What happens when Facebook confronts an existential threat?

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t do a lot of off-the-cuff speaking. His public appearances–whether before Congress or at a launch event–tend to be carefully scripted and rehearsed to the point where a cardboard cutout would seem animated by comparison. All of which helps explain some of the excitement surrounding a Verge report this week, consisting of two hours worth of unedited audio and transcripts of Zuckerberg addressing a town hall at Facebook, including questions from the staff. Although the scoop was heavily promoted, the transcripts didn’t contain any smoking bombshells exactly–in fact, Zuckerberg himself promoted the story in a post on his personal Facebook page, which pretty much guarantees there was nothing earth-shattering in the text.

That said, however, a number of observers highlighted one comment they found troubling: when the Facebook CEO was asked whether he was concerned about the company being broken up by government regulators, he responded that he could see federal authorities–and here he mentioned Elizabeth Warren specifically–trying such a gambit, and that if necessary he would oppose it. And then Zuckerberg said: “At the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight.” Based on the context of the quote, it seems clear that the Facebook CEO meant he would fight the government’s attempt in the courts. In the full transcript, he prefaces his comment by saying one of the things he loves and appreciates about the US is “that we have a really solid rule of law,” and that he doesn’t think such a case would survive a court challenge (and he is probably right).

On Twitter and elsewhere, however, the reference to Warren and her desire to break up the company was boiled down to the point where it appeared that Zuckerberg sees Warren herself–and her presidential candidacy–as being an existential threat. The Facebook CEO’s comment brought up what some saw as a disturbing scenario. What if you almost single-handedly controlled the world’s largest information distributor, one that hundreds of millions of people rely on for their news, and one that has been implicated in the past in spreading misinformation and propaganda during an election–how might you respond to something that you perceive as an existential threat to your company?

In a piece he wrote in 2014 for the New Republic, long before a Russian troll factory tried to hijack Facebook during the 2016 election, Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain talked about the potential that Facebook has to sway voters, and the risk this ability poses when it comes to an election. In the article, entitled “Facebook Could Decide an Election Without Anyone Ever Finding Out,” Zittrain mentions a social experiment Facebook conducted in 2010, in which the company placed a small graphic in the newsfeed of selected users. The graphic included a list of polling places, photos of friends from your address book who had already voted, and a button to click that would let your followers know that you had voted. According to Facebook’s research, this experiment–which no one was informed of either before or during the test–resulted in an increase in voting behavior, with about 340,000 more votes being cast than were cast in the previous election in the regions corresponding to where the graphic was used.

So what would happen if Facebook decided it wanted to try to influence an election, Zittrain asked. All it would really have to do is make sure that supporters of its preferred candidate received the “I Voted” package or something similar, and ensure that users supporting other candidates did not. While Facebook might argue that it would never use its powers in that way, the reality is we would never really know. We each get our own customized news feed, and so we have no way of knowing what we are seeing that others aren’t, or what we are missing that others are seeing. And that gives Facebook and its boy-king Mark Zuckerberg the ability to influence how we see the world in ways that we are completely unaware of, because they are hidden by its black-box algorithm. And all we have to comfort us are the company’s assurances that it means well.

Here’s more on Facebook and its various challenges:

That would suck: Elizabeth Warren got wind of Mark Zuckerberg’s comments about her being an existential threat, and how her plan to break the company up would “suck,” as the Facebook CEO put it. Warren responded on Twitter: “What would really suck is if we don’t fix a corrupt system that lets giant companies like Facebook engage in illegal anti-competitive practices, stomp on consumer privacy rights, and repeatedly fumble their responsibility to protect our democracy.”

Thanks for the pitch: As news of Zuckerberg’s remarks spread through social media, a number of users said that they found the Facebook CEO’s comments to be a pretty good endorsement of Elizabeth Warren. “I already like her ok, you don’t have to sell her this hard,” said a popular pseudonymous account called The Volatile Mermaid, while another said that calling Warren an existential threat to Facebook “is maybe her biggest selling point yet,” in a tweet that got 1,400 likes.

