Democrats release Facebook ads linked to Russian troll factory

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday released more than 3,000 Facebook ads that have been linked to the “Russian troll factory” known as the Internet Research Agency. The ads were provided to the committee by Facebook as part of a congressional investigation into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election. But the main impression one gets from reading through some of the 3,519 files is just how innocuous most of these ads were. Could they have swayed people during the election? Perhaps. But it’s difficult to see how.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House committee, said in a prepared statement that he chose to release the ads because “the only way we can begin to inoculate ourselves against a future attack is to see first-hand the types of messages, themes and imagery the Russians used to divide us.” And it is certainly fascinating to see how the IRA ads played on divisive topics such as Black Lives Matter, images of American patriotism and pro-LGBTQ content. But determining what kind of actual impact they might have had is much more difficult.

A random walk through some of the 3,000-plus files provided by the committee shows that the vast majority got a tiny, tiny number of “impressions” — which simply means they appeared in someone’s news feed. And most got an equally minuscule number of clicks, and in some cases none at all. Did simply viewing these ads cause anyone to change their mind about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, or about issues like immigration or Black Lives Matter?

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Facebook, Google block ads around Irish referendum, and Naspers cashes in

After the tidal wave of criticism Facebook faced for allowing Russian troll armies to buy ads in an attempt to influence the 2016 US election, both it and Google appear to be doing their best to avoid a similar controversy in Ireland, where the country is about to vote on whether to repeal an amendment that effectively makes abortion illegal. But like many of the measures Facebook in particular has taken at curbing that kind of meddling, the solution only scratches the surface of the problem.

Facebook said it will block any advertising that is focused on the Irish referendum on the Eighth Amendment unless it comes from an entity based in Ireland, while Google has gone one step further and said that it will not be carrying any advertising related to the referendum at all until it is held on May 25th. In a blog post announcing the move, Facebook said:

Concerns have been raised about organisations and individuals based outside of Ireland trying to influence the outcome of the referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland by buying ads on Facebook. As part of our efforts to help protect the integrity of elections and referendums from undue influence, we will begin rejecting ads related to the referendum if they are being run by advertisers based outside of Ireland.
As beneficial as this might be, the issue with Facebook’s solution is the same as it was in the case of Russian interference — namely, that actual advertising purchased by trolls or bad actors is only a tiny fraction of the problem. On a social network like Facebook, content posted on regular pages or as status updates is as good as or better than advertising, especially if it gets liked and shared and commented on (and thus gets promoted by Facebook’s News Feed algorithm). The new rules won’t stop any of that.
On a more positive note, there are plenty of candidates for the worst investment of all time by a media company (Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of MySpace for ** being at or near the top of the list), but there are somewhat fewer for the *best* media company investment of all time. One of the candidates has to be the investment that ** Naspers made in Flipkart, the e-commerce company that was just acquired by Walmart for ** billion. That gives the ** a cool **, a return that is close to what the Scott Trust (owner of Guardian Media Group) made for its stake in the Auto Trader Group.
But even those pale in comparison to what is likely the best deal of all time: Namely, Naspers’ investment in TenCent, a company that was just a puny startup when the company invested but has since become an online titan rivalling even Amazon, with a market value of more than **. Based on its recent sale of a tiny portion of its stake, the remaining investment that Naspers retained is likely worth about $150 billion. That far outpaces Naspers’ entire market value of **, which suggests that investors see its media business as being worth less than nothing. Good thing someone bet on that tiny e-commerce startup with the weird name.

Univision gets broadsided by staff-written critique of its failed strategy

Not that long ago, Univision was being celebrated by many in the media industry for making a smart expansion into digital, powered by its significant market share in Spanish-language news and entertainment television. It hired dozens of high-profile journalists for its new Fusion division, and acquired what was left of Gawker Media out of bankruptcy. Over the past few months, however, much of that growth has proven to be an illusion, and the company is now slashing budgets wherever it can in an attempt to cut hundreds of millions in costs.

