Why Facebook’s new oversight board is destined to be an exercise in futility

Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger is among the board members. Photo (cc) 2012 by Internaz.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

To illustrate how useless the newly unveiled Facebook oversight board will be, consider the top 10 fake-news stories shared by its users in 2019.

As reported by Business Insider, the list included such classics as “NYC Coroner who Declared Epstein death ‘Suicide’ worked for the Clinton foundation making 500k a year up until 2015,” “Omar [as in U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar] Holding Secret Fundraisers with Islamic Groups Tied to Terror,” and “Pelosi Diverts $2.4 Billion From Social Security To Cover Impeachment Costs.”

None of these stories was even remotely true. Yet none of them would have been removed by the oversight board. You see, as Mathew Ingram pointed out in his Columbia Journalism Review newsletter, the 20-member board is charged only with deciding whether content that has already been taken down should be restored.

Now, it’s fair to acknowledge that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has an impossible task in bringing his Frankenstein’s monster under control. But that doesn’t mean any actual good is going to come of this exercise.

The board, which will eventually be expanded to 40, includes a number of distinguished people. Among them: Alan Rusbridger, the respected former editor of The Guardian, as well as international dignitaries and a Nobel Prize laureate. It has independent funding, Zuckerberg has agreed that its decisions will be binding, and eventually its purview may expand to removing false content.

But, fundamentally, this can’t work because Facebook was not designed to be controllable. In The New York Times, technology columnist Kara Swisher explained the problem succinctly. “Facebook’s problems are structural in nature,” she wrote. “It is evolving precisely as it was designed to, much the same way the coronavirus is doing what it is meant to do. And that becomes a problem when some of what flows through the Facebook system — let’s be fair in saying that much of it is entirely benign and anodyne — leads to dangerous and even deadly outcomes.”

It’s not really about the content. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but what makes Facebook a threat to democracy is the way it serves up that content. Its algorithms — which are not well understood by anyone, even at Facebook — are aimed at keeping you engaged so that you stay on the site. And the most effective way to drive engagement is to show users content that makes them angry and upset.

Are you a hardcore supporter of President Donald Trump? If so, you are likely to see memes suggesting that COVID-19 is some sort of Democratic plot to defeat him for re-election — as was the case with a recent semi-fake-news story reporting that hospitals are being paid to attribute illnesses and deaths to the coronavirus even when they’re not. Or links to the right-wing website PJ Media aimed at stirring up outrage over “weed, opioids, booze and ciggies” being given to homeless people in San Francisco who’ve been quarantined. If you are a Trump opponent, you can count on Occupy Democrats to pop up in your feed and keep you in a constant state of agitation.

Now, keep in mind that all of this — even the fake stuff — is free speech that’s protected by the First Amendment. And all of this, plus much worse, is readily available on the open web. What makes Facebook so pernicious is that it amplifies the most divisive speech so that you’ll stay longer and be exposed to more advertising.

What is the oversight board going to do about this? Nothing.

“The new Facebook review board will have no influence over anything that really matters in the world,” wrote longtime Facebook critic Siva Vaidhyanathan at Wired, adding: “The board can’t say anything about the toxic content that Facebook allows and promotes on the site. It will have no authority over advertising or the massive surveillance that makes Facebook ads so valuable. It won’t curb disinformation campaigns or dangerous conspiracies…. And most importantly, the board will have no say over how the algorithms work and thus what gets amplified or muffled by the real power of Facebook.”

In fact, Facebook’s algorithm has already been trained to ban or post warning labels on some speech. In practice, though, such mechanized censorship is aggravatingly inept. Recently the seal of disapproval was slapped on an ad called “Mourning in America,” by the Lincoln Project, a group of “Never Trump” Republicans, because the fact-checking organization PolitiFact had called it partly false. The Lincoln Project, though, claimed that PolitiFact was wrong.

I recently received a warning for posting a photo of Benito Mussolini as a humorous response to a picture of Trump. No doubt the algorithm was too dumb to understand that I was making a political comment and was not expressing my admiration for Il Duce. Others have told me they’ve gotten warnings for referring to trolls as trolls, or for calling unmasked protesters against COVID-19 restrictions “dumber than dirt.”

So what is Facebook good for? I find it useful for staying in touch with family and friends, for promoting my work and for discussing legitimate news stories. Beyond that, much of it is a cesspool of hate speech, fake news and propaganda.

If it were up to me, I’d ban the algorithm. Let people post what they want, but don’t let Facebook robotically weaponize divisive content in order to drive up its profit margins. Zuckerberg himself has said that he expects the government will eventually impose some regulations. Well, this is one way to regulate it without actually making judgments about what speech will be allowed and what speech will be banned.

