Implications of Facebook’s changed newsfeed curation algorithms

Interesting piece in *Slate about the impact of news publishers of Facebook’s new-found desire to escape from news.

Slate — yes, the publication you’re reading right now — got more than 85 million clicks that originated from external sites and apps in January 2017 alone. Almost a third of them — 28 million—came from Facebook. That was more than any other single outside traffic source. Other online publications with a political focus, such as Vox and Politico, posted similarly blockbuster numbers.

It was, in retrospect, the zenith of Facebook’s influence over the news industry. Starting in about 2013, when the social network began prioritizing actual news in users’ news feed rankings—the order in which posts appear when you scroll through its app or site—Facebook had grown increasingly critical to many media outlets’ business, for better or worse. Every visitor the social network sent to an outlet’s pages translated to much-needed ad views. And it sent so many that newsrooms remolded their editorial strategies to maximize clicks, likes, and shares on Facebook. For less scrupulous publishers, that sometimes meant sensationalizing headlines or framing stories in ways that pandered to people’s biases—a trend that Facebook tried to combat algorithmically, with limited success. By August 2016, the New York Timess’ John Herrman wrote that Facebook had “centralized online news consumption in an unprecedented way,” shaping how the public perceived politics by determining which stories they’d see in their feeds. And by 2017, some antitrust thinkers concerned with its centrality to the news business were calling for Facebook to be regulated as a monopoly.

The AT&T judgment shows how how far US antitrust law has drifted

In today’s FT, the paper’s US Editor trumpets the Circuit Court’s approval of the AT&T-Time-Warner merger as evidence of the resilience of the judicial system in the face of Trump’s aggression. (He has regularly spouted his opposition to the deal.) But Tim Wu sees it more of a confirmation of how far antitrust law and judicial interpretation has drifted from the original determination of Congress to prevent corporate agglomeration.

When Congress enacted the Anti-Merger Act of 1950, the law by which American courts still adjudge corporate mergers, it did so with the repeatedly stated goal of fighting excessive economic concentration. The “dominant” concern, as the Supreme Court wrote in a 1962 merger case that analyzed the law, was about “a rising tide of economic concentration in the American economy.” At the time, the court explained, a wave of corporate consolidation posed the threat of an “accelerated concentration of economic power” and also a “threat to other values,” like the independence of smaller businesses and local control of industry. In particular Congress had said it intended the new law to stop a wave of mergers in its “incipiency.”

That’s why, for the 1950 Congress, the law would surely have allowed the Justice Department to block the recent AT&T-Time Warner merger. The merger, which a federal judge approved on Tuesday, combines AT&T, the nation’s largest wireless provider and a major seller of pay TV, with Time Warner, one of the most powerful media companies, in an $85 billion deal. No one can deny that the new AT&T will have more economic power and also more political power than before, even as it now carries more debt ($181 billion) than many industrialized nations. The ruling, by Judge Richard J. Leon of United States District Court in Washington, implicitly encourages the rest of the industry to integrate as well, and AT&T’s comrades have taken the hint: Comcast has already announced its intent to acquire much of 20th Century Fox, while other deals are said to be imminent.

Judge Leon’s decision shows just how far the law has wandered from congressional intent. The law has become a license for near-uncontrolled consolidation and concentration in almost every sector of economy. Whether involving airlines, hospitals, the pharmaceutical industry, cable television or the major tech platforms, mergers leading to oligopolies or monopolies have become commonplace…

Yep.

Interesting uses for blockchain technology #15610

From a lovely rant by Paul Ford:

The blockchain can be a form of media. The writer Maria Bustillos is starting a magazine that will publish on the blockchain — which means it will be impossible to take down. (Disclosure: In theory, I’ll write for Maria, who’s a friend, and she’ll pay me in cryptocurrency, or what she calls “space jewels.”) One of her aims is to make it impossible for people—Peter Thiel, for example, who backed Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker—to threaten publications they dislike.

