It’s not just Facebook. The Internet has failed as a public forum.
When in doubt, blame the robots. As Facebook has fallen from grace and struggled to reconcile its role in spreading propaganda and stoking political anger, the company has proposed a familiar solution:
If the algorithm has failed, let’s just build a better algorithm.
By devaluing journalism, Facebook risks abandoning the public square. By becoming a true platform, it could *build* that square.
There was a time, about a decade ago, when for a brief moment I thought Facebook would become the platform underpinning the open internet. Such a platform was desperately needed — the open web was a wonderful but messy place that lacked structure and discipline. Facebook’s young CEO claimed he wanted to make the world more “open and connected,” and for a minute it seemed his company might provide the infrastructure to power a people-driven next generation of the web. I even asked him about the idea — a few times, in fact — during interviewson stage at the Web 2 Summit, an event I used to convene back in the early days of the web boom. At the time, he’d point to Facebook’s “Platform” as an initial response to my queries.
A bit of history. Ten years ago, Facebook announced “Platform,” an audacious attempt to corral the World Wide Web’s open, messy nature and funnel developer (and startup) energies into the Facebook universe. The move shook the startup world — most of which were focused on creating independent web sites. But after Facebook’s announcement, every company got busy developing a “Facebook Platform strategy.” Countless hours (and dollars) were expended by firms large and small, all attempting to create their own version of themselves in Facebook’s white and blue walled garden.
Our faith in the process of science is damaged, and it could be replaced by something worse
In a desperate attempt to curb the negative wave of attention it garnered in 2017, Facebook stepped into 2018 announcing its own resolutions. The big one is backing away from news publishers, and favouring content that user’s friends and family put out. Here are a few other alarming headlines from this past week:
Congratulations! You’ve read too much. Please pull out your credit card.
And so goes the frustrating, backward logic of the journalism paywall. It’s the most popular income idea to arise since the newspaper industry was flooded with low-budget competitors, and it seems like the last best hope for profits as Google and Facebook strangle independent advertising sales.
It’s also a fundamentally flawed business model that goes against the best interests of journalists and their readers, and for the most part, it’s doomed to fail.
The contradictions are rife in the FCC’s latest regulatory framework, and did Justice seek revenge on CNN?
In a New York Times OpEd (apparently he’s OK with purveyors of “fake news”), FCC Chair Ajit Pai makes a case for loosening rules that bar cross ownership of print and broadcast media assets. And on its face, his arguments make sense. But look closer. Pai is arguing that the Internet provides more diversity of views, and that when a TV station owns a paper, the community gets more investment in news gathering, reporting, and coverage. Maybe, but he’s ignoring the real issue at hand: That “diversity of views” so dear to past regulators is pretty much dead and buried on the Internet, where filter bubbles, marketing algorithms, and sophisticated information warfare ensure most Americans see only what they already believe, and ownership is concentrated beyond anything we’ve seen in the offline media world. And guess what? Earlier this year, the FCC shrugged off responsibility for any regulatory power over the Internet. Money quote: “In 2003, this newspaper noted on its editorial page that “making the argument that the current rules are outdated is easy.” The case is even stronger today. Few regulations are more disconnected from today’s realities than the F.C.C.’s media ownership rules.”
Did President Trump ask the Department of Justice to punish CNN by forcing AT&T to divest the news network so its acquisition of Time Warner would be approved? Sounds nuts, but that’s exactly the kind of thing our current president seems capable of doing. AT&T isn’t taking this one lying down, and is threatening to sue. Now that’s a court case I’d like to see! Money quote: “Randall L. Stephenson, AT&T’s chief executive, said on Wednesday that he had never offered to sell CNN. On Thursday, appearing at The New York Times’s DealBook conference, he said the company was ready to go to court against the Justice Department.” Counterpoint: Tim Wu argues blocking the deal might be a good idea.
The Fast-Rising Media Company and the Tech Giant are Partnering for a Series of Important Interviews
About a year ago, right after the 2016 Presidential Election, Mark Zuckerberg ridiculed the idea that Facebook influenced the election as “crazy”. Oh, how far we’ve come.
Facebook, struggling to defend itself as it becomes clear how Russia and its operatives used the platform to spread misinformation and stoke anxieties, is currently in the midst of a large-scale PR effort aimed at influential and powerful decision-makers in DC. Beyond several long and reflective posts on its site from leaders like Zuckerberg, the company has also taken out ads in leading newspapers. Here’s an example of an ad that ran in the Washington Post last week.
Facebook has recently announced a new feature being tested in their newsfeed which adds context to shared links.
This contextual information is “pulled from across Facebook and other sources, such as information from the publisher’s Wikipedia entry… trending articles or related articles about the topic”. The hope is that this contextual information will give users the information they need to decide whether the link in question is reliable or not.
This is the best move I have seen any of the platforms take in response to fake news so far. This approach provides a non-invasive system which helps people make up their own minds about what they want to believe and share, rather than deciding what is and is not true for them.
Professional Fact Checkers Investigate ‘Laterally’
Last November, a friend told me about his extended family of Filipino-Americans in the Fresno area. In a matter of days they went from feeling conflicted about Trump’s candidacy to voting for him en masse. They are Catholics, and once they heard the Pope had endorsed Trump their minds were made up. Of course, this papal endorsement did not really happen. This is an example of fake news wave that went viral and misled millions.
Here is that same story in a Facebook post, shared by the group North Carolina For Donald Trump. They have 65,000 followers, and you can see how shares by dozens of influential groups could spread this to millions.
I swear. If Silicon Valley had to invent a ball point pen, they’d say “it’s just really hard getting the ink to flow smoothly and at a consistent rate out of the pen. You don’t understand how hard it is.” They seem to be under the impression that anything not invented in Silicon Valley does not exist. They also seem to be under the impression that we haven’t been dealing with the nuisance of fake news for hundreds of years.
I am going to say this up front, because I have friends working on these problems: no one is saying the technical challenges to perfectly arbitrating truth and fiction are easy. I am not saying that. And there are good people — at Facebook and elsewhere — who are working very hard on this problem. I believe, however, that management is tying their hands, because they are only looking at a single solution set, and ignoring history. And, I believe, humans don’t expect perfect arbitration. What they expect are openness, context, and labeling, along with the neutering of even the most blatant, clear-cut cases of lying.
Headlines are a science now. If you’re sharing regular links, you’re part of the fake news problem.
Paste a link into Facebook or Twitter and voila, it automagically expands into a beautiful “card,” with hero image and headline. It looks good. It looks true. It looks like you’re sharing the story, but you’re not — you’re sharing a headline. You’re sharing the marketing.
Here are some other headlines we tested out for this piece: