Facebook says the future is private messaging, not public posts

On Wednesday, in what seemed like a major shift, Mark Zuckerberg wrote that he wants to reorient Facebook around private, encrypted, and ephemeral messaging, rather than public sharing. This could have significant implications not just for regulators, who have been trying to get Facebook to crack down on offensive and violent content, but also for the future of news and information—including misinformation.

In the past, Zuckerberg has said that his aim was to connect people and make it easier for them to share. And in part because of how Facebook’s advertising engine works, the focus has been on making as much of that sharing as public as possible. But Zuckerberg seems to have changed his views. “As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms,” Zuckerberg wrote. “The future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever.”

More than ever before, Zuckerberg seemed to admit that there have been downsides to Facebook’s emphasis on public sharing, including “child exploitation, terrorism and extortion.” He may have been pushed to this realization by the ongoing firestorm of criticism Facebook has received—not just because of the 2016 elections, but also owing to its role in promoting violence in Myanmar, India, and elsewhere. This new commitment to privacy, however, comes with tradeoffs, since a more private Facebook is less subject to public scrutiny—and that could make misinformation more difficult to track.

In focusing on the private and ephemeral, Zuckerberg appears to be embracing the model he borrowed (or stole) from Snapchat, which pioneered self-destructing posts in 2011 and turned down a $3 billion acquisition offer from Facebook two years later. Since then, Facebook has implemented Snapchat-like features in WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger.

Is Facebook making changes because they are better for users, or because they make life easier for Facebook? If hateful or violent content will soon appear in private rather than public messages, does that mean the company is no longer liable for the spread of that content? The latter question has already come up in India, where much of the violence driven by WhatsApp has been fueled by messages posted in private groups.

When it comes to journalism, Facebook’s reorientation seems to take it even further away from being the kind of public distribution outlet many media companies have come to rely on. Although the fruit Facebook offered to publishers may have been poisoned, the reach—and, in some cases, ad revenue—it provided has become a staple of many media business models. Will private sharing mark the end of Facebook’s supposed commitment to helping journalism? If you feel like discussing these and other questions, we’ve got a thread on CJR’s Galley forum about it. 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Here’s more on Facebook’s announcement and the reaction to it:

  • Soiled culture: Recode founder Kara Swisher wrote on Twitter that it’s a bit rich for Zuckerberg to suddenly get religion about privacy. “I love that he declares this privacy thing might matter after being a big part of the soiling of online culture with sloppy public sharing tools,” says Swisher. New York Times writer Jon Herrman made a related point, noting that Zuckerberg is now arguing against the very norms of behavior—open, transparent, public—that he promoted for the past decade or so.
  • Judo move: The former head of security for Facebook, Alex Stamos, said the shift to private sharing is a “judo move” for Zuckerberg that will help avoid future scrutiny of how the network handles offensive content. “In a world where everything is encrypted and doesn’t last long, entire classes of scandal are invisible to the media,” he wrote.
  • Regulatory end run: Ashkan Soltani, the former chief technology officer for the Federal Trade Commission and advisor to the Obama administration, said the change may in part be designed to make it easier for Facebook to merge user data across all its platforms, which could further cement its market dominance. Guardian reporter Carole Cadwalladr, who broke the Cambridge Analytica story, agreed.
  • Bad for business? The Intercept’s Sam Biddle said we are being played, since a real commitment to encryption would “destroy Facebook overnight” by ruining its ad model. But Casey Newton at The Verge observed that there could be a payoff even with fewer ads, since Zuckerberg foresees offering services such as e-commerce, and the Facebook CEO told Wired‘s Nicholas Thompson that the changes shouldn’t have much impact on ads.
  • Your move, Apple: In his blog post, Zuckerberg wrote that he plans to focus not just on encryption but also on secure storage of user data. “Upholding this principle may mean that our services will get blocked in some countries, [but] that’s a tradeoff we’re willing to make.” This seems like an obvious dig at Apple, which has been criticized for storing iCloud data where the Chinese government can easily get its hands on it.

Other notable stories:

  • BuzzFeed may be a digital-only outlet, but on Wednesday senior staff including editor-in-chief Ben Smith handed out physical copies of a print newspaper version of the website that was available at several locations throughout New York City. The company said the effort, which carried the tagline “Social. Mobile. Recyclable,” was a one-off stunt intended for marketing purposes, and not the start of a new venture.
  • The Democratic National Committee announced that it won’t allow Fox News to broadcast any of its candidate debates during the 2019-2020 election cycle. The committee said the decision was made as a result of revelations in a New Yorker story by Jane Mayer about the close ties between the network and the Trump administration, but some observers wondered whether that wasn’t just a convenient excuse for something the DNC likely wanted to do anyway.
  • The Venezuelan government has released a US journalist who was detained on Wednesday and ordered him to leave the country. Cody Weddle was taken into custody along with his assistant, local journalist Carlos Camacho, after soldiers raided Weddle’s home. Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has been trying to retain his grip on the government as a number of countries including the US have recognized Juan Guaidó as the rightful leader.
  • Media historian and Columbia Journalism School professor Michael Schudson writes for CJR about the complicated relationship between the media and the public, and the question of whether the media is more or less trusted than it has been in the past—and if it is less trusted, what could be done to increase that trust.
  • NBC San Diego says documents it was given by a source with Homeland Security show that the US government created a secret database of journalists, attorneys, and immigration advocates who were involved with the migrant caravan, and that it also placed alerts on their passports that in some cases prevented them from entering Mexico to work.
  • The Wall Street Journal says it is creating more than 35 new jobs and several new departments in the newsroom, including teams that will work on audience growth, community and news innovation. The newspaper said the new staff will ”create original content, stories and news features and be a resource for change across all our bureaus and areas of coverage.”
  • Spirited Media, a local-news startup founded by former Washington Post editor Jim Brady, said it has sold its Denver operation to Colorado Public Radio, and is in talks to sell its Philadelphia and Pittsburgh sites as well. Spirited Media merged in 2017 with a company run by former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz and Business Insider co-founder Kevin Ryan.
  • In a Wired magazine piece, Renee DiResta looks at how Amazon’s recommendation algorithms have created a treasure trove of dubious anti-vaccination books. “Once relegated to tabloids and web forums, health misinformation and conspiracies have found a new megaphone in the curation engines that power massive platforms like Amazon,” she writes.
  • Slate has named former New York magazine editor Jared Hohlt as its new editor-in-chief, replacing former EIC Julia Turner, who left the site in October to become a deputy managing editor at The Los Angeles Times. Hohlt spent 18 years at New York magazine in a number of roles, including editorial director and senior editor of the print version.

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.