If you missed the first-ever Interface Live last week, I hope you’ll consider come seeing me this week! I’ll be talking with Clara Tsao, a researcher and entrepreneur who focuses on disinformation and platforms, at a free event in San Francisco. It’s on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., and I would love to see you there. The event is free, and you can RSVP here.
When I think about my ideal relationship between Facebook and journalism, something I have been doing more or less since 2016, it has always involved carriage fees: payments from Facebook to publishers to support their journalism, in exchange for the right to run it freely across all of their product surfaces. As I told Columbia Journalism Review this summer:
Just as cable companies pay for access to high-quality channels, so, too, should social networks pay for access to high-quality journalism. It’s a win-win-win: publishers get money for journalism; readers get news they can trust; and Facebook gets a higher-quality news environment that can bolster our democracy while making the whole site more attractive for readers and advertisers.
On Friday, my dream came true. The company announced Facebook News, an experimental tab in the company’s mobile apps that will carry news from BuzzFeed, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and others. In exchange, some (but not all) of those publishers will receive direct payments, in some cases for millions of dollars over the multi-year life of the contract.
Crucially, publishers get that revenue without having to do much additional work — this is payment for work they would be doing already, and can now re-invest in high quality journalism. Compare that to Instant Articles, Facebook’s previous big swing with media companies, which required publishers to rebuild their publishing workflows to create a product that generated less revenue than the one it replaced. (Actually, I’ll just compare it for you: carriage fees are way better!)
Mark Zuckerberg marked the announcement of Facebook’s new deal with the media with a fireside chat with the CEO of News Corp. and an op-ed in the New York Times in which he committed to helping build a more sustainable financial future for journalism. “We know that we need to help build a stable model,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Unlike other things we’ve tried in the past, this is a multiyear commitment that should give publishers the confidence to plan ahead.”
It says something about current public perception of Facebook, the historical enmity publishers have toward it, and the increasing popularity of Facebook-dunking among journalists on Twitter that this news was all received as basically a bad thing.
The problem was Breitbart. Here’s Adi Robertson in The Verge:
Facebook News is partnering with a variety of regional newspapers and some major national partners, including USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. But as The New York Times and Nieman Lab report, its “trusted” sources also include Breitbart, a far-right site whose co-founder Steve Bannon once described it as a platform for the white nationalist “alt-right.” Breitbart has been criticized for repeated inaccurate and incendiary reporting, often at the expense of immigrants and people of color. Last year, Wikipedia declared it an unreliable source for citations, alongside the British tabloid Daily Mail and the left-wing site Occupy Democrats.
That’s led to questions about why Breitbart belongs on Facebook News, a feature that will supposedly be held to far tougher standards than the normal News Feed. In a question-and-answer session after the interview, Zuckerberg told Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan that Facebook would have “objective standards” for quality. […]
But when New York Times reporter Marc Tracy asked how including Breitbart served that cause, Zuckerberg emphasized its politics, not its reporting. “Part of having this be a trusted source is that it needs to have a diversity of views in there, so I think you want to have content that represents different perspectives,” he said. Zuckerberg reiterated that these perspectives should comply with Facebook’s standards, and he was cagey about Breitbart’s presence, saying that “having someone be possible or eligible to show up” doesn’t guarantee frequent placement. “But I certainly think you want to include a breadth of content in there,” he said.
The conversation continued into the weekend, with much aggrieved tweeting. Instagram boss Adam Mosseri went so far as to say that he himself didn’t want Breitbart in Facebook News, but argued that Facebook should not exclude publications from the tab for ideological reasons.
It seems to me that Breitbart was included in the tab precisely for ideological reasons — for the “breadth of content” reasons Zuckerberg mentioned. Certainly no one at Facebook seems to be suggesting that Breitbart is a reliable producer of high-quality journalism — the argument seems to be rather that it would be poor form to exclude them just because they once (for example) tagged relevant stories with the label “black crime.” Different perspectives and all that.
Ultimately, I’m with Mosseri — Breitbart doesn’t belong in Facebook News. Breitbart should be allowed to have a Facebook page and share links freely in the News Feed, assuming it doesn’t violate the company’s standards. But including the publisher in the News tab elevates its work and supports it financially. It gives the outlet both freedom of speech and freedom of reach, when it only deserves the former.