Meanwhile, I’ll watch with amusement as the oversight board attempts to wrestle this beast into submission. As Kara Swisher said, it “has all the hallmarks of the United Nations, except potentially much less effective.”

The real goal, I suspect, is to provide cover for Zuckerberg and make it appear that Facebook is doing something. In that respect, this initiative may seem harmless — unless it lulls us into complacency about more comprehensive steps that could be taken to reduce the harm that is being inflicted on all of us.

Talk about this post at Facebook.

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.

Talk about this post on (wait for it) Facebook.

How the ad-blocking wars threaten independent media

ad-blockersThe stakes in the raging battle over ad-blocking software are high — but they’re not quite what you might think.

On the surface, it all seems straightforward enough. In one corner are executives at struggling news organizations who want to be sure that visitors to their websites actually see the ads. Thus did the Washington Post recently experiment with blocking the ad-blockers, a development first reported by BuzzFeed.

“Many people already receive our journalism for free online, with digital advertising paying only a portion of the cost,” a Post spokesperson was quoted as saying. “Without income via subscriptions or advertising, we are unable to deliver the journalism that people coming to our site expect from us.”

In the other corner are users who are sick and tired of popups, pop-unders, scroll-across-the-screeners and other obstrusive ads that invade your privacy by tracking your interests and that, in some cases, carry spyware or malware.

“What is unlikely to fly as a long-term strategy is begging readers to load all of the 50 or so trackers and ad-loaders and popups and banners, each of which might make a publisher three cents per thousand clicks, if they are lucky,” writes Mathew Ingram at Fortune. “That business is in a death spiral, and yelling about ad blockers isn’t going to change that.”

In fact, the ad-blocking controversy is anything but a simple morality play. Nor is it a coincidence that the issue has reached a frenzied peak thanks to Apple’s decision to include ad-blocking in its iOS 9 software for iPhones and iPads. Because the real stakes are being fought not on the Internet but in the boardrooms of the giant tech companies that want to control your online experience.

Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief of The Vergeexplained it last week. Essentially, it comes down to this: publishers that rely on web advertising are helping to drive revenue to Apple’s archenemy, Google, which controls much of the infrastructure for online ads. Block those ads and those publishers are more likely to run into the warm embrace of Apple, whose new Apple News platform provides a nice, safe, closed environment with ads that can’t be blocked. And Apple gets a 30 percent cut.

Facebook offers a similar service, the still-aborning Instant Articles, which allows publishers to post their content directly inside Facebook’s all-powerful newsfeed. As with Apple News, Facebook takes a cut of the action from the unblockable ads that will be displayed. It’s such an attractive proposition that the same Washington Post that’s trying to block the ad-blockers announced Tuesday that it will also publish 100 percent of its content to Facebook. Patel writes:

So it’s Apple vs. Google vs. Facebook, all with their own revenue platforms. Google has the web, Facebook has its app, and Apple has the iPhone. This is the newest and biggest war in tech going today.

And the collateral damage of that war — of Apple going after Google’s revenue platform — is going to include the web, and in particular any small publisher on the web that can’t invest in proprietary platform distribution, native advertising, and the type of media wining-and-dining it takes to secure favorable distribution deals on proprietary platforms. It is going to be a bloodbath of independent media.

As a matter of principle, I refuse to use ad-blocking software — but I turned on AdBlock while researching this article just to see what would happen. As anyone could have told me, sites loaded more quickly and with fewer distractions. ESPN.com, which is so bogged down with ad-related bloatware that it’s become virtually unreadable, was zippier than I’ve ever seen it. A small hyperlocal site that I often visit suddenly appeared ad-free, simply because the site relies on an external ad-server business that AdBlock intercepted.

Interestingly enough, Marco Arment, the creator of the best-selling ad-blocking program Peace, pulled the software from Apple’s App Store almost as soon as it was released last week. “Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good, which I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have,” he wrote on his blog. “Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.”

By acting as he did, Arment may have pointed the way to a possible solution. Because the problems ad-blockers are designed to solve are real, and they run a lot deeper than mere inconvenience. As Dan Gillmor recently wrote in Slate, “The advertising and tracking industries, abetted by telecommunications carriers, are investing in all kinds of technologies aimed at thwarting users’ wishes to retain some control over their online activities.”

So why not come up with a different kind of blocker — a piece of software that informs you when you’re about to access a website that fails to follow some agreed-upon list of best practices regarding privacy and user experience?

Such an arrangement may be the best way to preserve independent media on the open web. Users would be able to protect themselves from abusive adware without freeloading. And web publishers who see their traffic drop might decide it’s time to change their ways.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org and in The Huffington Post.