The story has been described in articles by The Wall Street Journal and others, but the most recent piece of analysis has something special going for it–namely, the fact that it was produced by writers from Gizmodo, Deadspin and Splinter, all of which are owned by Univision. It is unrelenting in its criticism of its parent company’s ill-fated expansion, and of the indiscriminate cuts that have come as a result. The tone of the article is set with the headline, which says “Univision is a Fucking Mess,” and it continues in this vein for about 7,500 words:

“We recently spoke to more than two dozen current and former Univision employees from every level of the company, private equity experts, and management consultants, and reviewed a wide range of documents, and the picture that emerged is clear: Despite the debt hanging over Univision’s head, the company indulged a culture of complacency and excess, embodied in many ways by the operations of Fusion Media Group, an ill-fated attempt to stay relevant in the digital age.”

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New data casts doubt on Facebook’s commitment to quality news

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talked recently about his commitment to quality journalism on the platform, and the social network made some changes earlier this year that were supposed to promote higher-quality content in the News Feed. But some recent data on the best-performing news brands on the site seems to show that, if anything, some high-quality new sources are getting less engagement on Facebook and lower quality sites are getting a lot more, which seems like the opposite of how things should be working.

NewsWhip, a social-media metrics company, tracks what it calls the “most engaged” sites on the network as measured by likes, comments, reactions and shares. In its latest ranking for the month of April, Fox News climbed from third place to first with more than 30 million engagements, while the previous leader—CNN—dropped to second with 24 million. The Daily Mail rose to fourth place from seventh and a site called Daily Wire, which specializes in alt-right news stories, climbed to eighth place with about 14 million engagements.

NewsWhip notes that in March, one of the main losers in Facebook traffic were sites that tended to focus on viral entertainment, such as LadBible and Unilad, as well as political sites like Daily Wire. At the time, this downturn was seen as evidence that Facebook’s tweaking of the algorithm was having an effect, and reducing the visibility of clickbait and other cheap content. But last month those sites all showed a bit of a recovery or at least held their ground.

Does this mean Facebook’s algorithm changes aren’t having the desired effect? Not necessarily. With any ecosystem as gigantic as Facebook’s, changes from one month to the next could be caused by any number of things. Or it could be that enough people said they trusted Fox News and the Daily Mail, and therefore those sources are getting ranked higher, since Facebook is using surveys to see who the most-trusted news outlets are.

As Facebook’s head of news, Campbell Brown, admitted in a recent interview with CJR, measuring trust is a difficult thing to do when it comes to the news, since plenty of people are more than happy to say they trust sources simply because they align with their existing views. No matter what Facebook does, Brown agreed it would be accused of picking winners and losers—which is exactly what’s happening with the NewsWhip numbers.

Lessons in platform promises, this time from Snap Inc.

As if we needed another lesson in the downsides of the media shackling their business models to third-party platforms, Snap Inc.—the company behind the popular Snapchat messaging app—is reportedly changing the terms of how it compensates publishers who use its Discover feature, a kind of newsstand where media companies can post short videos. According to Digiday, those who use the feature will no longer get an up-front licensing fee for their videos, but instead will get a share of advertising revenue generated by them.

“There were a lot of people who didn’t take the licensing deals, and I think some people who didn’t were bummed because the audience and ad revenue growth slowed down,” said a Snapchat Discover publishing exec. “If you were able get a high enough of a license fee based on Snap’s belief that the platform would keep growing, you were able to shield yourself.”

This feels a little like another Facebook-style “bait and switch” tactic, where publishers get hooked on a source of revenue only to have the rug pulled out from under them (as Facebook has done multiple times now, especially with video). But it’s a little more complicated than that. This is actually the second switch that Snap has made on publisher compensation, and it amounts to a 180-degree pivot back to the way things were originally.

When Discover first launched in 2015, the ability to share in advertising revenues was one of the main incentives for publishers to take part, and it was a significant draw in part because Snapchat was seen as a rocket-fueled growth story. Then in 2016, the company told media partners that it was changing tactics, and it would no longer be sharing ad revenue—instead, it would pay up front licensing fees and keep all the ad revenue.

So what are we to learn from this reversal? It seems obvious the licensing fee model didn’t really serve the company’s needs, and that could have something to do with Snap’s current financial situation. The share price has come under pressure of late because of slower-than-expected growth in the app’s user base.

