Facebook newsroom should take a page from the accumulated experience in hundreds of years of press ethics, and a couple of decades of video games. Its first move should be to be transparent about its news algorithm and its priorities.
The tech community loves to make up laws to describe certain phenomena, such as Moore’s law which predicts growth in computer power and the perhaps more humoristic Godwin’s law which says that any online discussion long enough will end up with one comparing the other to Hitler.
But in order to understand the digital world, probably the most important of these laws would be Metcalfe’s law.
It says that the value of a network increases with the square of the number of members (or nodes), which by extension means that the price of staying outside the network increases with every new member.
This can be good news, for auctions or advert listings it’s convenient to have it all in one place. The downside is of course that it spawns very powerful dominant niche players (cue Vestager vs Google).
No business knows better how to game Metcalfe’s law than Facebook. With some 1,6 Billion users, the point where anyone realistically can opt-out has been passed long ago.
Far from the naïve place of birthday greetings and flirty pokes it may have once been, Facebook today is more like an operating system for interaction far beyond the social life: marketers use it to build hype and businesses to interact with customers, but also dictators use it to spread propaganda and terrorist organisatons to distribute beheading videos.
It cannot be easy to be Mark Zuckerberg: one day your service is believed to bring democracy to the Middle East through its sheer existence, the next you have to travel to Germany to make apologies for Nazi hate speech.
If you’re a global service, you face the problem of different rules in different jurisdictions. So far, Silicon Valley has successfully played the “safe harbour” card, saying they can’t control what users post. (If all else fails, play the algorithm card – as in “we don’t really know what it does”!).
This is not really saying “we take no responsibility” but rather a way to make their own rules. Convenient for businesses, problem is other people may disagree. And the deeper you get involved in a culture, the more difficult it gets to surf above the clouds.
These trends come together as Facebook’s power over the news becomes more evident.
Depending on what Facebook decides to show in its users’ feeds, it wields a lot of influence over the digital public sphere. The current debate about Facebook’s alleged anti-conservative bias hints at a much bigger issue.
When we ask “how can we know if the gravitation toward anti-Trump stories is a result of user preference or algorithm settings?”, we’re really asking questions such as: What rules and principles apply to Facebook’s news feed algorithm? Who is the editor in charge? Does Facebook subscribe to normal press ethics such as verifying stories with more than one source and hearing both sides of an issue?
Such basic things that are taught at every journalism school, developed over decades, centuries even, of free press. Systems of self-regulatory ethics bodies continuously evaluate and evolve these learnings, tweaking which publishing decisions are criticised and which are not.
The details of the formal systems may vary from country to country, but the principles are the same and around them is a living conversation in the professional journalist community about when to publish a story and when not to, balancing the interests of privacy (for example of crime victims) and the public’s right to information.
It is tempting to arrive at the conclusion that the internet users should be better advised and not share hoax stories and be sceptic of the sources, but that is the easy way out.
If journalists with years of education and the ethics of the professional community to draw from find these decisions difficult enough to deserve seminars, ethics committees, even specialist magazines and radio shows, how could we ever expect the average social media user to take such a responsibility?
The answer will always be that the organisation that delivers the news is responsible for the content. Mass distribution with no editorial responsibility is a recipe for disaster.
In 2012 in Gothenburg, Sweden, teenagers’ use of social media for sexual bullying and hate speech spiralled out of control and led to beatings and even street fights in what became known as the “Instagram riots”.
When The Pirate Bay posted autopsy photographs from a court case involving two children who had been murdered with a hammer, much to the horror of the Swedish public and not least the victims’ family, its spokesperson claimed the photographs were on public record and therefore could be distributed without limitation.
With normal press ethics, neither of these events would have happened. Editors would have stopped them.
When Wikileaks released diplomatic cables and military files, it exposed horrible abuse but also made public the names of local Western sympathisers, putting them at risk of vengeance from insurgents.
Edward Snowden learned from this and wisely released his leaks through established news outlets. The recent Panama papers leak is an even better example of responsible journalism, where hundreds of journalists worked together on the material before anything was made public.
But how can a service like Facebook use any of this?
It’s their users who post and share the material after all, not Facebook itself. The algorithm aside, Facebook could also learn from video games.
That’s right, many games offer both discussion forums, user generated content and in-game chat channels. As games companies try to keep a good atmosphere, avoid hate speech and sexism, as a game becomes popular it quickly becomes impossible for the game company to monitor all the content and understand all languages.
Also the normal functions such as reporting abuse and blocking users are often not enough and can themselves be abused. Instead, many game companies give to selected users moderator privileges, delegating the editorial responsibilities to trusted players. (In fact, this is the same model Google applies to its trouble-shooting forums where users help other users.)
The beauty is that it can scale infinitely, even with Billions of users. Facebook probably cannot simply copy that model, but it can use it for its newsroom service.