New York Times: We got it right on ‘culling’ the staff

As I wrote Monday, I thought the most significant part of Nick Ciubotariu’s post in defense of Amazon was his flat-out denial that the company fires a certain number of employees every year as a way of “culling” the staff. So I want to note that The New York Times is now asserting that its reporting is correct and that Ciubotariu is simply wrong:

His points contradicted the accounts of many former and current colleagues, and some of his assertions were incorrect, including a statement that the company does not cull employees on an annual basis. An Amazon spokesman previously confirmed that the company sought to manage out a certain percentage of its work force annually. The number varies from year to year.

The responses to the Times’ megastory on Amazon’s workplace environment, reported and written by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, continue to roll in. Here are a few — none of them long — that I think are worth your time.

At Fortune, Mathew Ingram argues that though the Times’ reporting may be accurate, it lacks context. “For some, it is probably a cruel place where they [employees] feel unwelcome, and their performance is judged more harshly than they would like,” Ingram writes, “but for others I expect it is a challenging environment that makes them do things they might not have even thought they were capable of.”

Ingram also makes an important point that I couldn’t help but notice as I was reading the Times opus: an underlying dismissiveness of Amazon because it’s a mere retailer (not actually true, but whatever). Ingram puts it this way:

I think part of the reason that Amazon gets singled out is that it is seen as just a retailer, not a company like Apple that is making magical products to improve people’s lives or fill them with joy. This tone runs throughout the New York Times piece, which talks about how employees are subjected to inhuman treatment “with words like ‘mission’ used to describe lightning-quick delivery of Cocoa Krispies or selfie sticks.” The implication is that selling things somehow isn’t a worthwhile goal.

Buzz Machine blogger Jeff Jarvis thinks the Times article lacks balance, and says that though it did manage to take note of the fact that Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post, more emphasis should have been placed on the Times’ rivalry with the Post.

“The Times did not say until halfway down its very long piece that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, which some say is closing in on The Times,” Jarvis writes. “The problem at a moment like this is that once one starts to believe The Times might have an agenda, one is left trying to suss out what it might be.”

Former Poynter faculty member Bill Mitchell, a colleague of mine at Northeastern, praises the Times article for its use of on-the-record sources rather than relying on anonymous whispers. “I don’t recall an anonymous source amid the 6,700 words,” he writes. Actually, there are a few, but he’s right that the story is better documented than many such stories.

Mitchell also hails the Times for its “even-handed tone,” which I find interesting mainly because of how different readers interpret the same material in different ways. I thought the Times article was overwhelmingly negative, and that the Amazon employees and officials who spoke favorably about the company were cast in the role of corporate stooges.

Anyway, much to chew over — as there should be given Amazon’s role as a paradigm of the new economy.

Emily Bell challenges Facebook’s New Media Order

Emily-Bell-R
Emily Bell

Journalism has lost control of its platforms and means of distribution. In many ways, that’s good, because it has brought to an end the monopoly journalists once held on the news and information we need to govern ourselves in a democratic society. We should be deeply concerned about the mysterious process that determines what we see or don’t see in our Facebook newsfeeds.

But the age of information gatekeepers did not end with the rise of the Internet. In fact, the lowering of the moat was only a temporary blip. Now we’re living in a new age of gatekeeping. Our masters are social media — and Facebook in particular, both because of its dominance and the way it manipulates what we see.

Last week Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School, delivered an important speech at Oxford about the journalistic implications of social mediation. It is worth reading in full. Also worth reading is Mathew Ingram’s analysis. Just as earlier generations fretted over what made it (or didn’t make it) onto the nightly network newscasts, today we should be deeply concerned about the mysterious process that determines what we see or don’t see in our Facebook newsfeeds.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org.

Talking about Facebook and emotional manipulation

Click on image to watch video
Click on image to watch video

Jon Keller of WBZ-TV (Channel 4) and I talked Monday about Facebook’s experiment in surreptitiously changing the emotional content in the newsfeed of some of its users to see if it made them happy or sad.

Author and Microsoft Jaron Larnier weighs in on The New York Times’ opinion pages today, writing:

The manipulation of emotion is no small thing. An estimated 60 percent of suicides are preceded by a mood disorder. Even mild depression has been shown to increase the risk of heart failure by 5 percent; moderate to severe depression increases it by 40 percent.

And if you want to get up to speed quickly, Mathew Ingram of GigaOm has written a terrific all-known-facts round-up.

This is an important issue, and it should not sink beneath a morass of outrage about other issues — although, sadly, it probably will.