With Facebook gripped by a reputational crisis, media has a rare opportunity to restore reader trust.
Few would deny newspapers their triumph after last weekend’s revelations about Facebook leaving profiles open to abuse by shady data firms like Cambridge Analytica. For years publishers have had to adjust their editorial strategies to suit the social network’s insatiable demand for fresh content, while reader engagement and advertising revenue shifted in ever greater numbers towards Facebook.
In January, CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared that much of what’s shared by news publishers on his network was making users miserable, and Facebook would be reducing the amount of news appearing in users feeds. Publishers were going to get an even smaller share of Facebook users’ attention span.
Publishers have been fighting a losing battle with Facebook over revenue. Reporters find themselves in precarious employment. Advertisers give the appearance of wishing they could continue to produce the kind of quality, high-impact ads they once published in newspapers, but are forced to buy inventory where young, targetable users gather on social. On top of all this, media workers fume that Facebook’s careless approach to “fake news” not only prioritised clickbait untruths over serious reporting, but delivered the US Presidency to Donald Trump and a vote for Brexit in the UK’s referendum.
So, when the UK’s Observer and the New York Times broke the Cambridge Analytica story, the press had a rare opportunity to redress the balance. Their angle? For all their faults, newspapers don’t package your data and make it available to sinister “psychographic targeting” firms, who’ll use it to swing elections. There may be less to this claim than meets the eye.
Billions of dollars have been wiped from Facebook’s value, with market cap down nearly 11 percent by Friday morning. Zuckerberg has shown willingness to testify to US congressional committees (and UK lawmakers want him to give an account of himself to them, too). Newspapers and digital media are running with guides on “how to delete your Facebook account.” Some columnists argue that Facebook is a force for evil, and that Zuckerberg should do the decent thing and shut it down altogether.
But is the Cambridge Analytica story another example of media overreach?
First, Facebook’s crisis comes after the media’s honeymoon with the tech industry ended. Up to the end of 2016 much of the news about tech in US and European media was positive, or at least indulgent of techno-optimism. Zuckerberg was even touted a potential presidential candidate. A year of negative stories about the tech industry changed that – see Uber’s managerial dramas, Twitter’s struggle to contain what users call “bullying” and criticism of Facebook’s “fake news”, which some commentators blame for Trump. These stories emerged alongside broader troubling tech-related themes: How advances in AI will destroy white-collar jobs (and worse), how western infrastructure is at risk from bad actors, how the accumulation of wealth and power at the top of western societies makes them vulnerable to populist revolts (We wonder how 2017-2018 might have played out if Trump had lost the election). The Cambridge Analytica story revealed much of what critics expected of Facebook all along. It came during a week when Uber took another blow, with one of its driverless cars hitting and killing a pedestrian in Arizona, the first casualty of AI-powered vehicles.
Second, there’s little evidence that Cambridge Analytica’s data affected the outcome of the Presidential election. The Observer’s story hinges on the confessions of Christopher Wylie, another charismatic whistleblower, who may be overstating the “mindfuck” capabilities of the tools he helped develop. Wired characterises Cambridge Analytica’s claims as dubious, and psychographic targeting in general as beset by “noisy fallacies.” The personality test Facebook users were invited to take could only generate pop-psychology results, barely more meaningful than a magazine quiz. One commentator compared the results to star signs in astrology columns. The New York Times went from dismissing Cambridge Analytica’s role in Trump’s campaign (last year) to putting it centre stage (last week).
There’s a good case to be made that Trump didn’t need social media to win the election, and that his mastery of cable TV’s contradictions and biases was a more likely factor in his victory. This report in the Verge illustrates further the difficulties in making claims for targeting. A new angle that emerged during the week was that CA’s leadership were Old Etonian snake oil salesmen, smoothly promising gullible clients more than their technology could deliver.
Third, Zuckerberg claims Facebook patched the leak in 2015 and promises to take more care of user data in future.
The digital economy runs on data. In most cases, it’s traded freely by users in exchange for engaging experiences or instant access to knowledge and other content. However, standards for the exchange, storage, processing and use of data varies between companies, states and individuals. For big digital firms early-to-mid decade, it was the Wild West and the Gold Rush – though most consumers were unaware of this.
Facebook is certainly at fault here, and the absence of usually ubiquitous senior management at the company for the best part of a week was a lesson in how not to handle a crisis. From 2010, when Facebook opened its Open Graph API to give third parties access to user data, Facebook was in expansion mode. It was “moving fast and breaking things” – opening as many potential revenue possibilities as it could, and, like everyone else during that period of social media expansion, unwilling to rule out anything that might later justify its valuation by VCs and other investors. And while Facebook sneakily made it more difficult for users to discern how much data they shared with app developers (and their friends had no choice but to be included in data trawling), users were voluntarily submitting data to play a personality quiz. This wasn’t probing our minds for our deepest fears and weaknesses, despite how eager the media is to prove malevolent genius at work.