In that context, it’s possible that paying out a share of future revenue looks more financially appealing to Snap than paying an up-front fee that may or may not be recouped. And that’s particularly the case if, as some publishers have said, the performance of Discover has not been stellar. Unfortunately, the new/old model leaves publishers to bear more of that potential burden than they would have under the licensing model (although Snap did say that it is testing e-commerce features, which could soften the blow).

Perhaps the only lesson that media companies could learn from all of this is that gambling on third-party platforms for growth and revenue can be a tricky business, especially when that platform is as young and untested as Snap.

A look at the platform-publisher ecosystem, and a surprise at the Times

Matt McAlister has been working in digital publishing for a long time now, including a stint at The Guardian as director of digital strategy, so he has a long memory when it comes to the relationship between publishers and platforms like Google and Facebook. McAlister now runs a media research company called Kaleida, which just came out with a new report looking at the health of the publisher-platform ecosystem—a report that was funded by Google, although McAlister says the web giant had no influence over the findings. As he put it in the preface:

The inspiration for this research came from the growing tensions we’ve observed between news publishers and the big Internet platforms. Many publishers believe platforms are using content unfairly to grow, while the platforms believe publishers are getting a lot of benefit from traffic directed toward news. Clearly, it’s more complicated than that.

The study used data supplied by 18 news publishers from across Europe who provided details of their traffic, combined with research from comScore, as well as consumer insights from YouGov on news-reading behavior in the UK, France and Germany. Perhaps the most eye-opening detail in the report is that a single visit to a news website from a platform like Facebook is worth on average $0.008 or just eight-tenths of a cent. In other words, you could be getting millions of referrals and still not be making more than pocket change.

Here are some of the other insights from the report:

  • There were approximately 7.4 billion visits to news articles in Europe in January that were driven by clicks from third-party sites
  • People who read news clicked on about 32 percent of the headlines they saw in a day
  • Kaleida estimates that there were approximately 23 billion “news exposures” or headlines seen on third-party sites in January in Europe
  • Total digital advertising revenue driven by all of this referral traffic to news articles was approximately $63 million or about one-third of the total digital ad market for news

McAlister’s conclusion: “Our research shows real appetite for news. The platform-publisher-people triad is working very well in many ways. It’s not a dependent or even co-dependent relationship for any of the constituents. Traffic generated by 3rd party sites is powerful fuel for a news business, but news can survive without it, too. The challenge is working out how platforms and publishers can develop a healthy longterm coexistence.”

On an unrelated note, the latest quarterly results from The New York Times contained something surprising—and interesting, for a newspaper that, like many, has been fighting a long-term decline in print advertising revenue. Over the past two years at least, print revenue at the Times has been plummeting at a fairly precipitous rate—in some quarters it has dropped as much as 22 percent.

In the latest quarter, however, print ad revenue was only down by a relatively modest 1.8 percent, which the official Times PR account on Twitter confirmed (after I asked) is the best quarterly performance the paper has since on print advertising since 2015.

What is the secret to this surprising performance? The Times didn’t say, but some suggested it could be a simple one-quarter anomaly, since even things that are going up or down steadily don’t always do so in an unbroken line. But still, to go from 15 percent or 20 percent declines to less than 2 is pretty amazing. Could it be that the print ad decline has hit bottom? Have some advertisers moved back to the Times from digital? Inquiring minds want to know.

Facebook says it really cares about your privacy this time, honest

Facebook’s annual F8 developer conference is supposed to be a showcase for all the cool new features that the giant social network is either working on or busy rolling out to its two billion users — filters that turn your Instagram selfie into a picture of a dog, and so on. But not surprisingly, given all the furore over the Cambridge Analytica data leak and Mark Zuckerberg’s recent testimony before a Congress subcommittee, the latest iteration of the Facebook love-fest started on a somewhat different note.

