberg takes to slow it down. There should be hell to pay.

A Northeastern study shows how animation can enhance local TV news

My Northeastern colleagues Mike Beaudet and John Wihbey, along with some amazing students, have been studying ways to improve local television news. Their latest installment looks at how animation can increase viewer interest, attract younger viewers and make it easier to understand the essential facts of a story.

According to a summary of their findings that they wrote along with graduate student Anna Campbell for RTNDA.org:

After viewing the local news stories that took a fresh approach to animation and graphics, viewers preferred that style across the board, with audiences more likely to rate the animated stories as clear, compelling, and memorable. The graphically-enhanced stories were generally perceived both as more relevant in content and resonant in tone. Animation also captured positive descriptions in the open-ended questions we posed.

As you’ll see if you watch the video presentation above, animation essentially takes the place of irrelevant and boring B-roll. And when Beaudet, Campbell and Wihbey refer to animation, they don’t mean something you might see on “Adult Swim.” Rather, they’re talking about presenting visualizations that help viewers understand what they’re watching.

Media observers like me don’t always pay much attention to local TV news. But it’s incredibly important — it’s the second-most popular news medium that we have (the internet comes in first), and it’s more trusted than other forms of news. So congratulations to my colleagues and their students for finding ways to make it better.

You can find more of their work at Storybench, a School of Journalism web publication that covers media innovation.

A Northeastern study takes the measure of our controversy-driven political coverage

Illustration by Emily Judem for WGBH News

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

For observers of the media, there are few spectacles more dispiriting than the way the press covers presidential campaigns. Rather than digging into what really matters, such as the candidates’ experience, leadership ability and positions on important issues, reporters focus on controversies, attacks on one another, gotcha moments and, of course, polls, polls and more polls.

Now a study conducted by the School of Journalism at Northeastern University has quantified just how bad things are. Looking at about 10,000 news articles from 28 ideologically diverse news outlets published between March and October, my colleagues and I found that coverage of the Democratic candidates “tracks with the ebbs and flows of scandals, viral moments and news items.”

Our findings were posted last week at Storybench, a vertical published by the School of Journalism that covers media innovation. The data analysis was performed by Aleszu Bajak with an assist from John Wihbey. Among the key points in our report:

• The televised debates have driven some of the issues-based coverage. For instance, mentions of the candidates’ positions on immigration and health care increased during and immediately after the debates but then quickly subsided.

• Kirsten Gillibrand made reproductive choice one of her signature issues — and after she dropped out of the race, that issue faded from media coverage. Similarly, coverage of gun control was tied mainly to Beto O’Rourke’s now-defunct campaign. LGBTQ rights and climate change have been virtually ignored.

• The Ukraine story has dominated recently coverage of the Democratic candidates, with much of it focused on President Trump’s false accusations that Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden acted corruptly.

Of course, to some extent the media can’t help but be reactive. It would be irresponsible not to cover what the candidates are saying about themselves and each other. But the press’ urge to chase controversies at the expense of more substantive matters shows that little has been learned since its disastrous performance four years ago.

As Thomas Patterson of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy wrote in an analysis of the 2016 campaign, coverage of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was unrelentingly negative, creating the impression that the controversy over Clinton’s emails was somehow equivalent to massive corruption at Trump’s charitable foundation, his racist remarks and his boasting about sexual assault as revealed on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape.

“The real bias of the press is not that it’s liberal,” Patterson wrote. “Its bias is a decided preference for the negative.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. Earlier this year, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen proposed campaign coverage built around a “citizens agenda.” Rosen proposed that news organizations should identify their audience, listen to what they believe the candidates should be focusing on, and cover the race accordingly.

“Given a chance to ask questions of the people competing for office, you can turn to the citizens agenda,” Rosen wrote on his influential blog, Press Think. “And if you need a way of declining the controversy of the day, there it is. The agenda you got by listening to voters helps you hold to mission when temptation is to ride the latest media storm.”

Some coverage of presidential politics has been quite good. Quality news organizations such as The New York Times and The Washington Post have published in-depth articles on challenges the candidates have overcome and how that helps shape their approach to governing. The Boston Globe has been running a series called “Back to the Battleground” in which it has reported on four key states that unexpectedly went with Trump in 2016. Reports aimed at making sense of the Ukraine story, explaining Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare for All plan and the like are worthy examples of campaign journalism aimed at informing the public. But such efforts tend to be overshadowed by day-to-day horse-race coverage.

The latest poll-driven narrative is the rise of Pete Buttigieg, who’s emerged as the clear frontrunner in Iowa, according to a Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom survey. You can be sure that he’ll be watched closely at this week’s televised debate. Will his rivals attack him? Will he fight back? Can he take the heat?

Little of it will have much to do with what kind of president Buttigieg or any of the other candidates would be. The horse race is paramount. Who’s up, who’s down and the latest controversies are what matter to the political press.

The data my Northeastern colleagues have compiled provides a measurement of how badly political coverage has run off the rails. What’s needed is a commitment on the part of the media to do a better job of serving the public interest.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

How the media are setting the 2020 agenda: Chasing daily controversies, burying policy

By Aleszu Bajak, Dan Kennedy and John Wihbey

It’s a paradox of examining political coverage. Are news media just reporting what the political candidates are talking about? Or does political journalism really set the agenda by selecting stories around specific news items, scandals and issues du jour?

Our topic analysis of ~10,000 news articles on the 2020 Democratic candidates, published between March and October in an ideological diverse range of 28 news outlets, reveals that political coverage, at least this cycle, tracks with the ebbs and flows of scandals, viral moments and news items, from accusations of Joe Biden’s inappropriate behavior towards women to President Trump’s phone call with Ukraine.

Read the rest at Storybench, a media innovation vertical published by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism. And talk about this post on Facebook.

What does Facebook Live mean for journalism?

Diamond Reynolds, who live-streamed the last moments of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, on Facebook Live. Photo (cc) by Laurie Schaull.
Diamond Reynolds, who live-streamed the last moments of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, on Facebook Live. Photo (cc) by Lorie Schaull.

In April Facebook Live was launched, allowing users to broadcast live and tap the social media giant’s colossal audience. But it was last week, as the world now knows, that Facebook Live had its watershed, technology-transforming-history moment in the broadcast of Philando Castile’s final moments as filmed and narrated by his girlfriend after he was shot by a police officer.

To understand what Facebook Live might mean for newsrooms, Storybench sat down with Northeastern University journalism professors Dan Kennedy and John Wihbey.

Read the rest at Storybench.