The Media Today

On Facebook, disinformation, and existential threats

October 11, 2019

Last week, The Verge published transcripts of two hours of audio leaked from a town hall with Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook. His comments included a reference to Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose plans to break up the company Zuckerberg called “an existential threat.”  Some wondered: Would Facebook try to put its thumb on the scale of the 2020 election by using its all-powerful news feed algorithm? And while that question was swirling, Facebook received blowback on another controversy: a recent decision to no longer fact-check political ads—including a Trump ad campaign that repeats unsubstantiated claims about Joe Biden. 

To untangle the knot of criticisms, I conducted a series of interviews on Galley, CJR’s discussion platform, with journalists and others who follow Facebook. First was Casey Newton of The Verge, who got the town-hall audio scoop. Although Zuckerberg’s comments about Warren garnered a lot of attention, Newton said that one of the most interesting things about the town hall was what the questions said about the company’s employees: they are concerned about a breakup, to be sure, but they also worry about how they and Zuckerberg are perceived. One of my next interviewees, Peter Kafka, media writer for Recode, said that, for him, the most striking thing about the leak is that it happened at all—Facebook has been doing town halls for more than a decade, and this is the first time an insider has leaked audio. That could mean, Kafka said, that employees are growing restless.

I also spoke with Dina Srinivasan, a former advertising industry executive and antitrust expert who wrote an academic paper, “The Antitrust Case Against Facebook,” which has been cited by several members of Congress who want to break the company up. Her argument is that antitrust law doesn’t have to focus solely on the effect of a monopoly on consumer prices—a difficult case to make for Facebook, since the service is free—in order to apply. Facebook could also be accused, she argued, of using its monopoly to degrade the quality of its service, by removing privacy protections that it promised would never be weakened, and by using customer data without permission.

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April Glaser of Slate talked with me about Facebook’s decision to stop fact-checking political ads, which, she said, amounted to a dereliction of duty. “I think that Facebook has a responsibility to serve the information needs of its users and not be an active force in making our elections awful,” Glaser said. Alex Hern of The Guardian, said on Galley that Facebook’s argument—that it’s not the company’s job to determine what is true or false—is invalid. “It already has that power,” Hern told me, “and refusing to reject false political adverts is just as much of a political action as refusing to accept them.” Judd Legum, who runs a progressive newsletter called Popular Information, told me that Facebook may believe it’s acting on principle, but the decision to stay out of political ads “is also allowing them to accept millions from the Trump campaign to spread content that is demonstrably false.”

Alex Heath, a writer with The Information, said on Galley that he didn’t think Zuckerberg would fiddle with the Facebook algorithm to try and influence the election. Heath recalled how, in 2016, some employees wanted the company to block Donald Trump’s profile because they believed that he was engaging in hate speech, but Zuckerberg fought the idea. “I think he’s smarter than trying to tip the scales for or against a particular candidate,” Heath told me. Charlie Warzel of the New York Times added that Zuckerberg doesn’t need to intervene “because Facebook, the platform, will do so instinctively.” Facebook, he went on, has “redefined what it means to be a good candidate—and provided a distinct natural advantage to those who distort the truth.” Warzel expanded on that idea in a column for the Times on Friday.

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There was a lot more to discuss in each of the interviews, so I encourage you to check them out. And to finish the series, I will be having a roundtable discussion on Galley today with all of our interviewees, as well as selected readers and contributors. What does the future hold for Facebook? Is antitrust the only way to solve the social problems it continues to cause? And given the company’s role in the spread of disinformation, should media outlets and journalists boycott Facebook and refuse to use its services? Please join us and share your thoughts!