In traditional media, pluralism is perhaps the most important vaccine against media bias. With plenty of different publications available, there is always another view available. It is no coincidence the Soviet regime preferred to have only one news publication: Pravda (“The Truth” in Russian).
With the mechanics of Metcalfe’s law, pluralism online becomes a challenge.
As Facebook benefits particularly from that phenomenon, it has an even greater responsibility to uphold pluralism on its platform. It could start by looking at what has worked for the press and for video games.
But its first move should be to be transparent about its news algorithm and its priorities. After all, Facebook asks complete transparency of its users.
Picture credits: forzadagro
Telecommunications and Media Forum, Brussels, 17-18 March 2015
Hosted by BIPT the Belgian regulator
The policy and regulatory roadmap for Europe and beyond …
The IIC Telecommunications and Media Forum (TMF) is a series of meetings held three times a year. All members are automatically part of the TMF and member organisations can send representatives to the meetings for free. The spring TMF will take place as usual in Brussels. Once again we are delighted that BIPT, the telecoms regulator in Belgium, will host the meeting
Come and join the debate – key themes for discussion
|How will Europe reach its broadband targets?
Balancing investment predictability, competition and consumer choice to get every European digital, “wherever they are and whatever their circumstances”
|Is OTT regulation over the top?
Reconciling audience demand for ubiquitous access to content with audience protection, equal conditions for platform and content providers, cultural and linguistic diversity, and presence and visibility of European works
|Cloud, M2M and the data economy, what implications for policy and regulation?
What policy and regulatory strategies are needed across Europe to drive roll-out, manage security risks and build trust?
The EU does not have the match of national media of its own and has very limited traditional tools of direct interaction with the citizens of the 28 member states. In the age of mass broadcast and print media that was a huge disadvantage. In the age of new media and digital democracy this might turn into an opportunity.
Around the turn of the century when virtually everyone, at least in the developed world, was already “connected” traditional media started rapidly losing clout and income as both readers and advertisers “migrated” online for a faster, interactive and more diverse information environment.
Ever since newspapers have been struggling, with many of them either becoming extinct or turning into newsprint extras to their web-sites.
TV stations have suffered heavily from the free availability of news and entertainment video content online and Radio is more and more confined to the lazier alternative of listening to your own music while driving to work.
With a few years delay, the same decline in status befell upon traditional political parties in Europe – and for the same reasons exactly.
Traditional media were initially unable to react to the interactive requirements of their connected audiences just as much as traditional parties were unable to react to the expectations of citizens. People declined to be treated as voters and taxpayers any longer and wanted to be, well, decision-makers themselves.
The mass invasion of social media, which is yet to celebrate its tenth anniversary, put an end to the traditional European societies, where public opinion was the result of a complicated debate among citizens with different views moderated (many would say manipulated) by the political establishment and the mainstream media.
Social media made that debate impossible as people befriended, “liked” and “followed” only the like-minded and completely ignored everyone else, with painful political ramifications. The traditional political parties of Europe could no longer bet on leadership and consensus-building: the “new media” environment does not tolerate consensus and is virtually leaderless.
It’s very tempting to claim that digital media and social disintegration have helped populists and fringe radicals become the heroes of the day, but that would be missing the point by miles.
The ever-growing speed of connectivity online has only highlighted the decay of social connectivity “off-line” and the obsolete mechanisms of traditional political decision making and has led to the rapid growth of interactive political tools named with a variety of buzzwords like eParticipation, Digital Democracy, Crowdsource Legislation and the like.
Citizens have started shaping policies directly in cities across Europe, with France, Estonia, Finland and Iceland leading the way from various forms of on-line consultations with citizens to actual co-legislating and interactive policy implementation. UK’s legislature is the latest in discussing a strategy to make Parliament “fully interactive and digital” by 2020.
The case with the European Union is quite different. It’s pointless to argue how far the EU-wide equivalent of “public opinion” has developed; European Citizenship rests widely on the irresponsibly challenged right of free movement; and the European Parliament, the only EU body directly elected by EU citizens is so far failing in its efforts to increase voter interest and turnout.
In addition, the EU does not have the match of national media of its own and has very limited traditional tools of direct interaction with the citizens of the 28 member states.
In the age of mass broadcast and print media that was a huge disadvantage. In the age of new media and digital democracy this might turn into an opportunity.
The poor links between the EU institutions and the European citizens have been at the core of the debate about its democratic credentials. Now that the tools to boost connectivity are at hand, the EU doesn’t need national governments or media to spread its message and can communicate with the EU citizens directly.
The biggest challenge here is not to limit this communication to social media marketing, on-line consultations or participation in drafting policy.
Much like on the national level, citizens are not interested in debating unless they can feel the impact they’ve made on issues they care about.
Technology and communication will not solve any of the functional problems of the EU and Digital Democracy should not be seen as the “ultimate driving machine” of European success, but actively engaging citizens in decision making might well be the driver of much needed European reforms.