On the Facebook Papers media strategy

In September, the Wall Street Journal published a series of critical stories about Facebook that were based on a trove of hundreds of internal documents from an unnamed former employee of the company. Three weeks ago, that whistleblower revealed herself on 60 Minutes as Frances Haugen, a former product manager who said she became concerned about the harm being done by Facebook’s products, documented in the company’s own research but then allegedly ignored. Haugen subsequently appeared before a Congressional subcommittee investigating Instagram’s impact on the mental health of young women. Then, beginning on October 24, Haugen launched what Ben Smith, the New York Times media writer, called “the journalistic equivalent of an outlet store,” offering access to the complete trove of internal documents to a hand-picked group of news outlets. That “consortium,” as one member called it, agreed to publish their initial reports on the documents at the start of this week, but the agreement didn’t quite hold.

The story of Facebook’s alleged transgressions is obviously about how a huge tech company deals with its responsibilities to its users, and to society. But, like any large-scale investigation—especially one that involves a consortium and an embargo—it’s also a media story. How the documents were released, and who was given access to them, undoubtedly shaped coverage of the issues at hand. The use of an embargo (which was quickly broken, with the usual rationalizations) and the selection of a few media organizations as gatekeepers of the information seems almost deliberately designed to create a feeding frenzy among news outlets. This, in turn, has arguably resulted in massive duplication of effort and repetition of information.

Some believe the firehose of reporting risks overwhelming the public with information. Journalists have pointed out that much of what is being reported is already well known, and argued that the new information isn’t terribly compelling. Not everyone agrees with that line of argument, however: Paul Kedrosky, a venture investor, called this “a very interesting rhetorical approach, the idea that if something heinous isn’t more heinous than we previously thought, that it’s fine.” Some might even argue that repeating stories about such complex topics is sometimes necessary, since many normal people (i.e., non-journalists) could have missed previous reports.

Regardless of how one feels about such arguments, one obvious criticism of the Facebook Papers process is that it is tremendously inefficient. Jon Allsop, who also writes CJR’s Media Today newsletter, has pointed out that other collaborative journalism projects, such as those conducted by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, coordinate coverage so that it maximizes impact without duplication. “The point of ICIJ and similar organizations like Forbidden Stories is not ‘let’s have every newsroom in one country write the same story every day for two months,’” he said on Twitter.

There are other criticisms of the Facebook Papers process that also merit consideration. Alex Stamos, the former head of digital security at Facebook, said so far it “has been, ironically, optimized for engagement over understanding”—a critique that echoes concerns over how Facebook itself handles information on its platform.  Stamos added sarcastically: “Looking forward to the next 3,000 word article from the consortium bemoaning amplification impacts while relying upon one slide title and two quotes from an otherwise unreleased 40 slide deck.”

Many argue that the biggest flaw in the Facebook Papers model is its exclusivity. Although the consortium has grown from its original seventeen members, it is still a small group, which may contribute to the perception that the media wants to retain its gatekeeper role—something Facebook took a thinly veiled shot at in its response to the reporting. Alex Kantrowitz, a member of the Facebook Paper consortium who writes a newsletter called Big Technology, has argued that such exclusivity is a bad idea and the documents should be made public, so that other journalists and researchers can look through them. Former New York Times writer Charlie Warzel, who writes a newsletter called Galactic Brain, made a similar argument in a recent post. “For years journalists (self very much included) have argued for greater transparency from companies like Facebook,” he wrote. “Now is a chance for news outlets to model that transparency.”

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Here’s more on Facebook:

  • Preservation: Facebook has told employees to preserve all internal documents and communications since 2016 that might pertain to its businesses, because governments and legislative bodies have started inquiries into its operations, according to a company email sent on Tuesday night and obtained by the New York Times. Also, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Federal Trade Commission has started looking into disclosures from Facebook about potential ill effects from its products, and how these effects were documented by its internal research teams. “Officials are looking into whether Facebook research documents indicate that it might have violated a 2019 settlement with the agency over privacy concerns,” the Journal said.
  • Resignation: Kara Swisher, a columnist for the New York Times, argues that Zuckerberg has to resign as CEO, and that one possible way to achieve that goal—since he controls all of the shares and votes and the board of directors—would be to create a holding company, which he would control, with day-to-day management of Facebook handled by a new CEO. (Facebook is reportedly considering a name change, which could be a precursor to such a move.) Micah Sifry, co-founder of Personal Democracy Media, argues that the only effort that might have some impact on Facebook is a boycott some are calling The Facebook Logout—a project whose partners include the Action Center on Race and the Economy, Accountable Tech, Free Press, the Center for Media Justice, and MoveOn.
  • Misinformation: Farhad Manjoo, a New York Times columnist, argues that while Facebook is bad, “fixing it rashly could make it much worse.” Bills like the recent Health Misinformation Act, which would force Facebook to remove false information during pandemics and other health emergencies, are well intentioned, he writes, but are problematic to enforce. “What is health misinformation? I know of no oracular source of truth about Covid-19,” Manjoo says. “Scientific consensus has shifted dramatically during the pandemic, and even now experts are divided over important issues, such as whether everyone should get a vaccine booster shot.”