Here’s more on Facebook and its challenges:

  • The new News tab: As part of our Galley series, Tom McGeveran of Old Town Media talked with Lukas Alpert of the Wall Street Journal about Facebook’s attempt to get media companies on board with its News tab feature, which the company is expected to roll out soon. Only a handful of those whose news is featured are to be paid, Alpert said, and Facebook is still working on signing up publishers.
  • The First Amendment: In a section of the leaked Facebook town-hall audio that hasn’t been previously published, Zuckerberg talked about whether the company should take the same approach to speech that the First Amendment does, according to a report from Casey Newton in his Interface newsletter. Zuckerberg said that most people want the company to intervene so as not to allow any and all speech to live on its platform.
  • Amplifying harm: The Electronic Frontier Foundation has criticized Facebook’s decision to exempt political content from fact-checking, saying that this effectively excuses parties and politicians from the rules that citizens must abide and “amplifies the harm” that political lies can do. “What is particularly troubling is for a platform to apply one set of rules to most people, and a more permissive set of rules to another group that holds more political power,” the group said on its blog.
  • Moving beyondIn “Moving Beyond ‘Zuck Sucks,’” media researchers Anthony Nadler, Hamsini Sridharan, and Doron Taussig write for CJR about the idea that journalists should take a cue from “solutions journalism” and spend at least as much time talking about potential solutions to the problems caused by social technology, as they do focusing on the problems themselves.

Other notable stories:

  • Splinter, a news site that was part of the former Gizmodo group of sites now owned by G/O Media, is being shut down. According to an internal memo obtained by The Daily Beast, the editorial director of G/O said that while the site “has produced much outstanding journalism and great scoops, establishing a steady and sustainable audience for a relatively young site proved challenging in a fiercely competitive sector.”
  • James Murdoch has acquired a stake in Vice Media through his personal holding company, according to a report in the Financial Times. The younger son of News Corp. founder Rupert Murdoch set up the holding company using $2 billion in proceeds from the sale of the family’s 21st Century Fox empire, which was bought by Disney. Murdoch has been on the Vice board for several years.
  • The Correspondent, the crowdfunded journalism site that is an English-language spinoff of the Dutch site De Correspondent, took down an article by its climate writer Eric Holthaus that included a first-person interview with child activist Greta Thunberg. In a note, Holthaus said Thunberg’s family didn’t see the article prior to publication and “after it was published, they raised a number of concerns around sensitivities within the piece with me.” Readers who saw the piece said it was “revealing of some of their personal aspects” and “some details could be misused in the wrong hands.”
  • As part of ProPublica’s local reporting network, NPR Illinois has been researching and writing about sexual harassment at colleges and universities. But according to a statement from ProPublica, the station has been told by the University of Illinois—which holds its operating license—that its staff are considered university employees, and therefore if anyone tells them about sexual harassment or abuse, they are required to identify that person to the university, regardless of any confidentiality promises they have made as journalists.
  • Slate has launched a reader-funded project called Who Counts that the site says will co-ordinate coverage across the newsroom—including digital, audio, and product—to “pursue election coverage about the battles happening over voting rights, immigration, the Census, gerrymandering, representation, and more.”
  • Erik Wemple, a Washington Post media critic, writes that the story of the Ronan Farrow—who aimed to report for NBC News on Harvey Weinstein’s repeated sexual abuse of women to NBC executives, but ultimately went to the New Yorkeris evidence of “the rot at NBC News,” and “among the most cowardly media episodes of modern times.”
  • During a recent TV interview, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, waved around what he claimed were affidavits proving a Democratic conspiracy with Ukraine, but they were actually printouts from an obscure right-wing site called Hopelessly Partisan, according to a BuzzFeed report, which suggested that Giuliani has a fondness for internet conspiracy theories.
  • Early this month, the head of military intelligence services in Colombia resigned after fact-checkers pointed to his use of misleading photos in a report that alleged Venezuelan involvement in terrorist attacks. The report, which was presented to the United Nations, included two pictures that were old, depicting events unrelated to the attacks.
  • A researcher at Freedom of the Press Foundation who used to work at Google is warning journalists who use the company’s ubiquitous office tools such as Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Sheets that these products are not end-to-end encrypted. “Google has everything they need to read your data,” the researcher, Martin Shelton, wrote. “This insight into user data means that U.S. agencies have the ability to compel Google to hand over relevant user data to aid in investigations.”
  • Farhad Manjoo, writing in the New York Times, argues that recent incidents in which speech about China has been censored—including when the NBA responded to a tweet from a coach expressing support for protesters in Hong Kong—show that “China’s economic miracle hasn’t just failed to liberate Chinese people. It is also now routinely corrupting the rest of us outside of China.”

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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 by Reuters and Bloomberg.