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I’m fascinated by the relationship Facebook has with its users.
On one hand, it’s a relationship that’s deeply adversarial. People simply don’t trust Facebook; and who can blame them? The social giant has been responsible for all kinds of awful things, including tweaking the timelines of 700,000 users to show only the most gut-wrenchingly sad stories, to gleefully collaborating with the US government in PRISM — the deeply controversial program of surveillance that was exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden — and even appropriating the postings of its users in advertisements.
But all the distrust and resentment in the world hasn’t slowed Facebook’s stratospheric rise. Quite the contrary, actually. It’s never going away. Facebook is consolidating its presence, and is even expanding into new markets, as we saw at the Facebook F8 Developer conference this week.
Facebook is trying to replace the years-old monopoly email has had on online direct marketing and communications. It’s even trying to position itself as a customer service platform by allowing businesses and consumers to communicate over Facebook Messenger. And according to the New York Times, Facebook is engaged in secretive talks with a number of large, mainstream publications with the aim of convincing them to ditch their websites, and publish on Facebook instead.
In previous articles, I’ve discussed how Facebook is, for many, becoming indistinguishable from the Internet as a whole, and why that’s ultimately bad. But this? This could potentially bring that nightmarish vision to a whole new level. It’s a horrible idea. Horrible for the Internet, and even worse for journalism. Here’s why.
Time to Talk About the Timeline
Let’s compare how people discover stories on Facebook with how news websites publish stories.
On Facebook, they’re organized on a timeline, with stories appearing not necessarily in the order they were posted, but rather in an order that’s determined by an algorithm. This algorithm takes into account a number of factors, including the quality of the source and the amount of likes and comments it attracts. Controversially, Facebook has even experimented with its timeline to see the impact prioritizing emotive stories has on its users.
Compare that to any news organization. Stories here are published as they occur and are generally listed in a chronological order, or grouped into categories. The biggest exception to this is when a breaking story is so significant, it takes priority over everything else and gets pinned to a prominent position on the homepage for the duration of the story.
If Facebook becomes the news website of the future, will they treat news stories like they treat stories on the timeline? Can we guarantee they’ll organize stories based on the user’s explicitly stated preferences and the order in which they were posted, or will they prioritize them based upon their own relationships with publishers, and what will ultimately maximize their revenue? We simply don’t know, but given Facebook’s track record over the past few years, there are reasons to be suspicious.
Which brings me comfortably on to my next point. Where would Facebook draw the line on what can be shown?
The Problem of Censorship
The public immolation of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh by the Islamic State shocked and revolted the civilized world. The video of his execution — which in typical IS fashion was recorded in gruesome detail, and shared online in HD – was shown in snippets on mainstream news channels with the worst bits removed. Hardly surprising, giving the horrific nature of the footage, and the desire by many in the media to not give these criminals the oxygen of publicity they so desperately crave. But Fox News made the controversial decision to broadcast it live, in full and uncensored on Bret Baier’s Special Report. They also published it on their website, purportedly to draw attention to the sheer medieval brutality of the group.
Predictably, this attracted a huge amount of public revulsion and outrage, and thousands took to Twitter to complain.
Fox News has made the decision to post the ISIL propaganda video on the front page of their website, in its entirety. #disgusting
— Andy Marquis (@amarquis32) February 4, 2015
How Fox News can feature the ISIS video of the pilot being burned alive is unbelievable. Giving terrorist propaganda a stage to spread fear.
— Fluke (@CaptainFluke) February 4, 2015
But most surprising of all, it got surprisingly little criticism from the members of the mainstream press. Why? Well, because journalists understand that their job is ultimately to inform. Journalists don’t always agree on the “how,” but they almost always agree on the nature of the role they play.
Facebook isn’t a journalistic organization.
Facebook isn’t concerned with the truth, or informing people, and Mark Zuckerberg is never going to win a pulitzer prize. Their sole concerns are making money for their shareholders and consolidating the deeply entrenched role they play in people’s lives. A significant part of the success of Facebook is due to it being a “safe place”, where parents are happy to let their teenaged children have an account. Facebook represents a part of the Internet that has been sanitized from the unpleasantness that pervades the likes of Reddit and Twitter, who operate with a much more laissez-faire approach to what’s permitted. That doesn’t play well with the world of journalism, where stories all too often concern deeply disturbing and unpleasant events. The types of stories that when played out on TV are preceded with a “some viewers may find this disturbing”. And what happens when the stories that are published are deeply damaging to the interests of the establishment, as much of what has been leaked by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden has been?