As with Zuckerberg’s decision to exempt politicians’ ads from fact-checking, which runs counter to the efforts of its platform integrity team to remove misinformation from Facebook, the decision to bring Breitbart into its stable of trusted news partners would seem to run counter to its efforts to promote a healthy news environment. (Among other things, the site has a dedicated “Fake News Freakouts” section that exists primarily to undermine confidence in reported journalism.)
Facebook is now in a position where it fights misinformation with one hand while ushering it onto the platform with another. As Mike Isaac reported in the Times today, that has sparked a debate inside the company, where more than 250 employees have signed a post asking the company to reconsider its policy to exempt politicians’ ads from fact-checking. In the letter, employees worried that the move could:
Increase distrust in our platform by allowing similar paid and organic content to sit side-by-side — some with third-party fact-checking and some without. Additionally, it communicates that we are OK profiting from deliberate misinformation campaigns by those in or seeking positions of power.
You can imagine employees mounting a similar criticism of Breitbart as a news partner — that it increases distrust in the platform by sitting side by side with traditional publishers. We’ll see.
In the meantime, we continue to see stunts that put Facebook’s contradictory policies to the test. A political action committee bought an ad falsely stating that Sen. Lindsay Graham supported the Green New Deal (if only); Facebook took it down. And on Monday, a California man filed paperwork for governor with the express intention of using his status as a candidate to run false political ads on Facebook. Donie O’Sullivan reported:
Hampton told CNN Business that he will use his new status as a candidate to run false ads on Facebook about President Trump, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and other Facebook executives. He said he also plans to run false ads on Facebook about executives of Twitter, which also has a policy of not fact-checking ads run by candidates.
His goal is to force Facebook to stop allowing politicians to run false ads.
Which argument will ultimately carry the day? Probably the one that helps Facebook grow the most, as Charlie Warzel argued in a deeply necessary piece over the weekend:
Because Mr. Zuckerberg is one of the most powerful people in politics right now — and because the stakes feel so high — there’s a desire to assign him a political label. That’s understandable but largely beside the point. Mark Zuckerberg may very well have political beliefs. And his every action does have political consequences. But he is not a Republican or a Democrat in how he wields his power. Mr. Zuckerberg’s only real political affiliation is that he’s the chief executive of Facebook. His only consistent ideology is that connectivity is a universal good. And his only consistent goal is advancing that ideology, at nearly any cost.
Critics who want to see Breitbart gone from the news tab, or lies gone from politicians’ ads, should probably start by making the case that Facebook will grow faster without them.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending up Instagram extended its ban on self-harm content to drawings and cartoons. The move came in response to public outcry over the death of teenager Molly Russell, who killed herself after viewing graphic content on the platform.
Trending up: Facebook removed ads from a pro-Trump super PAC that used scare tactics in an effort to obtain voter data. The ads targeted people in Arizona.
Trending sideways: Judd Legum uncovered a network of Facebook pages that exist solely to promote the right-wing site The Daily Caller, sometimes using misleading labels, but Facebook says it doesn’t qualify as “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” Evelyn Douek says it’s part of a larger legitimacy crisis over the meaning of that term.
⭐ Microsoft won a $10 billion contract from the Department of Defense, beating out Amazon in a months-long battle over who would provide cloud computing services to the military. Kate Conger, David E. Sanger and Scott Shane at The New York Times have the story:
The 10-year contract for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, known as JEDI, had set off a showdown among Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, Oracle and Google for the right to transform the military’s cloud computing systems. The acrimonious process involved intense lobbying efforts and legal challenges among the rivals.
