What should Facebook (et al) do for news?

The Facebook bashing of the past few weeks has been cathartic for everyone. In wake of the ever-evolving Cambridge Analytica data-harvesting scandal, calls to #DeleteFacebook briefly filled twitter feeds, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made a seemingly endless series of apologies, including in front of the US Senate, with some people calling for his resignation.

For the first time, people have something – someone – tangible to blame for their fears about how social media seems to be running away with reality, and for the horrible, dawning realisation of their own unwitting complicity. The front cover of the March issue of ’Wired’ – showing a bruised and bloodied Zuckerberg – captured a mood.

And then Cambridge Analytica happened. The outrage when Facebook was found to have revealed the data of millions of its users to the shady British political consultancy was enough to push the previously reluctant Zuckerberg to agree to answer questions from a US congressional hearing about his companies’ unprecedented global influence.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the furore pre and post-hearing – which reportedly included protesters holding photos of Zuckerberg’s head on a stick, and the full treatment from Saturday Night Live – may have been the reason why Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of news partnerships, pulled out of her day two speaking slot here at the International Journalism Festival. The event has been dominated by questions about data privacy, digital transparency, and – unsurprisingly, days after Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing – Facebook.

Largely missing from the whole debate, though – and notably from the questions from Congress – has been what all this means for the future of news. If one tweak of a News Feed algorithm can make hits on a news site plummet, how should journalists and technologists redefine a healthier relationship? If Facebook seems to finally be accepting its status as a publisher, how – if at all – should they be making editorial decisions?

That is the challenge put to the five-person panel in the spectacular 14th century Sala Dei Notari hall, off the rainy Piazza IV Novembre. Host Jeff Jarvis, media pundit and director of the Tow-Knight centre for Entrepreneurial Journalism, is joined by a panel of experts to focus on what exactly Facebook and it’s counterparts should do for news. The focus is on ideas, and there are plenty. Here are the best:

Facebook is already making editorial decisions

It’s an idea that scares journalists. Facebook struggles to see journalism’s social value, says Tanit Koch, former Editor-in-Chief of German newspaper Bild. It tends to see ‘news as just a commodity’. So them deciding what is good and bad journalism and would be ‘highly problematic’. What, she asks, does Facebook consider ‘Time Well Spent’ for its users? Is watching a video of a chlorine gas attack in Syria time well spent? Koch thinks so, but would Zuckerberg?

This isn’t just a theoretical question. In fact, says Craig Silverman, media editor at Buzzfeed News. Facebook is editorialising already: it has been making publishing decisions ‘from day one’.

Facebook should name an editor in chief

It’s the logical next step, says Jay Rosen, author of PressThink.org and journalism teacher at New York University. He points out that at the Senate hearing, Zuckerberg admitted for the first time that he and his team were ‘responsible for the content’ on Facebook. What he didn’t do, though, was saying that he had an editorial responsibility. For Rosen, that would be ‘the next step that we would need them to take.’  Their job would not be to hire journalists, he says, but ‘specifically to worry about the editorial judgments that are already being made’. And that means instilling an editorial culture, he says: ‘They need to start behaving like an editorial company’.

…or give a news ‘endowment’.

But, Rosen continues, ‘I think it’s likely that Facebook is just not capable of doing any of these things’,  arguing that there’s just too much of a focus on metrics. Therefore, he says, Facebook should ‘provide a whole lot of money to an endowment for news, maybe along with Google and other companies, that would represent a new kind of subsidy system’ to replace dwindling advertising revenues  It’s not a quick fix though. Who, for example, would they choose to give the money to? But, says Rosen, it is more likely that we’ll be able to work out our problems, possibly via a subsidy system, than it is that Facebook will change its behaviour.

We need to change the Silicon Valley mindset.

Silicon Valley only ‘knows how to value something ‘if it ends with numbers with lots of zeros’, says Jennifer 8. Lee, Jennifer 8. Lee, CEO of Plympton: ‘Unless you can measure it, they struggle to know how to care about it’. There’s an absence of the more editorial-style ‘what should we do?’ mindset, she adds. Journalists and Silicon Valleyites need to be able to understand each other to work together. And for this, she suggests ‘more liberal arts education for computer science majors’, and possibly hiring journalists to help diversify how tech companies think. But, she adds, hiring them is ‘very different from giving them authority’.

