Facebook, free speech, and political ads: An interview series

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

A number of Facebook’s recent decisions have fueled a storm of criticism that continues to follow the company, including the decision not to fact-check political advertising and the inclusion of Breitbart News in the company’s new “trusted sources” News tab. These controversies were stoked even further by some of the things CEO Mark Zuckerberg brought up in his speech at Georgetown University last week, where he tried — mostly unsuccessfully — to portray Facebook as a defender of free speech. CJR thought all of these topics and more were worth discussing with free-speech experts and researchers who focus on the power of platforms like Facebook, so we convened an interview series this week on our Galley discussion platform, featuring guests like Alex Stamos, former chief technology officer of Facebook, veteran tech journalist Kara Swisher, Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain, and Stanford researcher Kate Klonick.

Stamos, one of the first to raise the issue of potential Russian government involvement on Facebook’s platform while he was the head of security there, said he had a number of issues with Zuckerberg’s speech, including the fact that he “compressed all of the different products into this one blob he called Facebook. That’s not a useful frame for pretty much any discussion of how to handle speech issues.” Stamos said the News tab is arguably a completely new category of product, a curated and in some cases paid-for selection of media, and that this means the company has much more responsibility when it comes to what appears there. Stamos also said that there are “dozens of Cambridge Analyticas operating today collecting sensitive data on individuals and using it to target ads for political campaigns. They just aren’t dumb enough to get their data through breaking an API agreement with Facebook.”

Ellen Goodman, co-founder of the Rutgers Institute for Information Policy & Law, said that Mark Zuckerberg isn’t the first to have to struggle with tensions between free speech and democratic discourse, “it’s just that he’s confronting these questions without any connection to press traditions, with only recent acknowledgment that he runs a media company, in the absence of any regulation, and with his hands on personal data and technical affordances that enable microtargeting.” Kate Klonick of Stanford said Zuckerberg spoke glowingly about early First Amendment cases, but got one of the most famous — NYT v Sullivan — wrong. “The case really stands for the idea of tolerating even untrue speech in order to empower citizens to criticize political figures,” Klonick said. “It is not about privileging political figures’ speech, which of course is exactly what the new Facebook policies do.”

Evelyn Douek, an affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center For Internet & Society, said that most of Zuckerberg’s statements about his commitment to free speech were based on the old idea of a marketplace of ideas being the best path to truth. This metaphor has always been questionable, Douek says, “but it makes no sense at all in a world where Facebook constructs, tilts, distorts the marketplace with its algorithms that favor a certain kind of content.” She said Facebook’s amplification of certain kinds of information via the News Feed algorithm “is a cause of a lot of the unease with our current situation, especially because of the lack of transparency.” EFF director Jillian York said the political ad issue is a tricky one. “I do think that fact-checking political ads is important, but is this company capable of that? These days, I lean toward thinking that maybe Facebook just isn’t the right place for political advertising at all.”

Swisher said: “The problem is that this is both a media company, a telephone company and a tech company. As it is architected, it is impossible to govern. Out of convenience we have handed over the keys to them and we are cheap dates for doing so. You get a free map and quick delivery? They get billions and control the world.” Zittrain said the political ad fact-checking controversy is about more than just a difficult product feature. “Evaluating ads for truth is not a mere customer service issue that’s solvable by hiring more generic content staffers,” he said. “The real issue is that a single company controls far too much speech of a particular kind, and thus has too much power.” Dipayan Ghosh, who runs the Platform Accountability Project at Harvard, warned that Facebook’s policy to allow misinformation in political ads means a politician “will have the opportunity to engage in coordinated disinformation operations in precisely the same manner that the Russian disinformation agents did in 2016.”

Here’s more on Facebook and speech:

Internal revolt: Several hundred Facebook employees have signed an internal letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg protesting the company’s decision not to fact-check political advertising, according to a report in the New York Times, which obtained a copy of the letter from an anonymous source. The letter says that “our current policies on fact checking people in political office, or those running for office, are a threat to what FB stands for. We strongly object to this policy as it stands. It doesn’t protect voices, but instead allows politicians to weaponize our platform.”

Twitter for the win: Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey dropped a bomb on Wednesday, and in the process one-upped his social networking rival, by announcing in a thread that Twitter will no longer take political ads of any kind, a ban that includes “issue” ads (LinkedIn and Pinterest have also done this). Dorsey said the company believes “political message reach should be earned, not bought.” There was much cheering (including from a prominent former presidential candidate), but a few observers noted that figuring out what exactly constitutes an “issue” ad is a fairly significant problem.