Where the coverage has been right has been to remind us that Facebook and digital companies like it employ legions of very intelligent people to ensure we stay on its platform and its business depends on targeting based on user data. And not just Facebook, whose weirdness can make it an easy target (the Economist reports how it melds “a ruthless pursuit of profit with a Panglossian and narcissistic belief in its own virtue.”) Some apps created for the iPhone can request access to the user’s contacts, which can include home addresses. Google’s Android operating system grants third party apps access to contacts and other data.
Newspapers aren’t angelic. Axel Springer’s lawyer argued “journalistic content is just a vehicle to get readers to view the ads” in a case against an ad blocking firm. Even the Guardian, leading the charge against Facebook, doesn’t have clean hands: A reader commented
(According to ad-detecting software plugin) Ghostery, the Guardian is using the following 6 advertising trackers to spy on you: NetRatings SiteCensus, ScoreCard Research Beacon, Google AdWords Conversion,
Krux Digital, Facebook Custom Audience, Google Publisher Tags.
And it’s also tracking you via Google Analytics.
And it’s also tracking you via discussion.theguardian.com, ophan.theguardian.com, http://www.theguardian.com, acast.com, flex.acast.com, media.acast.com, mediacdn.acast.com,
facebook.com, http://www.facebook.com, google-analytics.com, http://www.google-analytics.com, googleadservices.com, http://www.googleadservices.com, googletagservices.com, http://www.googletagservices.com, gu-web.net, beacon.gu-web.net, guardianapps.co.uk, api.nextgen.guardianapps.co.uk, guim.co.uk, assets.guim.co.uk, avatar.guim.co.uk,
i.guim.co.uk, imrworldwide.com, secure-au.imrworldwide.com, secure-dcr.imrworldwide.com
krxd.net, cdn.krxd.net, scorecardresearch.com, sb.scorecardresearch.com
A fourth issue is if readers care about this tracking or misuse of their personal data.
We reported earlier that trust in traditional media is higher than it’s been for five years. The same survey put trust in social media lower than last year (the survey was conducted before last week’s Cambridge Analytica reports). Respondents put social media’s unwillingness to tackle extremist content and bullying as lead factors eroding trust (based on choices from a list). Lack of transparency, regulation or data protection were additional factors.
It would be wrong to read too much into these responses. Few people believe extremist content is a good thing, but the rush to censor violent content can be used as an excuse to remove merely contentious arguments from platforms. In a survey environment, no-one is going to argue less should be done to combat bullying, but responding to internet bullies means defining bullying, which is often difficult to distinguish from robust disagreement, particularly in the feverish atmosphere of social media.
Governments and established media have demonstrated an historical inability to understand social media on this granular level. This enforces calls for regulation. Early Facebook investor Peter Thiel certainly detected this: He has sold most of his Facebook stock recently and in March cited concerns about regulation from European governments as a potential headwind to social media’s further growth. Last week’s events make some sort of regulation seem inevitable, even if there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of a mass exodus or even widespread discontent with digital platforms.
Social media needs to determine if it’s a neutral platform or content publisher. Internet publishers have enjoyed a level of protection newspapers are denied, and Facebook has zealously defended this favouritism. But it’s clear that Facebook is not a dumb pipe. It editorialises, preferring some news sources over others. Conservatives claimed its previous “trending topics” editors favoured liberal news over conservative stories. It pays, or paid established and new media to produce reports for its Live Video and Watch channels. It seeks to distinguish between real and fake news.
It doesn’t, however, pay routinely for content. Rupert Murdoch suggested Facebook pay to licence content from newspapers and broadcasters. This would be an unlikely outcome of 2017-18’s scandals. Some Facebook insiders believe it should get out of news altogether: It accounts for only 6 percent of content on the platform, but much of the grief. If Facebook stopped allowing news stories to be posted or shared, would significant advertising revenues return to news publishers?
Newspapers are in trouble, figuratively and existentially. There are two extremes. The first is going Back to the Future. A return to paid-for, high circulation daily local and national newspapers, delivered with your morning coffee perhaps by one of the many on-demand delivery companies that have proliferated in recent years. Paying readers would get a sane and balanced overview of news (probably in a much thinner edition than readers in the 1990s were used to – 2020’s readers need time for other activities, perhaps even Facebook) and quality ads, perhaps supplemented with a daily email newsletter and updates of breaking news during the day.
The other extreme: Newspapers tracking readers around the internet as voraciously as digital platforms, bombarding them with clickbait to draw their eyeballs to targeted ads, competing with cat photos, holiday snaps and dodgy personality quizzes on social media platforms that can turn viewing figures on and off as it suits them… all while revenues and advertising dwindle to unsustainable levels. Perhaps a powerful tech billionaire will buy or support your publication; perhaps government can be persuaded to subsidise it in the public interest. Each comes with its downsides.
One future is utopian, the other a dystopia. The reality is likely to be somewhere in between. The dystopia, however, is where we are today. Any future discussion of tomorrow’s newspapers, if they are to exist at all, will have to consider returning in some part to earlier news and consumer traditions. Worth noting: Mark Zuckerberg’s apology for Facebook’s data disaster came in the form of full-page ads, taken out in print editions of the New York Times and Observer. Back to the future?