On Facebook, disinformation, and existential threats

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

There has been a steady stream of Facebook-related news over the past couple of weeks: First, The Verge published transcripts of two hours of leaked audio from a town hall with CEO Mark Zuckerberg. His comments included a reference to Elizabeth Warren and her plans to break up the company, which Zuckerberg called “an existential threat.” For some, these remarks brought up the specter of potential political interference. Would Facebook try to put its thumb on the scale by using the all-powerful news feed algorithm? And while that question was still swirling, the company continued to get blowback on its recent decision to no longer fact-check political ads, triggered in part by a Trump advertising campaign running on Facebook that repeats unsubstantiated claims about Joe Biden.

In an attempt to grapple with these and other issues, CJR convened a series of interviews on our Galley discussion platform with journalists and others who follow the company. First was Casey Newton of The Verge, who got the town-hall audio scoop. Although Zuckerberg’s comments about Warren got a lot of attention, Newton said one of the most interesting things about the town hall was what the questions said about the company’s employees—that they are concerned about a breakup, but also about how they and Zuckerberg are perceived. One of our next interviewees, veteran Recode media writer Peter Kafka, said that for him, one of the most interesting things about the leak is that it happened at all—Facebook has been doing town halls for over a decade, and this is the first time an insider has leaked one. Does that mean employees are growing restless? Perhaps!

I also spoke with Dina Srinivasan, a former advertising industry executive and antitrust expert who wrote an academic paper entitled “The Antitrust Case Against Facebook,” which has been cited by several members of Congress who want to break the company up. Her argument is that antitrust law doesn’t have to focus solely on the effect a monopoly has on consumer prices (a difficult case to make for Facebook, since the service is free). Facebook could also be accused of using its monopoly to degrade the quality of its service, she says, by removing privacy protections it promised would never be weakened, and by using customer data without permission.

April Glaser of Slate talked with me about Facebook’s decision to stop fact-checking political ads, which she said amounted to a dereliction of duty. “I think that Facebook has a responsibility to serve the information needs of its users and not be an active force in making our elections awful,” Glaser said. Alex Hern of The Guardian, another of our interviewees, said that Facebook’s argument is that it’s not the company’s job to determine what is true or false, and that it doesn’t believe it should have that kind of power. “But it already has that power,” says Hern, “and refusing to reject false political adverts is just as much of a political action as refusing to accept them.” Judd Legum, who runs a progressive newsletter called Popular Information, told me Facebook may believe it is acting on principle, but their decision “is also allowing them to accept millions from the Trump campaign to spread content that is demonstrably false.”

Alex Heath, a writer with The Information who I spoke with as part of the series, said that he didn’t think Zuckerberg would stoop to fiddling with the Facebook algorithm to try and influence the election. Heath said he recalled how some employees wanted the company to block Donald Trump’s profile in 2016 because they believed that he was engaging in hate speech, but Zuckerberg fought the idea. “I think he’s smarter than trying to tip the scales for or against a particular candidate,” said Heath. Charlie Warzel of the New York Times told me that Zuckerberg doesn’t need to intervene “because Facebook, the platform, will do so instinctively.” The social network, he says, has “redefined what it means to be a good candidate—and provided a distinct natural advantage to those who distort the truth.”

There was a lot more to discuss in each of the interviews, so I encourage you to check them out. And to finish the series, we will be having a roundtable discussion on Galley today with all of our interviewees, as well as selected readers and contributors. What does the future hold for Facebook? Is antitrust the only way to solve the social problems it continues to cause? And given the company’s role in the spread of disinformation and control of the ad industry, should media companies and journalists boycott Facebook and refuse to use its services? Please join us and share your thoughts!

Here’s more on Facebook and some of the issues confronting it:

The new News tab: As part of our Galley series, Tom McGeveran of Old Town Media talked with Lukas Alpert of the Wall Street Journal about Facebook’s attempt to get media companies on board with its News tab feature, which the company is expected to roll out soon. Only a handful of those whose news is featured are to be paid, Alpert said, and Facebook is still working on signing up publishers.

The First Amendment: In a section of the leaked Facebook town-hall audio that hasn’t been previously published, Mark Zuckerberg talks about whether the social network should take the same approach to speech that the First Amendment does, according to a report from Casey Newton in his Interface newsletter. The Facebook CEO said most people want the company to go further than just allowing any and all speech to exist on the platform.

Amplifying harm: The Electronic Frontier Foundation has criticized Facebook’s decision to exempt political content from fact-checking, saying this effectively excuses parties and politicians from the rules that everyday citizens have to abide by, and “amplifies the harm” that political lies can do. “What is particularly troubling is for a platform to apply one set of rules to most people, and a more permissive set of rules to another group that holds more political power,” the group said.

Other notable stories:

In an article entitled “Moving Beyond ‘Zuck Sucks’,” media researchers Anthony Nadler, Hamsini Sridharan, and Doron Taussig write for CJR about the idea that journalists should take a cue from “solutions journalism” and spend at least as much time talking about potential solutions to the problems caused by social technology, instead of just focusing on reporting the problems themselves.

The documents Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani waved around during a recent TV interview as he talked about a Democrat plot in Ukraine were not affidavits proving his case, but printouts from an obscure right-wing conspiracy site called Hopelessly Partisan, according to a BuzzFeed report. This was just the latest example of Giuliani’s fondness for internet conspiracy theories, says BuzzFeed.

The head of military intelligence services in Colombia resigned earlier this month after fact-checkers pointed to his use of misleading photos in a report that alleged Venezuelan involvement in terrorist attacks. The report, which was presented to the United Nations as evidence, included two pictures that allegedly showed recent Venezuelan activity, but both were old photos of unrelated events.

A researcher at Freedom of the Press Foundation who used to work at Google is warning journalists who use the company’s ubiquitous office tools such as Gmail, Google Docs and Google Sheets that these products are not end-to-end encrypted and therefore they should be cautious about using them for sensitive projects. “Google has everything they need to read your data. This insight into user data means that U.S. agencies have the ability to compel Google to hand over relevant user data to aid in investigations.”

Farhad Manjoo, writing in the New York Times, argues that recent incidents in which speech about China has been censored—including the way the NBA responded to a tweet from a coach expressing support for protesters in Hong Kong—shows that “China’s economic miracle hasn’t just failed to liberate Chinese people. It is also now routinely corrupting the rest of us outside of China.”

Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple says the Ronan Farrow affair—in which the journalist offered a story about Harvey Weinstein’s repeated sexual abuse of young women to NBC executives and was rejected, and then took it to the New Yorker, where it became a blockbuster—is evidence of “the rot at NBC News,” and “among the most cowardly media episodes of modern times.”

The Correspondent, the crowdfunded journalism site that is an English-language spinoff of the Dutch site De Correspondent, took down an article by its climate writer Eric Holthaus that included a first-person interview with child activist Greta Thunberg. In a note, Holthaus said Thunberg’s family didn’t see the article prior to publication and “after it was published, they raised a number of concerns around sensitivities within the piece with me.” Readers who saw the piece said it was “revealing of some of their personal aspects” and “some details could be misused in the wrong hands.”

As part of ProPublica’s local reporting network, NPR Illinois has been researching and writing about sexual harassment at colleges and universities. But according to a statement from ProPublica, the public radio affiliate has been told by the University of Illinois—which holds its operating license—that its staff are considered university employees, and therefore if anyone tells them about sexual harassment or abuse, they are required to identify that person to the university, regardless of any confidentiality promises they have made as journalists.

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