I’ve met some of the people at Facebook whose job it is to work with journalists and media companies. They’re good people, smart people. They seem to care about the future of news. Some of my students, now graduated, work with them. I like that.
What I have to say in this post isn’t personal. It’s professional. Please stop doing this. Here’s what I mean:
Last week, at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, Facebook’s Andy Mitchell, director of news and media partnerships, was asked how the company sees its role as a new kind of editorial filter or influence on the news— an important question, now that Facebook has become such an important part of the news ecosystem. He was also asked what kind of accountability Facebook felt it had as a player in that system. Mitchell had three answers to these questions.
1. “It’s not that we control NewsFeed, you control NewsFeed by what you tell us that you’re interested in.” You send us signals. We respond.
2. Facebook should not be anyone’s primary news source or experience. It should be a supplement to seeking out news yourself with direct suppliers. “Complementary” was the word he used several times. Meaning: complement to, not substitute for.
3. Facebook is accountable to its users for creating a great experience. That describes the kind of accountability it has. End of story.
To find these answers go to 45:50 in the video clip and watch to the end.
George Brock, journalism professor in the UK, was the one who asked about accountability. He comments:
Facebook is not, and knows quite well it is not, a neutral machine passing on news. Its algorithm chooses what people see, it has ‘community standards’ that material must meet and it has to operate within the laws of many countries.
The claim that Facebook doesn’t think about journalism has to be false. And, at least in the long run, it won’t work; in the end these issues have to faced. Facebook is a private company which has grown and made billions by very successfully keeping more people on its site for longer and longer. I can imagine that any suggestion that there are responsibilities which distract from that mission must seem like a nuisance.
Google once claimed something similar. Its executives would sit in newspaper offices and claim, with perfectly straight faces, that Google was not a media company. As this stance gradually looked more and more absurd, Google grew up and began to discuss its own power in the media.
I would put it differently: Facebook has to start recognizing that our questions are real— not error messages. We are not suggesting that it “edits” NewsFeed in the same way that a newspaper editor once edited the front page. It’s a very different way. That’s why we’re asking about it! We are not suggesting that algorithms work in the same way that elites deciding what’s news once operated. It’s a different way. That’s why we’re asking about it!
No one is being simple-minded here and demanding that Facebook describe editorial criteria it clearly does not have— like reaching for a nice mix of foreign and domestic news. We get it. You want not to be making those decisions. You want user interest to drive those decisions. We’re capable of understanding the basics of machine learning, collaborative filtering and algorithmic authority. We know that to reveal all would encourage gaming of the system. We’re capable of accepting: this is what the users are choosing to use now. We’re not platform idiots. Stop treating us like children at a Passover seder who don’t know enough to ask a good question.
But precisely because we do “get it” — at least at a basic level — we want to know: what are you optimizing for, along with user interest? How do you see your role within a news ecosystem where you are more and more the dominant player? In news, you have power now. It is growing. Help us understand how you intend to use it. What kind of filter will you be? What kind of player… playing for what?
These are not outrageous or ignorant questions. They do not misstate how Facebook works. They are not attempts to turn the clock back to a time when editors chose and readers read. We don’t need your answers to babysit us. We’re awake and alive in the algorithmic age and exercising our critical faculties just fine. If you can’t answer, then say that: We are not here to answer your questions because we can’t.
Andy Mitchell’s three replies are not adequate— for us or for Facebook.
Q. What are you optimizing for, along with user interest? A. “It’s not that we control NewsFeed, you control NewsFeed.” No, sorry. As I wrote before: It simply isn’t true that an algorithmic filter can be designed to remove the designers from the equation. The assertion melts on contact.
Q. How do you see your role in the news ecosystem where you are more and more the dominant player? A. Facebook should not be anyone’s primary news source or news experience. No, sorry. On mobile, especially, “primary” is exactly what’s happening. And everyone who pays attention knows how strenuously Facebook tries to keep users engaged with Facebook. So “we don’t want to be primary” is… I’m trying to be nice here… a little insulting.
Q. In news you have a lot of power now. How do you intend to use that power? A. We just want to create a great experience for users. No, sorry, that’s not an answer because you just said the users have the power, not Facebook, so what you’re really saying is: power? us? whatever do you mean?
Facebook’s smart, capable and caring-about-news people should be disappointed that this is as far as the company has gotten in being real with itself and with us.
(This started as a Facebook post. If you want to see it spread on that platform, I’m confident you know what to do.)
After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links
Now here’s a good example of what I mean. In an update at a company blog, Facebook tells us:
Facebook is constantly evaluating what’s the right mix of content in News Feed and we want to let you know about a change that may affect referral traffic for publishers…
Stop the tape! Notice how Facebook is the one evaluating. Facebook is the one changing things up. This is not a scandal or a surprise. But it’s also not: “you control NewsFeed, we don’t control NewsFeed.” They control NewsFeed too. User choice is real. But code is destiny.