You could even make a distributed magazine called Information of Vital Public Interest About Peter Thiel that would be awfully hard to sue into oblivion. It’s the marketplace of ideas. Literally. Try another thought experiment. Remember that anonymously created list of men who worked in media and who were alleged sexual harassers? You could, by whispering the allegations from one wallet to the next, put that information on a blockchain. You could make a web browser plug-in so that whenever someone visited a sexual harasser’s LinkedIn page, that page could glow bright red. You could have a distributed, immutable record of sexual harassment allegations on the internet. (Is there an economy around such allegations? Well, people do pay for gossip. GossipCoin?)

The bad news about false news

The most comprehensive study to date of misinformation on Twitter is out. The Abstract reads:

We investigated the differential diffusion of all of the verified true and false news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The data comprise 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. We classified news as true or false using information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95 to 98% agreement on the classifications. Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it. We investigated the differential diffusion of all of the verified true and false news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The data comprise 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. We classified news as true or false using information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95 to 98% agreement on the classifications. Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.

What Facebook is for

From the Columbia Journalism Review:

Digital-journalism veteran David Cohn has argued that the network’s main purpose is not information so much as it is identity, and the construction by users of a public identity that matches the group they wish to belong to. This is why fake news is so powerful.

“The headline isn’t meant to inform somebody about the world,” wrote Cohn, a senior director at Advance Publications, which owns Condé Nast and Reddit. “The headline is a tool to be used by a person to inform others about who they are. ‘This is me,’ they say when they share that headline. ‘This is what I believe. This shows what tribe I belong to.’ It is virtue signaling.”

Twitter suffers from a similar problem, in the sense that many users seem to see their posts as a way of displaying (or arguing for) their beliefs rather than a way of exchanging verifiable news. But Facebook’s role in the spread of misinformation is orders of magnitude larger than Twitter’s: 2 billion monthly users versus 330 million.

Challenging earthly powers

From this morning’s Observer: the Introduction to my 95 Theses project.

A new power is loose in the world. It is nowhere and yet it’s everywhere. It knows everything about us – our movements, our thoughts, our desires, our fears, our secrets, who our friends are, our financial status, even how well we sleep at night. We tell it things that we would not whisper to another human being. It shapes our politics, stokes our appetites, loosens our tongues, heightens our moral panics, keeps us entertained (and therefore passive). We engage with it 150 times or more every day, and with every moment of contact we add to the unfathomable wealth of its priesthood. And we worship it because we are, somehow, mesmerised by it.

In other words, we are all members of the Church of Technopoly, and what we worship is digital technology. Most of us are so happy in our obeisance to this new power that we spend an average of 50 minutes on our daily devotion to Facebook alone without a flicker of concern. It makes us feel modern, connected, empowered, sophisticated and informed.

Suppose, though, you were one of a minority who was becoming assailed by doubt – stumbling towards the conclusion that what you once thought of as liberating might actually be malign and dangerous. But yet everywhere you look you see only happy-clappy believers. How would you go about convincing the world that it was in the grip of a power that was deeply hypocritical and corrupt? Especially when that power apparently offers salvation and self-realisation for those who worship at its sites?

Read on

Vive la France! (For the time being)

This morning’s Observer column:

The two biggest lessons of 2016 were the discovery of how social media could be used for “voter suppression” and how the open web could be “weaponised” by the “alt-right” to pollute the public sphere. The conventional wisdom that Trump did not have a data operation was mistaken. He did have a “digital operations division” based in San Antonio with about 100 programmers, web developers, network engineers, data scientists, graphic artists, ad copywriters and media buyers. Their main approach seems to have involved using social media and other data to identify Democratic voters in swing states who were unenthusiastic about Clinton and to target them with messages likely to reduce the likelihood that they would vote for her. On other words, to engage in data-driven vote suppression.

