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27 October 2017

How Facebook ate the media – and put democracy in peril

The tech giant could turn off its taps and whole news outlets would die of thirst.

By Helen Lewis

Among all the alarming statements that have been uttered this year, Mark Zuckerberg’s offhand acknowledgement of Facebook’s almost unimaginable power holds a special place in my heart.

In a video message recorded in an aggressively bland corporate office in September, the 33-year-old accidental billionaire tried to reassure us that his company was on the side of the angels. Not only would Facebook co-operate with the US Congress investigation into Russian interference in the fight between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Zuckerberg said, but “we have been working to ensure the integrity of the German elections this weekend”.

I’m sorry, what? Something about the soulless beige and grey of the office backdrop made the statement even more jarring, like one of those mock-BBC broadcasts announcing nuclear war where everyone is incredibly calm and wearing a dinner jacket. How did we get to a point where a single private company based in California worries about the “integrity of the German elections”? It was chilling, too, in its casual acknowledgement that state-sponsored Russian trolls would try to hijack its systems; after all, they have done it before.

Facebook has long since ceased to be simply a tech company; it is now something more like a public utility. It had two billion active monthly users this July, which means more than a quarter of the world’s population logged in at least once. Like other Silicon Valley giants, there is no limit to its ambition; it is always looking to “scale”. It would suit Facebook very well to eat up the rest of the internet, because that would give people more reasons to stay on Facebook. And that, in turn, means more ad revenue. “The best minds of my generation,” early Facebook employee Jeffrey Hammerbacher once said, “are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”

Its sheer size and complexity also makes the company and its algorithms hard to scrutinise. The US Congress investigation into election tampering is a watershed moment, because it will force Facebook into a semblance of transparency.

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Already, an internal investigation has “found approximately $100,000 in ad spending from June 2015 to May 2017 associated with roughly 3,000 ads believed to be from Russian profiles,” CNBC reported this month. In Britain, the chair of the culture select committee, the Conservative MP Damian Collins, has written to Zuckerberg, asking for examples of “all adverts purchased by Russian-linked accounts” in the run-up to the EU referendum in 2016.

Shocking though the extent of direct Kremlin meddling seems to be, overt propaganda isn’t the only way to destabilise a democracy. It can also happen when news becomes a hall of mirrors and nothing feels true. Conspiracy theories flourish: to adapt GK Chesterton, when people trust nothing, they will trust anything.

The whole architecture of Facebook exacerbates this problem. By keeping users on the site’s “walled garden”, the social network strips out visual clues to the quality of information on offer. To put it simply, the print version of the National Enquirer looks very different to the New York Times; online, a fake news website is often just a badly designed, misspelled shell.

On Facebook, however, all three are smoothed down to the site’s clean blue and white preview box: if you share without clicking (perish the thought) you will never get to see the subtle contextual clues we normally use to assess a news source. Facebook’s design is absolutely optimised for its desire to eat the internet; it isn’t optimised to help users know what’s true.

But let’s not excuse the rest of the media here. In about 2013, news sites began seeing huge volumes of traffic in their analytics, with no obvious origin. Eventually, analysts decided that this “dark social” traffic must be referrals from Facebook, which had just invited users to “like” media organisation’s pages. “It was like a tide was carrying us to new traffic records,” wrote the Atlantic journalist Alexis Madrigal recently. Like any Faustian bargain, though, there was a penalty: “Across the landscape, it began to dawn on people who thought about these kinds of things: Damn, Facebook owns us. They had taken over media distribution.”

The extent to which most media organisations are now tenant farmers on Facebook’s estate became even clearer on 23 October, when the company confirmed that it was testing a change to its news feed – the main waterfall of posts seen by users when they log in. In the trial, everything except personal updates and sponsored posts was tidied away to a secondary feed. That led to a fall in reach of between two-thirds and three-quarters among 60 of the biggest Facebook pages in Slovakia, according to analytics service CrowdTangle.

In response, the company said that it had “no current plans to roll this out globally”. That seems plausible: it needs to keep the feed constantly fresh to tempt users to return, and there are only so many of your schoolmates’ baby photos the human brain can take. But the point is that Facebook could, at any moment, turn off its taps and  whole publications would die of thirst. For decades, the enmity towards Rupert Murdoch has been driven by concerns about plurality; but how independent can the media be when many news sites are so dependent on the munificence of Zuckerberg?

To be fair to Facebook, it never asked for this level of power, and its executives seem motivated by well-meaning naivety rather than movie-villain malice. Like any private company, it has responded to the regulatory environment and financial incentives of the system within which it operates. If it has evolved into something monstrous, we are culpable: by acquiescing to a world in which only a monster will thrive. 

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This article appears in the 25 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia