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July 30, 2018, 10:36 a.m.
Audience & Social

Newsonomics: Now it’s Facebook that’s facing unwanted attention

As we see hatred and division multiply across North America and Europe, instigated by malicious use of the technology that was supposed to make us freer and better, we’re paying a different kind of attention. Late, but better than never.

Attention. Attention!

The digital cognoscenti long ago figured out that consumers of “digital” services paid not in dollars but in attention. We laughed about the monetizing of eyeballs. We joked about the devilish bargain we’d made with “the platforms,” even as some conjectured that those platforms might become so big and powerful that few publishers or brands would maintain their own big expensive sites and apps.

But now, as we see hatred and division multiply across North America and Europe, instigated by malicious use of the technology that was supposed to make us freer and better, we’re paying a different kind of attention. Late, but better than never.

We, as consumers of news and information, have become increasingly uncomfortable with the unasked-for attention as every twitch and touch of our screens is captured. It was one thing to feel increasingly unsettled about how platforms gathered up our individual actions for ad targeting and commercial gain. It’s another to see that attention manipulated to damage our democracies themselves.

It is a supreme irony of the last week that both Facebook and Twitter, among the companies that have caused discomfort, now find themselves subject to so much unwanted attention.

Two fronts now combine to place the very foundations of these companies in question.

The first front, of course, is political. If Facebook in particular has figured out how to place the right ads somewhere within our vision field, its foes have learned how to master the political monetization of Facebook.

Second, investors are recalibrating these companies’ growth stories. In the belief that their growth has slowed, stopped, or been reversed, they whacked Facebook with its biggest one-day value hit of $120 billion on Thursday. On Friday, Twitter announced its own user declines.

The reasons most cited: Although Facebook set new revenue records, it looks as if it may have hit a wall on audience growth. Twitter’s “clean-up” affirmed long-held suspicions that bots have supplied a good share of digital media’s astounding growth story.

Why has the usage of social media taken a hit? What caused it? Putin? Trump? Prump? Or sheer disgust among so many people at the State of Things?

While there’s something to be said for plain old social fatigue, there’s no doubt that Facebook’s role in the Russian assault on our democracy played a part. People are rethinking the role of this company and their interaction with it. Sometimes it feels like the end of an era, but it’s uncertain what’s to come.

For investors, this is a reckoning long in the making. Nothing grows exponentially forever. As social media matures, we wondering if multitasking has maxed out, if there aren’t enough eyeballs to supply many more minutes of “usage.” The usage slowdown was inevitable; the rules of business apply to digital companies as well as legacy ones.

Twenty years isn’t a long time for a society to wrestle with a major transformation in how it learns, communicates, and shares.  But now we’re assessing how much damage — some of it permanent, some likely temporary — can be done to who we are as a people, as communities, and as a wider democracy. As we shine new light on social media, we must remember how we got to this point.

Let’s return to the spring of 2016. Facebook had plainly seen and knew how evildoers were setting out to misinform the fall electorate. It had hired a team of contractors with journalistic training to select some headlines for its “trending topics” module. But that program didn’t touch the news being spread in News Feed, and anyway, Facebook hadn’t terminated it in August 2016, facing pressure from Republicans. The humans’ work would now be done by algorithms. In terminating any sort of vetting team, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg caved.

An unrelenting stream of apologia, new fixes, and ongoing charm offensives have so far none nothing but twist the social network into a suddenly less valuable corporate pretzel. As America reels, it’s left to Britain’s parliament and its “plucky little panel” to find and publish “the truth about fake news, Facebook and Brexit.

As that new 89-page report provides depth of evidence, Facebook’s response is, in part, hiring. Even as newspaper companies hurtle toward oblivion — the halving of the New York Daily News newsroom and the newsprint tariffs just our latest examples — leaving no more than 25,000 journalists working coast to coast at America’s 1,350 dailies, Facebook is hiring thousands of checkers. That’s right: There maybe almost as many people checking stuff at Facebook as there are professional journalists creating daily newspaper content across the United States.

Twitter, too, has endured similar spasms of “defining news” and of being more and less aggressive in its vetting.

Could these companies redefine their missions, and stick to them? Of course, they’ve redefined and redefined, and their high-minded market positions of serving all — Facebook says its “mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” and Twitter says its mission is “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers” — has made that real mission-staking impossible. Why? Remember “too big to fail?” Social media has become too big to trust, maybe despite its better intentions.

The public is figuring this out. Edelman Trust Barometer research shows Americans’ trust of journalists has increased five percent year over year, while its trust in platforms declined two percent.

News companies tend not to have the problem of being too big to be trusted. They produce a viewable, finite number of stories a day, subject to review, and correction. All legitimate news companies pledge fairness and accuracy — and then make decision after decision after decision based on their journalistic judgments and values. Such longstanding tradition is what separates news companies from platforms, and now the world proves it again each day.

Facebook and Twitter mine infinity. It’s easier to cherry-pick a single tweet or post or find some kind of Twitter “bias” than it is to see the totality of what Facebook and Twitter present. It’s impossible to transparently review infinity.

At its root, much of this chaos revolves around the notion of news sources. Facebook, in particular, has long purposely blurred that definition. From the point that it moved on from being simply about social sharing to being about news providing, it invited its current misfortune into its own house. When it launched its News Feed in 2006, it started pretending to be a news company, but one without experience, judgment, or backbone. It’s one thing to allow unfettered free social speech; another to pretend to be a source of news as fact.

By valuing bigness and growth above all of the other values that Facebook professes and kind of believes in, it made a deal with the devil of bigness, and now pays the toll.

Congress’s 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act looks like a creature from the previous millennium. What now? We are, as individuals and as massive companies, left to our own decision-making. That starts with better paying attention, to both what’s being done to us and what we’re doing.

“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” a popular 2017 protest banner read across the country’s demonstrations. We can also consider the words of 20th-century Spanish philosopher — and scion of a newspaper family — José Ortega y Gasset: “Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.”

Photo by Seth Miller used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 30, 2018, 10:36 a.m.
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