Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

No Business Like News Business

After the 2016 election, one of the ways I dealt with my anxiety was trying to grapple with the extent to which I lived in a news bubble. It was pretty clear that I didn’t understand the world that a lot of other people lived in. A big part of other peoples’ bubble seemed to be Facebook. While I check Facebook maybe three times a year, everyone I know checks it virtually daily. Immediately after the election, there was no shortage of accounts of how Facebook turned itself into a faulty news powerhouse, and I took some notes on my favorites mostly to order my own thoughts.

Well, just about a year into the Trump presidency, Facebook is getting itself out of the news business. Charlie Warzel for Buzzfeed:

In many ways, Facebook’s planned changes to News Feed are a retreat from the online public square the company helped create. They’re a tacit admission that the company’s great news experiment — which made it one of the most successful publishers in the world — failed. And now Facebook wants to go back to an idealized safe space, free of hyperpartisan pages, misinformation, and fake news. But when you’re home to nearly 2 billion humans, no change is ever simple; Facebook moved fast, broke things, and changed the way that the world produces, consumes, and shares information. And changing course more than a decade into one of the most disruptive social experiments ever might prove more than just a little difficult.

So Facebook is adjusting the algorithm to show fewer posts from Pages in favor of more posts from People. I suppose that’s a start, but what happens when People share propaganda from Pages?

Warzel continues:

While it may cut down incidental exposure to misinformation, the changes could, in some cases, only harden filter bubbles with a steady stream of content from people with similar ideologies. Meanwhile, a retrenchment from News Feed into more walled-off Groups and communities could exacerbate exposure to misinformation. As one platform executive told BuzzFeed News, “the people who end up being chemtrailers or anti-vaxxers do so because of friend and community groups.”

According to one of Facebook’s executives, even if conspiracy theorists and agitprop outfits like “End The Fed” and the “George W Bush Did 9/11 Herald-Gazette” aren’t going to get quite as much bang for their advertising buck anymore, you’ll go back to getting your misinformation from your friends. What a horrible, horrible platform.

Also, none of this addresses the clickbait ads. While Facebook is far from the only offender here, they’re the biggest and it’s especially ironic that even their mea culpas are accompanied by bullshit:

“We take misinformation seriously,” Facebook’s CEO posted Saturday. Right next to two very obvious pieces of misinformation… Note the lying advertisers to the right of his status update? (No, Hugh Hefner [wasn’t] dead, and no, Tiger Woods hasn’t left the PGA forever.) Those ads don’t even lead to news stories. The first one leads to a site selling cures for erectile dysfunction, and the second leads to a site selling testosterone booster. But there’s something even worse about these two advertisers. Both of their web sites are designed to look like actual news sites.

Facebook is not up to the task, whether it’s Pages, the overall News Feed, or even its own ads. I can’t help but recall what Rick Webb wrote last year to Facebook about their business:

In short, you’ve set foot into being a player in the news media, with zero interest in actually helping the news media, or in the social responsibilities that come with it. Now sure. You share ad revenue. But only popular stories garner ad revenue. You’ve aggravated the fundamental problem with internet news: only the most sensationalist stories generate the revenue. Whether the income came from subscriptions or ad revenue, in the old days, revenue to a paper was revenue to a paper. […] You could have helped fix this on the internet, but you didn’t. You made it worse.

What bothers me is not necessarily that Facebook failed, it’s that they so carelessly entered, destroyed, and departed the publisher market. They built something they can’t control to replace something they don’t understand, and they’re blowing it up once the market has adapted to accommodate it for better or worse.