Keeping it real: Judd Legum, who writes the progressive Popular Information newsletter, reported recently that the right-wing site The Daily Wire uses a network of Facebook pages to drive traffic and social engagement, in what appears to be a contravention of Facebook’s rules against “co-ordinated inauthentic behavior.” The company said the pages could remain, since they were run by “real people,” but Legum found that two of them are owned or controlled by The Daily Wire.

Spare a penny: Facebook has agreed to pay a fine of about $645,000 levied by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office for its role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which personal data on hundreds of millions of users was sold to a data-mining political strategy firm after being collected by someone using an online survey. That fine amounts to about one one-thousandth of Facebook’s annual revenue, which means it would take the company about 10 minutes to make enough to pay the fee.

Other notable stories:

At least eight Deadspin writers quit their jobs on Wednesday to protest changes made by the site’s owner, G/O Media, which acquired the former Gawker Media site after that company went bankrupt following a successful defamation lawsuit. The management of G/O had directed the staff of Deadspin to stick to sports coverage instead of writing about pop culture and other topics, which resulted in the departure of deputy editor Barry Petchesky on Tuesday. G/O management said in a statement that they were “sorry [staff] couldn’t work within this incredibly broad coverage mandate” and that they were “excited about Deadspin’s future.”

The Facebook executive overseeing the launch of the News tab appeared to defend the company’s controversial decision to include Breitbart, a far-right website known for publishing misinformation, as one of its sources, CNN reports. Campbell Brown, head of global news partnerships at Facebook, wrote in a blog post that she believed when “building out a destination for news on Facebook” content should be included “from ideological publishers on both the left and right.”

Digital news employees at NBC News announced on Wednesday that they plan to unionize in an attempt to lobby for fair pay and newsroom diversity, but also for the ability to address the handling of sexual-harassment allegations without fear of retribution.The plans were announced amid the ongoing controversy sparked by Ronan Farrow’s book, Catch and Kill, which alleges that NBC management tried to quash his reporting on Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct.

A group of investors have agreed to acquire Nautilus, the literary science magazine. The buyers include media entrepreneur Nicholas White, the co-founder and CEO of The Daily Dot, who will take the same position at Nautilus. The investment group says the magazine has more than 10,000 monthly paying subscribers and an online reach of more than 10 million, and that they plan to implement a new digital strategy and website that will roll out over the next year, involving “aggressive investment in editorial, reader experience, and new products.”

Washington Post media writer Erik Wemple says an analysis of Fox News’ coverage of stories that are broken by CNN shows that Fox routinely fails to provide credit to CNN for stories that it discusses on air. “Liars, captives of the Democratic Party, source of all evil — that’s essentially the portrait of CNN that Fox News’s two leading opinionators seek to advance on their programs,” Wemple writes. “To provide credits would be an admission that the slanders of its top opinion hosts were just that — knowing, false characterizations. Far better to just steal CNN’s reporting.”

A Wall Street Journal editorial argues that the media’s anger over Mark Zuckerberg’s free-speech policies “is especially odd. Shouldn’t reporters want to know what candidates are saying so they can dissect and report on it?” Instead, the paper argues that journalists are offering “sophisticated-sounding arguments for why political speech should be controlled by tech companies.” The Journal editorial says that “media and political elites” are effectively demanding that Zuckerberg should “put his thumb on the political scales,” and that’s why so many Americans have lost trust in them.

Brut, a French digital-media company that produces what it calls “socially conscious” news and entertainment videos for millennials, has launched in the U.S. and received $40 million in funding. The company, founded in 2017 and headquartered in Paris, said it would use the capital injection “to continue its worldwide expansion.” The company claims it has a global audience of 2 billion in more than 57 countries, and that it hit 10 billion video views in the past year, and generated more than one billion views in September alone across all its platforms.

Facebook has suspended three networks of Russian accounts that attempted to interfere in the domestic politics of eight African countries, and were tied to a Russian businessman accused of meddling in past U.S. elections, according to Reuters. The campaigns used almost 200 fake and compromised accounts to target people in Madagascar, Central African Republic, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Sudan and Libya. Between them, the accounts amassed more than 1 million followers. All the networks were connected to “entities associated with Russian financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin.”

Former NBC reporter and producer Jake Heller has launched a print magazine called Enemy that he says is dedicated to reporting on abuses of power, particularly in underrepresented communities and news deserts across the United States. “Our plan is to help fill the gap in local accountability reporting that’s being left as newspapers and other news organizations are gutted and shut down across the country,” Heller says. “Think of us as a mix between ProPublica and Monocle. A quarterly magazine that looks great on your coffee table, but that’s committed to telling those crucial stories that are falling through the cracks.”

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