In an attempt to lighten the mood, Zuckerberg tried to crack a joke when introducing a new feature that would allow users to follow along with and chat about a movie or TV show.  “Let’s say your friend is testifying before Congress and you want to watch,” the Facebook CEO joked, with a somewhat awkward-looking smile. On a more serious note, however, he suggested that he has learned a few things about how the social network can be used for evil as well as good. “I’ve learned this year that we need to take a broader view of our responsibility,” he said. “It’s not enough to just build powerful tools. We need to make sure that they are used for good.”

The Facebook CEO also announced a new feature that the company said would enable users to block Facebook from tracking their behavior on the web and through apps with Facebook access.The new feature is called “Clear History,” and operates much like a feature in most web browsers of the same name: When clicked, it removes all of the data related to that user that is normally stored — data used by Facebook to help its algorithms figure out what you might be interested in, and what ads to show you (Zuckerberg pointed out that if you do enable this feature “Facebook won’t be as good” until it gets to know you again).

This and other new privacy-related features the social network is rolling out aren’t coming about solely because Facebook was raked over the coals in front of Congress, nor even because it is embarrassed by the data leak involving Cambridge Analytica. One of the main driving forces behind the latest changes is the need to comply with the European General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR, which is coming into effect later this month. These new rules require platforms like Google and Facebook to give users a lot more control over who has their data and what they can do with it, or face significant financial penalties.

In his testimony before Congress, the Facebook CEO was asked whether he planned to extend GDPR-like protections to even non-European users of the social network, and he hedged his answer, saying some of the details were still to be worked out. The “Clear History” feature appears to be part of his attempt to introduce enough privacy protections to satisfy regulators without actually impacting Facebook’s business in any significant way — in other words, to eat his cake and have it too.

Here are some more links related to Facebook’s ongoing struggles with privacy:

  • In a blog post published just before the F8 conference, Zuckerberg talked about the new “Clear History” feature and how it works. “When you clear your cookies in your browser, it can make parts of your experience worse,” he noted. “You may have to sign back in to every website, and you may have to reconfigure things. The same will be true here. Your Facebook won’t be as good.”
  • Wired described in a recent piece how some critics believe both Google and Facebook are trying to implement the GDPR rules in a way that allows them to “game the system,” leaving users no better off than they were before. The supervisor of the EU’s data protection authority called the online platforms  “digital sweat factories” whose approach to privacy is unsustainable, and said that their proposals for meeting the new rules violate the spirit of the new regulations.
  • Some believe the new GDPR rules and other privacy-related regulations that emerge following the Cambridge Analytica leak could actually reinforce the power that Facebook and Google have, since it will make it more difficult for other companies to acquire data or use it to build new services. That would effectively build a wall around the data that Google and Facebook already have, argues tech analyst Ben Thompson in his subscription newsletter Stratechery.
  • Facebook also appears to be restructuring itself behind the scenes in order to reduce its legal liability under the GDPR: It is moving the responsibility for data involving all non-EU users — who represent about 70 percent of the total, or about 1.5 billion — to its US subsidiary from its Irish subsidiary, meaning they will be governed by US laws on data, not the GDPR.

Other notable stories:

  • A group called the Student Press Coalition did a survey of student journalists at 49 Christian colleges and universities and found that more than 75 percent  had faced pressure from university personnel to change, edit, or remove an article after it had been published in print or online. About 70 percent said their faculty advisors could stop a story from being printed.
  • According to a memo obtained by Variety, staffers at NBC were told by management that if they reported the sexual harassment accusations against veteran broadcaster Tom Brokaw, they had to also mention the letter of support for the former anchor that was signed by more than 60 employees of the network — some of whom suggested that they felt pressure to sign.
  • The fallout from the White House Correspondents Association dinner continues: The Hill, a site that focuses on stories about Washington politics, said it is pulling out of the event because it “casts our profession in a poor light,” and The New York Times says CBS News also considered pulling out, but changed its mind after being assured that event organizers planned to change the format.
  • Speaking of the WHCA dinner, CJR’s Karen Ho dug into the finances of the event, and found that last year, the organization raised a total of almost $900,000 from ticket sales and donations for the event. About $550,000 of that went to pay for the venue and the entertainer, and only about $100,000 went towards the scholarships that the WHCA says are the main reason it does the dinner in the first place.
  • Politico writes about the growing number of  news websites catering to a right-wing audience, which it calls “baby Breitbarts,” including sites with names like the Tennessee Star, the Arizona Monitor and the Maine Examiner — sites that sound like reputable newspapers but which in most cases are online-only publications that exist primarily to promote a right-wing agenda.

