November 14, 2016 Last Updated 5:12 pm

Facebook at the center of the fight over ‘news’ and news

Mark Zuckerberg again addresses the social network’s news feed problems in a post, but he doesn’t seem to grasp the fact that this issue will only grow now that the election has resulted in the head of Breitbart News becoming the new administration’s chief strategist

If Facebook thinks that things will settle down in the next few weeks as we get further away from the recent election they might be disappointed. Facebook is now front and center in the debate surrounding fake news, biased news, and what is ‘real news.’

Several recent articles concerning how Facebook deals with news have hit in the past few days, including one that got tech sites up in arms from Gizmodo that says the social network has it within its power to “shut down fake news” but has chosen not to do so as it would upset conservatives.

According to two sources with direct knowledge of the company’s decision-making, Facebook executives conducted a wide-ranging review of products and policies earlier this year, with the goal of eliminating any appearance of political bias. One source said high-ranking officials were briefed on a planned News Feed update that would have identified fake or hoax news stories, but disproportionately impacted right-wing news sites by downgrading or removing that content from people’s feeds. According to the source, the update was shelved and never released to the public. It’s unclear if the update had other deficiencies that caused it to be scrubbed.

The story was then picked up by The Verge, Engadget and others, leading Facebook to issue a statement denying the article’s main claims:

The article’s allegation is not true. We did not build and withhold any News Feed changes based on their potential impact on any one political party. We always work to make News Feed more meaningful and informative, and that includes examining the quality and accuracy of items shared, such as clickbait, spam and hoaxes. Mark himself said “I want to do everything I can to make sure our teams uphold the integrity of our products.” This includes continuously review updates to make sure we are not exhibiting unconscious bias.

But this issue will not go away, for several reasons, including the fact that Facebook continues to grow its advertising at the expense of traditional news organizations, giving those organizations more than enough reason to stay on the story; and besides, if Facebook says its news feeds are not responsible for millions of Americans being poorly informed about the real state of the world, then they are basically admitting that it is not influential, a good reason for advertisers to take their money elsewhere.

In other words, this all about money. No surprise, right?

Facebook will find it hard to solve its news feed problems, because it is baked into Facebook, it is a feature, not a bug. Also, Mark Zuckerberg appears to be in complete denial.

“Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other,” Facebook’s founder wrote this weekend.

“That said, we don’t want any hoaxes on Facebook. Our goal is to show people the content they will find most meaningful, and people want accurate news. We have already launched work enabling our community to flag hoaxes and fake news, and there is more we can do here. We have made progress, and we will continue to work on this to improve further.”

Sitting next to Zuckerberg’s column was an ad that told me that SF 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had been released by the team – and it wasn’t even fake news, just a bad ad from ESPN.

Here is some news for Zuckerberg: things are going to get a lot worse.

Today, writing for Slate, Mark Joseph Stern was pissed because Facebook won’t let him post the death threats he is receiving from supporters of Donald Trump.

“To illustrate the gruesome hate that now regularly pours into my inbox, I posted the email on Facebook and made the image public. Hundreds of people shared it as an example of the bigotry that Trump has unleashed upon people like me,” Stern wrote.

Facebook, of course, objected to the content, citing “community standards,” repeating the same mistake it made when they objected to the posting of the Pulitizer Prize winning photo “The Terror of War” (otherwise known as a “napalm girl”).

“I am worried that the world’s most important medium is limiting freedom instead of trying to extend it, and that this occasionally happens in an authoritarian way,” Espen Egil Hansen, editor-in-chief and CEO of the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.

Facebook is in the enviable position of being able to deliver content, without paying for it, and without the responsibility for its accuracy. Publishers, of course, are much to blame for this because of their constant desire to grow their digital audiences.

It is funny to think of the uproar that resulted in 2010 when publishers learned that Apple would get 30 percent of all digital subscription revenue generated through the App Store (then later the Newsstand). Seventy percent of all new revenue was not good enough, and so publishers deemphasized their digital editions to the point where few print magazines can claim a substantial part of their circulation through digital editions. But handing over their content to Facebook was seen as somehow different. This was part of their digital-first strategy.

Obviously, things have not worked out the way they thought it would – Facebook is generating billions in digital advertising, while some publishers are leaving print and laying off much of their magazine staffs. Many are turning to video, apparently completely unaware that there might be a video glut, and that their little videos will not be as attractive to viewers as they are hoping. Whatever, it is the next shiny object to go after, just like Facebook readership.

Back at Facebook, my guess is Zuckerberg will continue to ride this horse a while longer. But this issue will not go away.

The definition of what is ‘fake news’ will continue to be hard to define. The new administration has just appointed the head of Breitbart News as strategy chief, the outlet had has beat the drum for the idea that Hillary Clinton was too ill to run for president, let along be elected.

The truth is up for grabs now, and Facebook is not about to turn away millions of page views just for a little thing like editorial integrity.

But Zuckerberg could start by doing what Google did long ago: having accredited news sources. Then, he could do what Google should do, make sure they are limited to actual news organizations.

By starting over, from scratch, he could make it easier on his company to deal with ‘news’. Don’t define everything as news content, only content from ‘news’ organizations. That seems like a good place to start, and yes, that might mean Breitbart News would be there, it would also mean the Murdoch press. Just because it is conservative doesn’t make it not-news. But it does mean that 90 percent of the junk we see today would go away. It would be a start.

Update: BuzzFeed has run a story this afternoon, quoting unnamed staff at Facebook. (Hate the quoting of anonymous sources, but can’t imagine a Facebook employee would want to be named.

The story claims that Facebook employees have “formed an unofficial task force” to look into the problem of fake news, and that these employees are none-too-happy with their CEO’s statement on the matter:

“It’s not a crazy idea. What’s crazy is for him to come out and dismiss it like that, when he knows, and those of us at the company know, that fake news ran wild on our platform during the entire campaign season,” said one Facebook employee, who works in the social network’s engineering division. He, like the four other Facebook employees who spoke to BuzzFeed News for this story, would only speak on condition of anonymity. All five employees said they had been warned by their superiors against speaking to press, and feared they would lose their jobs if named.

Hopefully, Facebook HR will be forgiving.

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