Other notable stories:

  • The Wall Street Journal is under fire for publishing a letter from former president Donald Trump on its opinion pages claiming that the 2020 election was stolen from him. The letter is filled with allegations of fraud involving the voting process in Pennsylvania, virtually all of which have been repeatedly and authoritatively debunked. “Most newspapers don’t allow op-ed writers to just make up nonsense lies,” SV Dáte, a former HuffPost White House correspondent, wrote on Twitter. Bill Grueskin, a Columbia University journalism school professor and former deputy managing editor of the Journal, told the Washington Post that “if someone is going to spout a bunch of falsehoods, the editor usually feels an obligation to trim those out.”
  • Britain’s highest court is considering the US government’s appeal of a January decision that blocked the extradition of Julian Assange, the co-founder of WikiLeaks, to the US, where he could face trial on espionage charges. Rebecca Vincent, the director of international campaigns for Reporters Without Borders (RSF), writes in an opinion piece published by the German newspaper Deutsche Welle that accepting the US extradition would “leave the door open to future similar prosecutions against publishers, journalists and sources.” RSF recently joined 25 press freedom, civil liberties, and human rights organizations calling on the US Department of Justice to drop the charges.
  • A group of high-profile writers, academics, and political activists have written and co-signed what they callAn Open Letter in Defense of Democracy,” published simultaneously by The New Republic and The Bulwark, which details how they believe the future of democracy in the United States is in danger. The letter was started by Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University journalism professor; Jeffrey Isaac, a political science professor at Indiana University, Bloomington; and Bill Kristol, a conservative writer and founder of the Weekly Standard and The Bulwark. “We vigorously oppose ongoing Republican efforts to change state election laws to limit voter participation,” the letter says. “We vigorously oppose ongoing Republican efforts to empower state legislatures to override duly appointed election officials.”
  • Nicholas Kristof, a former New York Times columnist, announced Wednesday that he is running for governor of Oregon.”I’ve never run for political office in my life, but I have spent a lifetime shining a light in the darkest corners of the globe, and it broke my heart when I returned from crises abroad only to find crises here at home, and that’s why I’m running for governor,” Kristof, a Pulitzer Prize winner, said in a video posted on social media and his campaign website. Kristof grew up outside Yamhill, Oregon; last month, CJR’s Allsop wrote more about journalists running for office.
  • USA Today has launched a fact-checking service that allows digital subscribers to receive information from the newspaper via text message. Subscribers who sign up can text questions and dubious claims made on the internet to USA Today fact-checkers, who will respond with clarifications or debunks. “Our mission is to provide the ultimate clarity during trending news or misinformation events, and host weekly ‘office hours’ to dive deeper into the week’s biggest topics,” USA Today said.
  • Several current and former BuzzFeed employees told Gawker that in 2020, they started noticing images missing from a number of past stories published by the news site. “One reporter, who had been with the company for well over a decade, found that hundreds of their old posts now appeared without pictures,” Gawker reported. “Another writer discovered missing screenshots in a piece about women joining ISIS.” Sources close to the company confirmed the removal was a deliberate move by BuzzFeed management, Gawker reported, “in order to ward off claims of copyright infringement. And they did so without telling their editorial staff.”
  • Showing Up for Racial Justice Charlottesville is asking local and national media covering a civil trial against the organizers of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally not to give white supremacists a platform during their coverage. “Many leaders of white supremacist groups like the Klu Klux Klan will be arriving in Charlottesville to testify or support those involved with organizing and leading the Unite the Right Rally in 2017,” the group notes, asking that media not give airtime or space in media reports to these individuals and groups. “These violent alt-right fascists thrive from being seen and heard, spreading their message to whoever will listen. Anti-racists have fought long and hard to deplatform these people,” the group says.
  • Google reimbursed Mail Online after accidentally turning off advertising on its US homepage for what it said was the “perceived presence of dangerous or derogatory content,” Press Gazette reports. The company shut off ads on the British paper’s US site, Dailymail.com, for four hours on July 30. The newspaper said it had no warning of the action, and when it protested the ban, was told that it was a result of “dangerous or derogatory content,” but was never told what the content consisted of. Mail Online said Google subsequently found the content didn’t fall under the scope of its policy, at which point it reinstated ad-serving and repaid the company its lost revenue.

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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.