Facebook should have open standards around what it defines as quality

The fundamental problem, says Silverman, is that companies like Facebook state policies and values, but ‘don’t actually enforce them and make them real on their platforms… If they actually delivered on that,’ he adds, ‘then I think we would have fewer problems.’ One solution, he says, would be ‘understanding what they value and making that really clear and transparent’. Open standards would mean that everyone understands what they Facebook mean when they talk about ‘enforcing quality’.

Facebook needs to do better with their advertising numbers

Not only that, says Silverman, but Facebook has to get rid of the bogus, manipulated figures it sometimes feeds back to its advertisers. Several times, he says, they’ve had to announce that they ‘screwed up on a bunch of the metrics’. They have to make sure people are buying ‘real audiences that actually engage with things’. It’s got to the point, he says, that fraud, ‘fake traffic’, and ‘manipulated bot traffic’ in the digital advertising industry means a lot of media don’t even believe the advertising numbers Facebook are giving them.

Facebook isn’t all bad, and publishers aren’t perfect

Journalists are aware of how social media is liable to be used by bad actors and nefarious groups, especially from the far-right. But, says Rasmus Nielsen, director of research at the Reuters Institute for the study of journalism, research shows that the use of social media ‘increases the diversity of news that people are exposed to’, and the openness and availability of multiple news sources makes it one of the few forces that counter some of the ‘tendencies we see towards information inequality in our societies’. So while it’s challenging the business model, Facebook helps distribute journalism too, especially among young audiences.

And don’t forget that publishers are always pushing for more data, more editorial control and more brand recognition, says Nielsen. And though they might think they have the users best intentions at heart, he says that what publishers want is not always what’s best for the user. ‘If you look at the things that some publishers have been asking for [on Facebook], it is not so different from what political campaigns and political consultants have been acquiring. Because that stuff is powerful.’

Full transparency may not be what news needs

In the same vein, Jay Rosen says that the news industry would be more likely to get transparency from the platforms if it were more transparent itself. ‘Journalism has a long way to go for it to be the model of transparency that it wants the platforms to be’, he says. And plus, says Nielsen, ‘transparency can also be dangerous’. What about all the bad actors out there? He pushes the idea of an ‘intelligible society’, not one in which exact technical information is shared, but instead ‘the why and the so what’. Media organisations need to understand the intent behind the change in an algorithm, not the change in itself, he says. That would be more useful for publishers, and ‘certainly much more useful for me as a citizen.’

Facebook’s tightening of data sharing could cause problems for journalists.

Publishers are all over platforms for data, says Craig Silverman. But his data and tech journalists at Buzzfeed have been hindered by Facebook tightening data availability in light of Cambridge Analytica. They’ve taken down data from the platform’s APIs (a function that allows apps to access the features of an operating system, like FarmVille) and reduced functions in the search bar, which is is hurting journalists: ‘It’s starting to screw us a bit in actually reporting and holding the platforms accountable’.

Facebook users just aren’t that interested in the news.

For Jeff Jarvis, the onus falls on journalists as well as platforms, to help monetise more, and rethink journalism ‘using these platforms natively’. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that cat photos are what gets the most likes. We have to come to terms with that, says Koch: ‘much as we consider news as valuable and hugely important for society – there are a lot of Facebook users who just don’t.’ 95% of the content they share does not relate to journalism, she adds, ‘so we can’t just expect them to roll out a red carpet for us’.  The key, therefore, is for news organisations is to be ‘as independent from Facebook as we can possibly be’.

Multilateral collaboration is key.

The ‘News and Technology Union’ is more interesting than it sounds. Rasmus Nielsen’s idea is that platforms and publishers need to come together for partnerships and make them the norm, rather than what currently happens, the occasional collaboration between ‘giant platform X with individual publisher Y’. This would be run by a UN/EU-style international body that would ‘institutionalise what multilateral collaboration would look like,’ he says. These longer-term partnerships would civilise the competition of the ‘platform wars’, and could even include platforms hiring journalists. While it wouldn’t iron out all the problems, it would be a space where competitors could have conversations and disagreements. We urgently need a joint enterprise for facilitating multi-lateral collaboration, he argues: ‘The future of every journalist in this room under 60 depends on this working out.’

The experts have spoken. And in this period of soul-searching for Facebook, Campbell Brown and her colleagues could do a lot worse than to listen to what they have to say.