Backlash continues over Facebook decision to lump news with ads

Even as Facebook tries to solve one problem—namely, accusations that it isn’t transparent enough about the ads it runs on the platform—it seems to have created another one. Publishers are up in arms over the fact that the social network plans to treat certain promoted news stories as though they are political ads, and they’ve made their feelings known in a number of ways. A group of media organizations have sent Facebook a letter expressing their dissatisfaction, and New York Times CEO Mark Thompson vented on the subject at an event organized by Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism on Tuesday in Washington, DC.

The furor came to a head last month, when Facebook made it clear that ads for news stories involving political themes would be included in a public database it recently launched. The database, which is designed to be a central location where anyone can see who pays for individual ads, is a key part of the company’s attempt to deal with criticism that its ad platform was used by Russian trolls during the 2016 election. The News Media Alliance sent a letter saying the move could lead to a (further) loss of trust in the press.

On Monday, seven media organizations—including the NMA, the American Society of News Editors, the European Publishers Council, and the Society of Professional Journalists—sent another strongly worded letter to Facebook with similar complaints, writing: “Placing news ads in an archive designed to capture political advertising [is] another step toward furthering a false and dangerous narrative that blurs the lines between real reporting from the professional media and propaganda.”

In a speech at the Washington event, co-sponsored by the Tow Center and the Open Markets Institute, Times CEO Thompson echoed this criticism, saying: “When it comes to news, Facebook still doesn’t get it. In its efforts to clear up one bad mess, it seems set on joining those who want blur the line between reality-based journalism and propaganda.” Tow Center Director Emily Bell called the decision to classify promoted stories as ads “a disastrous misstep for [Facebook’s] relationship with publishers.”

In their letter, the seven news organizations said the company should exempt certain high-quality publishers from the decision. But it doesn’t sound like Facebook has any intention of doing so, judging by comments from Head of News Campbell Brown at the event. Brown said that, after criticism from publishers, the company plans to put promoted news stories in their own database, separate from traditional ads, but that being exempted from the plan altogether was not an option. Any publishers who don’t want their stories to be categorized in such a way, she said, should stop advertising on Facebook.

In addition to feuding with publishers, Facebook is also struggling to mend its relationship with Congress, after CEO Mark Zuckerberg was forced to appear at a hearing over a data leak. Here’s more on that:

  • Homework: The social network sent responses to questions CEO Mark Zuckerberg dodged when he appeared before Congress last month to talk about Cambridge Analytica, and they were made public on Tuesday. The document totals almost 500 pages, including answers to questions about data collection, privacy, and competition, but critics note many of the answers lack detail and in some cases just refer Congress to existing statements in Facebook’s terms of service.
  • All the data: Among the things Facebook provided was a comprehensive list of all the information it keeps on its users, including details on the movement of the mouse when you are using the site, names and locations of files on your device, the power level of the battery on your mobile phone and the location of nearby WiFi towers and beacons, as well as standard information such as GPS location. Facebook also keeps track of your log of phone calls if you use an Android (Apple doesn’t allow this).
  • A research lab: Facebook told Congress that it has launched a new design and research lab based in Dublin, Ireland that will work on improving the way the social network informs people about sharing their personal data. Called TTC (for trust, transparency, and control), Facebook said the lab would involve partnerships with academics, and would “seek to pioneer new and more people-centric best practices for people to understand how their data is used by digital services.”
  • Eye tracking: The company said while it holds two patents for detecting eye movements and emotions, it is not currently building eye-tracking software. The company said that eye tracking could be one way to add security for users of its Oculus virtual reality headsets, but said if it decided to implement any technology based on its patents in the future, it would “do so with people’s privacy in mind.” Facebook also denied that it uses information from microphones to target advertising to users.
Sign up for CJR's daily email

Other notable stories:

  • Telecom giant AT&T got the green light to go ahead with its $85-billion merger with Time Warner, which owns CNN and HBO. The Department of Justice opposed the deal, saying it could lead to higher prices for Time Warner customers, but a judge disagreed. Analysts say if the DoJ doesn’t appeal, the ruling could trigger further mergers, including a potential bid by Comcast to acquire 21st Century Fox.
  • The New York Times reports that the paper is reviewing the work history of Ali Watkins, a Washington-based reporter for the Times whose email and phone records were seized by the Department of Justice as part of an investigation into leaks by a former aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee. Watkins had a personal relationship with the aide, James Wolfe, before she was hired by the Times.
  • Former Times columnist Joe Nocera writes about his struggles with depression and bipolar disorder in the wake of the recent suicide deaths of chef Anthony Bourdain and designer Kate Spade. Nocera says he tried to fight off his depression because he was ashamed of asking for help and didn’t want to acknowledge that he was bipolar, but eventually he was able to confront the problem and got treatment.
  • During the historic meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, some print reporters were prevented from attending some events, the Associated Press said. On most foreign trips the practice is to allow all members of the “pool” of reporters to attend as a group, but AP said print reporters for the Associated Press, Reuters and Bloomberg were prevented from attending the photo-op.
  • David Skok, a former senior editor with both The Boston Globe and the Toronto Star, has launched a subscription-only news and analysis site called The Logic, based in Toronto. In a post published on Medium, Skok says the site will charge $300 a year for access to in-depth reporting and analysis on new technologies and how they are impacting the economy and society in Canada.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.