Zuckerberg cares about journalism, but doesn’t want to pay for it

The news is “incredibly important to society and democracy,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told reporters at an invitation-only event following his address to developers at the company’s F8 conference on Tuesday. But apparently that doesn’t mean the giant social network has any plans to actually pay for it directly, the way media insiders like BuzzFeed publisher Jonah Peretti believe that he should. “I’m not sure that makes sense,” Zuckerberg said when the idea was raised. Instead, he says the company wants to help media companies sell more subscriptions and generate more revenue from readers. The Atlantic writes:

At one point, Zuckerberg hinted at the need for government subsidy of American journalism—alluding to the public-television licensing model that supports the BBC. Couldn’t Facebook pay publishers directly by licensing their stories or programming? “Yeah,” Zuckerberg said, “I’m not sure that makes sense.” “I think news is incredibly important to society and democracy,” he added. “It’s just that it’s a pretty small minority” of what people are reading on Facebook.

The Facebook CEO also announced that the social network has already started elevating certain preferred news sources in the News Feed based on whether users rank them as trustworthy, a controversial approach that Zuckerberg announced earlier this year. The controversy stems from the fact that trust is an incredibly slippery concept when it comes to news — for example, surveys show that a many conservative voters don’t trust mainstream media sources like CNN, but do trust Breitbart and Fox News.

At some point, selecting “high quality” sources of news means Facebook is going to be deciding who is worthy of showing in the News Feed and who isn’t, which could have a significant impact on the traffic and revenue generated by those who are chosen and those who aren’t. Already, some publishers like Mic have seen their Facebook engagement decline by more than 90 percent, and the ranking process has only just begun. But Zuckerberg said the platform’s responsibility to news only goes so far:

“People come to Facebook primarily not to consume news but to communicate with people,” Zuckerberg said. “The way we can help out the most with that is by helping out with a business model that is profitable and sustainable for news organizations.”

Given the fact that Facebook is going to be selecting winners and losers in the media sphere, it’s interesting that Zuckerberg’s comments were made to a specific group of publications, including CNN, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, Recode and the Economist. The choice of who to include wasn’t made by Facebook, however — the group is part of an annual event called Off The Record, organized by The Information founder Jessica Lessin, BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith and Quartz editor Kevin Delaney.

Considering the sensitivity around what Zuckerberg was discussing, it was probably smart of him to go on the record with his comments, since there are already enough people out there suspicious of what Facebook is doing to the media industry behind the scenes. The bottom line seems to be that he cares about journalism, but apart from some tweaks to the News Feed and some help with subscriptions, he’s not prepared to do a whole lot about it. And perhaps that’s ultimately a good thing.

Q&A: Campbell Brown talks about Facebook and news

In interviews following the F8 developer conference in San Jose on Tuesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that journalism is “incredibly important to society and democracy,” but at the same time noted it is a tiny fraction of what happens on the giant social network. That tension runs through all the ways in which Facebook handles news and information on the platform, including its attempt to rank sources based on how trusted they are, which Zuckerberg said Facebook has already started doing.

How are these changes going to affect media companies who currently rely on Facebook for their traffic and revenue? And how will the company decide which news sources are considered trusted or high quality and which aren’t, if users disagree? I talked with Facebook’s head of news partnerships, Campbell Brown, about those and other thorny questions, and about some of the new features the social network is working on related to news and journalism. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.


I’ve heard that Facebook wants to pay news organizations to create programming for Facebook’s Watch video feature. Can you talk a bit about that? 

This is an experiment, but we are bringing together a group of about 10 to 12 publishers and we are going to pay them directly to produce news programming for Watch. My hope is that Watch will become a destination for news on Facebook that people know is reliable, and they will find diversity of sources and different points of view. And during breaking news it would become a place to go to find whatever the most important stories of the day are. It’s a big step for us, and we’re just starting to figure this out with a handful of publishers who are going to be the early testers. I think there is real potential for us to create a destination for video news.”