Profiting from Trump: The Democratic National Committee slammed Facebook on Tuesday, telling CNN that the company is allowing Donald Trump “to mislead the American people on their platform unimpeded.” The comments were made after Facebook said last week that it will not fact-check any posts or advertisements that come from politicians. According to CNN, the Trump campaign has so far spent almost $20 million on Facebook ads since May 2018.

Profiting from hate: Facebook has said many times that it wants to crack down hate speech and other forms of harassment on the platform–in part because a number of countries including Germany have laws against hate speech, and require the company to remove it within a certain time frame. But according to a report from investigative news site Sludge, the company has made millions in advertising revenue from more than 35 recognized hate groups that have used the platform to spread their message.

Other notable stories:

Journalists with the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald said on Wednesday they intend to form a union and asked the company to voluntarily recognize the One Herald Guild without a formal vote of newsroom staff. A statement from union organizers said a majority of the journalists in the two newsrooms of the South Florida publications supports the effort, but the executive editor and publisher of both papers, told organizers that the decision to unionize should be put to a vote.

Donald Trump’s use of the word “coup” to describe what is happening around the impeachment process and the Ukraine investigation is another example of how misinformation spreads from right-wing social media to the president’s Twitter feed in a self-reinforcing circular process, according to the New York Times. Trump escalates accusations born in right-wing media, “portraying himself as the victim of an unsubstantiated scheme. His followers often jump in and amplify the messages online, which are then picked right back up on conservative shows and news outlets.”

With disinformation and propaganda ramping up as we head towards the 2020 elections, the media needs to become even more vigilant, writes Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. “That public opinion be based on facts — not weaponized falsehoods — is about the most crucial work the media can do,” she says. Sullivan notes that journalists need to be quick on their feet, networks need to stop booking Trump surrogates for interviews, and the media must “end its addiction to both-sides journalism, which gives falsehood the same opportunities as truth.”

Starbucks said Tuesday that it plans to offer customers at its coffee shops free access to the websites of a number of newspapers for a limited time. Customers using the free WiFi at the chain’s 8,500 or so stores will get free access to the digital versions of the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Seattle Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel and the New York Daily News. The company stopped selling print newspapers in its stores earlier this year.

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Civic Media Lab at MIT, has a new study looking at how news and information about social movements such as Black Lives Matter and MeToo is distributed over time, and how the public attention that is paid to these movements often comes in waves. Zuckerman said he hopes that the research offers “both an opportunity to understand how media attention can move in waves, and how social movements might harness and benefit from those waves.”

Live TV interviews are a relatively modern invention that frequently adds little to the understanding of key issues, writes Michael Socolow, a professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine. “Live TV helps those who lie and want to hide,” Socolow says. Rather than enlightening viewers, Socolow argues that many of these mainstream network television interviews are a journalistic failure, providing lots of sensational programming without really providing any facts that would be useful to those who are trying to understand a news event.

The investigative news site Sludge says that if it can’t raise “significant funds” in the next few weeks, it will be forced to shut down. The site was one of the first startups to join the blockchain-powered journalism platform Civil, and was initially funded by the company as part of what it called its “first fleet” of newsrooms. But Civil’s funding grants were only designed to last for a limited time, so Sludge and others have been trying to raise enough money to continue through crowdfunding.

Mari Cohen writes for CJR about the state of journalism in Chicago, where the city’s landmark newspaper, the Tribune, moved out of its iconic downtown building in 2018, something many took as a sign of a decline in the market. But Cohen says there are enough positive things happening both at the Tribune and elsewhere that “Chicago looks less like another sad journalism story and more like an example of what can happen when things appear to be working.”

Michelle Amazeen and Erik Bucy write for CJR about a study they did which looked at whether an understanding of how the media functions can change how people perceive misinformation. According to their research, in which they surveyed more than 1,800 people about their knowledge of the media, the more people know about the media, “the better they are able to identify and resist online disinformation efforts, including fabricated headlines and covert advertising attempts.”

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