The fight was closely monitored after Trump ramped up his criticism on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, apparently telling defense secretary James Mattis to “screw” the company out of bidding on the contract. (Zachary Cohen and Kevin Bohn / CNN)
Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) is drafting a bill to stop Facebook from profiting off misinformation. The legislation specifically targets the company’s political ad policy, which the congressman called “not acceptable.” Cicilline is heading up the House antitrust investigation into big tech. (Cat Zakrzewski / The Washington Post)
In a leaked video, Google CEO Sundar Pichai acknowledged the company is struggling with employee trust after hiring Miles Taylor, a former Department of Homeland Security official who backed the Trump administration’s travel ban. (Greg Bensinger / The Washington Post)
The congressman who grilled Mark Zuckerberg about vaccines during the Libra hearing is sharing anti-vax conspiracies on Facebook. Bill Posey (R-FL) claimed that he is pro-vaccine, but urged Zuckerberg to allow anti-vaxxers to share their opinions. (Aaron Mak / Slate)
Human rights attorney Jameel Jaffer argues that Mark Zuckerberg falsely equates speech on Facebook with free speech. “A world in which no one’s voice was silenced but the public square was flooded with hate and disinformation would not represent a triumph of free speech,” he writes. (Jameel Jaffer / Knight First Amendment Institute)
California Democratic Rep. Katie Hill announced her resignation after nude images were published online without her consent. She is going to fight the nonconsensual sharing of intimate imagery after she leaves Congress. Hill acknowledged having a consensual relationship with a campaign staffer. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)
Several Democratic presidential campaigns were targeted by a Russia-based operation on Instagram. They said they were unaware of the disinformation efforts until the tech giant announced them publicly last week. (Isaac Stanley-Becker, Ellen Nakashima and Tony Romm / The Washington Post)
Trump told Apple CEO Tim Cook that he isn’t a fan of the swipe, and wants his iPhone home button back. Apparently the president recently upgraded to a new device. (Jay Peters / The Verge)
The moderator who leads Reddit’s r/relationships subreddit, a community with 2.6 million members, said she keeps things civil by deleting tons of content. Her rules, which include a ban on gendered language and images of any kind, are much stricter than that of a typical social network. Context is everything in content moderation, and this article illustrates why. (Kaitlyn Tiffany / The Atlantic)
Taiwan has developed a social network to help it find consensus on difficult policy decisions. The platform, vTaiwan, allows experts and other stakeholders to deliberate contentious issues. (Carl Miller / BBC)
India is using an opaque legal process to suppress Kashmiri journalists and commentary on Twitter. The company hasn’t complied with every request, but more accounts were withheld in India in the second half of 2018 than in the rest of the world combined. (vi Asher-Schapiro and Ahmed Zidan / Committee to Protect Journalists)
⭐ Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey criticized Mark Zuckerberg over issues related to free speech and Libra. Sarah Frier and Kurt Wagner at Bloomberg explain:
Like Twitter, Facebook’s algorithm for sorting posts in a person’s social media feed gives heavier weight to those that users share and comment on. Often that means the most incendiary or surprising messages find their way to the biggest audience. Other than addressing his algorithm, Zuckerberg didn’t talk about the difference between content that naturally goes viral and promoted posts that people pay to send to a bigger audience.
“It was a major gap and flaw in the substance he was getting across,” Dorsey said.
Also: Dorsey said “hell no” when asked if Twitter will ever join Libra, at a media event in New York City. He added that Facebook didn’t need to make a cryptocurrency to pull of its goals of democratizing the financial system. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)
Facebook usage dropped 26 percent since 2017, according to new research from Activate Inc. It’s still way ahead of competitors in terms of membership, with more than 2 billion users. The change is partially due to young people moving to Instagram, which Facebook owns. (Mark Sullivan / Fast Company)
Facebook will no longer use the word “undesirable” in the rejection messages it sends to potential advertisers. The company had been using the word when rejecting ads that featured people who were overweight or had skin conditions. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)
Facebook created a machine learning system to make people invisible to facial recognition. The tool works by slightly distorting someone’s face, and was able to fool state-of-the-art facial recognition systems. (Khari Johnson / VentureBeat)
YouTube’s favorite stunt philanthropist, Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson, is organizing a fundraising effort with more than 600 YouTubers, including PewDiePie and MKBHD, to plant 20 million trees. The goal is to raise $20 million. (Julia Alexander / The Verge)
Facebook and Instagram banned ‘horny’ emojis. Users can no longer pair eggplant and peach emojis with sexual statements about being in the mood. This is an issue I am now referring to as “freedom of peach,” and I hope Congress gets involved. (Mikelle Street / Out)
Clickhole made me laugh:
Zuckerberg chanced across the farmer’s cottage when his car broke down while he was driving home late one night from Facebook’s headquarters. After knocking on Old Man Clemson’s front door, the aging farmer generously offered him a place to sleep for the night, with one strict stipulation: “Mr. Zuckerberg, you’re welcome to my hospitality, but keep your distance from my daughter Gwendoline’s data,” warned the farmer. “You avoid assembling a user profile about her online browsing habits, and we’ll all get along just fine.”