Some media companies seem rather antagonistic about Facebook and how it has disrupted the media ecosystem. How do you respond to that?

It’s not my role to lobby publishers to be on Facebook if they don’t feel like that’s the right way to reach their audience, I want to be 100 percent clear about that. But I do think for the ones who are on Facebook and who see the potential for distribution on Facebook. I want to help them make money. I want to help them find a business model that works so they keep doing what they do best which is journalism.”


Facebook’s changes to the algorithm are going to have a fairly significant impact on the traffic and revenue of some publishers, if they haven’t already. What would you tell them?

“What we’ve done is to down-rank clickbait and down-rank sensationalism, and we’ve given a boost to broadly trusted news sources, or what we define as informative news sources. So publishers who built a business on clickbait are not going to find success on Facebook. We are optimizing for quality journalism going forward, we’ve been very clear about that, and I think it’s the right thing to do. I’m excited that Mark and Facebook have made that commitment and I think most publishers are too. But it does mean a period of transition while a lot of publishers adjust to this new environment.”

Can you talk a bit more about that transition and how Facebook is approaching it?

“I think we are shifting how we think about news on Facebook. We used to think about it as optimizing for engagement, but now we’re optimizing for quality. So a lot of the journalism that might have been successful in the past because it got a lot of engagement — viral videos and sensationalist kind of content that everybody wanted to click on — isn’t going to do very well given what we’re optimizing for now. Now there were plenty of people who were doing good journalism regardless of what Facebook was optimized for. And I don’t think that’s changed. I just think they’re going to be much happier with how they do on the platform. And it does mean that if you are in the business of doing a lot of sensationalism and clickbait and you had a really successful business on Facebook, you are going to be impacted in a negative way by these changes.”

I think a lot of media companies feel as though Facebook often pulls a bait-and-switch tactic on them, where they are promised certain things and then the algorithm changes and all bets are off.

“I think that’s true. And some of that has to do with the different cultures of a technology company and a media company. For technology companies, the culture is to experiment and change and to modify and to iterate and to be in a constant state of change. Whereas if you’re building a media business, you’re looking for stability and consistency. And so those two dynamics aren’t always gonna mesh very well. I think what we can do to make things better is transparency and communication about what’s coming — like we may go to a publisher and say we want to test this new product, but what we also have to say is that it might not work and if it doesn’t work we’re going to change it. So don’t come test with us if you’re not ready for that ride.”

Ranking news sources on trust is a difficult problem, since a lot of people disagree on who they trust and who they don’t. Lots of people trust Breitbart News, for example.

“I think that is what makes this so hard, that we’re trying to find ways to define quality. We’re trying to find ways that are fair that can account for the different kinds of journalism out there. It’s really hard to get this right. One of the measures we’re using is to look at broadly trusted news organizations, but if you try to define widely trusted you end up with mostly big brand-name publishers versus someone small like Axios, more niche publishers who aren’t going to have the same brand recognition. So what are the quality measures you look at to ensure that we capture those publishers? And how do you get people to agree on quality measures? This is really tricky, and it’s one of the things we’re going to be devoting a lot of time to in the coming months because I don’t think that we can unilaterally make these decisions and get it right.”

It seems inevitable that Facebook is going to be accused of rigging the game or choosing the sources that it likes for whatever reason.

It’s not going to be perfect. I’m not going to lie, we don’t have all the answers yet. We’re going to do this in conjunction with publishers, we’re going to do it in partnership with academia. I want to have a broad cross-section of people in the ecosystem and engaged in conversation. I’d love to work with the other platforms on this. But even then even, let’s say we get the most broad selection of people across the ecosystem to agree on 10 to 15 quality signals that we all agree  the platforms should use to boost quality content. We’re still going to be picking winners and of not getting it right, it’s inevitable. But the alternative is not one that I think any of us can live with. We do have have to agree on a shared set of facts. And we have to do the  best we can to ensure that the information that is getting a boost is factual. I don’t have the answers yet for how we do it, which is why we’re taking baby steps in this direction, because it’s going to be really really difficult.”