The other insight of 2016 was provided by Jonathan Albright’s revelations of the extent of the far right’s online ecosystem and its ingenuity in exploiting YouTube and other legitimate sites to disseminate fake news and conspiracy theories. In doing this, the movement exploited both the business models of Google and Facebook, which depend on increasing “user engagement” (ie sharing, likes, links), and human psychology (which seems to find fake news more interesting and “shareable” than more sober, reliable information).

It is now surmised that the Brexit campaign in the UK may have been a dry run for these techniques and we know that they were deployed in France, presumably to increase the chances of a Le Pen victory…

Read on

Jimmy Wales goes after fake news. Brave man.

This morning’s Observer column:

What has come to be called “fake news” is a hard problem to solve, if indeed it is solvable at all. This is because it is created by the interaction of human psychology with several forces: the affordances of digital technology, the business models of giant internet companies and the populist revolt against globalisation. But that hasn’t stopped people trying to solve the problem.

To date, most well-intentioned people have gone down the “fact-checking” route, on the assumption that if only people knew the facts then that would stop them believing lies. This suggests a touching faith in human nature. People have been believing nonsensical things since the beginning of time and nothing we have seen recently indicates that they plan to change the habits of millenniums.

Think, for example, of the infamous lie put about by the Leave campaign in the referendum – that the £350m that the UK supposedly pays every week to the EU could be better spent on the NHS…

Read on

One Nation Under Fox

If anyone thought that old-style media power was over, then Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox, is the living refutation of that comforting hypothesis. Fox News, according to the New York Times “has been the most watched cable news network for 15 years, but depending on the hour, the news narrative it presents to its large and loyal conservative audience can sharply diverge from what consumers of other media outlets may be seeing.”

Times reporters watched Fox News from 6 a.m. until midnight last Thursday to see how its coverage varied from that of its rivals on a day when cable news was dominated by the health care debate in Congress, the terrorist attack in London and the investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election.

One notable way Fox News stood apart from its competition, as it has been known to do for years, was in the stories it chose to highlight and the tone — in some of its opinion shows, unapologetically supportive of Mr. Trump and his agenda — with which it covered them.

There was extensive coverage of the health care vote, for example, but there was also considerable time given to topics, like a rape case in Maryland, that viewers would not have heard about if they had turned to CNN or MSNBC. The rape case, which involved an undocumented immigrant and went virtually uncovered on most networks, received almost hourly updates on Fox, and at times was used as proof that Mr. Trump’s calls for tighter borders and a crackdown on immigration were justified.

The key role played in the US election by TV is also a cautionary tale for those who thought that the Internet would eventually wipe out TV. This is the most common misconception about new communications technologies: what John Seely Brown calls “endism” — the belief that new media wipe out older media. That’s why I’ve argued for many years that a better metaphor for our communications environment is ecological. New media don’t wipe out older ones; but new relationships (many of them symbiotic, and sometimes parasitic) evolve. Broadcast TV has, of course, been eroded by the rise of ‘on-demand’ viewing, Netflix, etc. But TV hasn’t gone away, and Fox’s dominance confirms that.

Is Snapchat the canary in the post-literate mine?

This morning’s Observer column:

To the average grownup [Snapchat] seems weird. And it is. Just when we’d got used to the idea that digital technology never forgets – that there’s no way of being sure that the embarrassing photograph you posted to Facebook five years ago will not stay on some server somewhere for ever – here’s a digital service that runs completely counter to that. And of course Snapchat’s wild popularity must owe something to the ephemerality of its messages.

But some perceptive observers are beginning to think that there’s more to it than that. One clue can be found in something that Evan Spiegel, the chief executive of Snap, recently said to a reporter. “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day,” he said. “What they don’t realise is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.” Another clue is hiding in plain sight in the name of the app: “snap” (the term introduced by Kodak for the act of taking a photograph) plus “chat” (which has connotations of oral conversation). So, in some strange way, is Snapchat beginning to assume the qualities of an oral medium?

Read on