Simply put, Facebook doesn’t care about journalistic freedom or journalistic integrity, and it never will. Journalistic integrity is not part of Facebook’s business model.
It’s for that reason why Facebook would almost certainly be happy to spike a news story in order to maintain its “family friendly” image. I reckon it would even spike a story if it’s absolutely in the public interest, as many argued the footage shown by Fox News was.
The line of what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate to publish is a complicated, blurred line that constantly shifts. Where this line is drawn should be determined by thoughtful debate, and not by the intransigent terms and conditions of Facebook.
Furthermore, will readers be able to “report” stories as inappropriate? Since the inception of Facebook, it has been possible to flag content as in breach of Facebook’s terms and conditions. This content is then forwarded on to their Community Operations team, who make the final decision as to whether it should be removed. The problem is, they don’t always get it right, and in the past have removed a variety of reasonable content, ranging from photos of breastfeeding women, to gay couples kissing. It’s also a system that is ripe for abuse, with content often being removed on the basis of how many reports it gets.
Will readers be able to flag content? If so, we would see the relationship between reader and writer fundamentally altered. Rather than just being able to vote with their feet, readers would for the first time be able to vote with their voices, and excise journalistic writing from the Internet as they would a contestant on American Idol. Horrifying.
And what happens when the stories are about Facebook?
Conflicts of Interest
Facebook is the world’s largest social networking site. It has been for a while now. It probably will remain the biggest for years to come, largely thanks to the power of the network effect. A consequence of it being the biggest is that stories often emerge about the platform. Not all of them are positive.
The history of Facebook is littered with embarrassing stories it probably wishes it could make “disappear.” There’s the time in 2011 where they astroturfed a campaign against Google’s privacy policies. There’s the time they implemented the ill-conceived policy of forcing their users to register with their real names, which resulted in the conception of Ello, which had one of the most successful starts for any social networking sites ever. And as I alluded to earlier, there’s the time Facebook played games with their user’s emotions.
But when Facebook is also the company that hosts the negative stories about them, they suddenly find themselves in an incredible position of power. Will they abuse it? Will they remove negative articles entirely, or more likely, reduce their prominence in search results and in the timeline.
I don’t know. But it’s that’s something I wouldn’t put past Facebook, especially given their track record for bad behavior.
I Don’t Trust Facebook
Sure, I have a Facebook account. I’ve had one since I was 15 years old, and I’ve used it daily ever since. I’d even go so far as to say I like using Facebook. But as convenient as Facebook is, I don’t trust them. Definitely not when it comes to something as crucially important as journalism.
But I can also see things from the other side of the fence.
I can see why publishers might be excited about this. Facebook ultimately boils down to one billion pairs of eyeballs. That’s a huge potential audience, and publishers probably realize that the easier it is to get those eyeballs to look at their content, the more money they’ll make in turn. Facebook also has a track record of successfully integrating in-app purchases and micropayments into its gaming system, and publishers see that as an alternate way to monetize content, especially when advertising revenue is falling and more and more consumers are using AdBlock.
Publishers are also likely to be attracted to Facebook as a result of the sophistication of the platform. Facebook employs hundreds of top-tier developers who are the best at what they do, and have built a robust, secure social network. In addition, Facebook operates a highly successful bug bounty program, and pays out thousands of dollars to people who discover security issues.
Facebook is, broadly speaking, a very secure website. Contrast that with the likes of Reuters and CNN, who both have experienced high-profile security breaches in recent months. In both cases, they were hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army. In the case of Reuters, they merely had to deal with a crude defacement, whilst CNN saw a fake story planted about China dumping all US bonds and closing the South China Sea. The prospect of not having to deal with the risks and consequences of being hacked is probably quite appealing for most site owners.
— Elizabeth Hagedorn (@ElizHagedorn) June 22, 2014
Appealing, certainly, but that still doesn’t outweigh the risks involved with letting Facebook play this big a role in the future of journalism.
What do you think of all this? Tell it like it is.
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