The Tow Center COVID-19 Newsletter: Facebook examines itself

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The following is excerpted from Tow Center director Emily Bell’s interview with CJR’s Mathew Ingram about the Facebook Oversight Board, a body established by the social media company to police content on its platforms. The interview can be read in its entirety on CJR’s Galley interview platform here.

My initial take on the Facebook Oversight Board is that, as the platform itself used to say, “it’s complicated.” The first thing is to acknowledge the self-evident: that it is an amazingly accomplished group any corporation would be pleased to have advising it. You cannot fault the ambition of recruitment, even if you can legitimately question the skills. But I nevertheless have concerns that, alongside much of Facebook’s spending on ways to make its platforms less harmful and more tolerable, it is rhetorically useful for them, without being particularly helpful to the rest of us.

I have been a little dismayed (or at least rolled my eyes) at the discussion of this as a “Supreme Court,” and I am interested in the motivations of those who have trumpeted this as a key moment in the evolution of online content moderation. The scope of the body, as Evely Douek points out in this terrific piece, is limited to appeals on take-down decisions. The scope of the organization will grow from there, possibly, into recommending policies, or even forming a new type of self regulatory body for online moderation. This should make us all uneasy. The best that the FOB can achieve, I think, is making Facebook a better steward of online content. I am sure that the launch of this initiative at the same time Facebook involves itself in the formation of the lobbying group American Edge, is no coincidence. The next decade for Facebook is all about controlling its own destiny, picking the regulation it wants and keeping control of its own practices. Really, I mostly see the FOB as an extension of that lobbying function with the caveat that it might produce some insights and benefits we wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

What they are not trying to do is respond to difficult editorial calls in real time. There are a fair number of people angling to get onto the Board by talking up their own skills in moderation and security, but this misses the point. Facebook wants legitimacy in regulation, rather than correct decisions. The Board is a way of signalling that Facebook takes self-regulation seriously, which gives lawmakers an excuse not to regulate it. You don’t need disinformation researchers for that. Facebook knows exactly what its problems with disinformation are. What it needs are ways of solving them that will keep it on the right side of shareholders and regulators.

The root of my real unease about the project is that there is a lot of excitement about “institution building” from very eminent lawyers and others, both on the Board and watching. We now have 20 rising to 40 global members who are now effectively within the Facebook corporate tent. It negates their participation in any truly independent evaluation of how we might regulate either Facebook or the public sphere. It buys up potential dissent or criticism. By participating in the board, the members give legitimacy to the idea that institution building for public good should or at least can start from within a private company—I find that a rather depressing state of affairs.

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They are being paid by the “’independent trust” set up by Facebook, and they are not disclosing how much, which is a first-order error for a transparency project. It is instant delegitimization of any claim of independence. I don’t know about every member of the Board, but there are those who have worked for Facebook in consultancy capacities, or who chair institutions that take sizable grants from Facebook. As a skeptical journalist I would question that level of ‘independence’. This is a corporate project dressed up as a public enterprise.

There is nothing wrong with that in terms of what it can do for Facebook. I really hope that the company’s culture changes somewhat with the presence of this board, that it becomes more reflexive to complicated content decisions and that the thinking of the board becomes ingrained in how the rest of the company orders design priorities and incentives when it comes to engineering its business model. But it again encloses and sucks the air out of the possibility of building something effective and radical outside Facebook and the corporate sphere. It feels like the FOB members have taken a look at what democracy is handing them at the moment, and taken, in my view, the wrong decision that the corporate realm is preferable.

—Emily Bell

An update on how platforms and publishers are reacting to the pandemic

In a stark sign of the times, Kentucky journalist Joe Sonka was on his second week of unpaid furlough from the Louisville Courier Journal when he learned he had won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of former Kentucky governor Matt Bevin’s hundreds of last-minute pardons and commutations. “SUBSCRIBE TO YOUR LOCAL NEWSPAPER, wherever you are,” he tweeted. “News ain’t free.”

In a memo to BuzzFeed staff, CEO Jonah Peretti, who is forgoing a salary during the pandemic, announced furloughs for 68 staffers as well as extensions of existing salary cuts through the end of the year. While BuzzFeed News was not affected by this round of furloughs, Peretti wrote that management will begin negotiations with the union representing the newsroom “about the need to reduce costs in News.” Elsewhere, the Boston Globe also announced a number of non-newsroom layoffs, citing “significant” revenue impact due to the pandemic.

While the Tow Center’s research focuses primarily on the American news ecosystem, the effects of Covid-19 on journalism have reverberated around the world. Last month, Reporters Without Borders launched a project called Tracker-19 to “document state censorship and deliberate disinformation, and their impact on the right to reliable news and information.” The Guardian’s Kaamil Ahmed warns that the pandemic could trigger a “media extinction event” in developing countries.

ICYMI: The topography of local news in New Jersey: a new map

Tech platforms continue to announce grants and tools for newsrooms and fact-checking organizations grappling with our new reality. Last week, the Facebook Journalism Project launched a $2 million fund for news organizations in Latin America in collaboration with the International Center for Journalists, and committed an additional $750,000 in similar funding in the Middle East and North Africa.

In the U.S., Facebook announced the recipients of its COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund Grant Program, as well as more funding for the North American newsrooms that participated in its Local News Accelerator programs. In total, “more than 200 news organizations will receive nearly $16 million in grants.” A complete list of the publishers can be found here.

Other stories of note:

  • The Harvard Gazette’s Coronavirus Update observed that misinformation during the current pandemic is radically different than that of previous public health crises. “What distinguishes the proliferation of bad information surrounding the current crisis, though, is social media. Kasisomayajula ‘Vish’ Viswanath, Lee Kum Kee Professor of Health Communication at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the popularity and ubiquity of the various platforms means the public is no longer merely passively consuming inaccuracies and falsehoods. It’s disseminating and even creating them, which is a ‘very different’ dynamic than what took place during prior pandemics MERS and H1N1,” writes Christina Pazzanese.
  • In April, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London published a briefing about COVID-19 disinformation, observing that the pandemic was providing openings for opportunists on the far right to disseminate antisemitic conspiracy theories and agitate for a race war; many of these groups have been present at the “reopen” protests of Democratic governors.
  • The New York Post and the New York Daily News are reeling from the affects of the Coronavirus on New York’s media ecosystem; Vanity Fair published a deep dive on the possibility that Rupert Murdoch might finally sell the Post, for decades a beloved, if not terribly profitable, treasure in his heap of media properties.
  • Entertainment mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg’s new service is called Quibi (“kwibby”), and it is not doing well: The streaming platform, which offers five- to ten-minute episodes of news and entertainment video, is being largely ignored despite a nearly $1.8bn investment. “I attribute everything that has gone wrong to coronavirus,” Katzenberg told The New York Times in a video interview. “Everything. But we own it.” Other problems, such as the exodus of executives including former Hollywood Reporter EIC Janice Min, a software glitch that exposed users’ email addresses, and a high-profile trade secrets lawsuit, also damaged the company’s prospects.
Emily Bell, George Civeris, and Sam Thielman work at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, a research and teaching center based at Columbia Journalism School.