Mathew Ingram of Fortune magazine writes about the same announcement. Facebook, he says, “wants to have its cake and eat it too: it wants to tweak the news-feed in order to promote content that serves its purposes—whether that’s news content or baby pictures—but it also wants to pretend that it isn’t a gatekeeper, because then media companies might not play ball. So it tries to portray the algorithm as just a harmless extension of its users’ interests, when in fact it is anything but.”
David Holmes at Pando.com comments, as well:
I don’t blame Facebook for wanting to squeeze ever-increasing amounts of money from publishers and the content they produce. Facebook is a for-profit corporation and that’s what corporations do: make money. And it certainly doesn’t owe journalists or their organizations anything.
But it’s phenomenally disingenuous of the company to insist that its every strategic decision is part of some “user-first” mentality. Users don’t even pay to use Facebook — so how could they be its core constituency?
Also on the “phenomenally disingenuous” beat. Andy Mitchell’s “we’re just a supplement, not the main source” line is reality-denying in the extreme. From the Pew Research center: “Some of our 2014 research revealed that nearly half of Web-using adults report getting news about politics and government in the past week on Facebook alone, a platform where influence is driven to a strong degree by friends and algorithms.” (My italics.) So don’t tell us you’re just a supplement. It insults our intelligence. [Correction: Jesse Holcomb of the Pew Center says via Twitter: “1) Didn’t intend to imply that half of web adults get news from FB & no other source. 2) Rather, FB alone gets nearly half of web adults going there for news abt gov’t/politics.” That’s different. The Pew report has now been re-written to say: “Some of our 2014 research revealed that nearly half of Web-using adults report getting news about politics and government in the past week on Facebook, a platform where influence is driven to a strong degree by friends and algorithms.” Hat tip, Constantin Basturea.]
A distinction I have tried to import into this debate is between “thick” and “thin” legitimacy. From my piece in the Washington Post about Facebook’s mood manipulation study.
Thin legitimacy is when the experiments conducted on human beings are: fully legal and completely normal, as in common practice across the industry, but there is no way to know if they are minimally ethical, because companies have no duty to think such matters through or share with us their methods.
Thick legitimacy: when experiments conducted on human beings are not only legal under U.S. law and common in practice but also attuned to the dark history of abuse in experimental situations and thus able to meet certain standards for transparency and ethical conduct— like, say, the American Psychological Association’s “informed consent” provision.
For purposes of establishing at least some legitimacy Facebook relies on its “terms of service,” which is 9,000 words of legalese that users have no choice but to accept. That’s thin.
Facebook thinks “thin” legitimacy will work just fine. That is why it can give journalists and academics the royal run around at conferences. But what if that assessment is wrong, not from some moral perspective but as a business case? The question turns on this: To what degree does Facebook’s success depend on trust — user trust, social trust, partner trust — vs. power: market power, monopoly power, the power of an overwhelming mind share. I don’t know the answer, but I don’t trust anyone who says the answer is obvious. It’s not obvious. The more the company’s fortunes turn on trust, the greater the business case for “thick” legitimacy.
I wrote about the same issue last year. This is the description I recommended if Facebook ever decided to (I know it sounds crazy) optimize for truth.
The algorithm isn’t picking stories the way a home page or front page editor would. It’s not mimicking the trained judgment of experienced journalists. Instead, it’s processing a great variety of signals from users and recommending stories based on Facebook’s overrrding decision rule for the design of an editorial filter: maximizing time on site, minimizing the effort required to “get” a constant flow of personal and public news. The end-in-view isn’t an informed public or an entertained audience but a user base in constant contact with Facebook. As programmers we have to use our judgment — and a rigorous testing regime —to make that happen. We think it results in a satisfying experience.
Ben Thompson at his invaluable site, Stratechery. “It is increasingly clear that it is Facebook — not iOS or Android — that is the most important mobile platform.”
Andy Mitchell’s answers at Perugia insulted a lot of people. Here’s an account in Italian by a student, Enrico Bergamini, who asked Mitchell about the NewsFeed alogorithm. It includes an interview with George Brock. On my Facebook page he writes: “I was at the conference, I’m the student asking the question at 45:42, and I was obviously disappointed with the empty answer Mr Mitchell gave me.” Other comments at my Facebook page from people who were there:
Mindy McAdams: “The answers Andy Mitchell gave to questions asked after his talk in Perugia were pure spin and obfuscation… The mood was sullen as he continued answering questions with non-answers.”
Eric Sherer: “I attended this conference, Jay. It was a shame. And yes, he treated [us] like children!”
Why is it so hard to believe that Facebook optimizes for nothing but user interest, as it says it does? (Okay, and conformity with content neutral terms of service)?
Ignoring the fact that Facebook has legal obligations to act in it’s and it’s customers interests what exactly are users’ interests, did you read the article?
I’m probably missing something, but why do you think a corporation has a legal obligation to act in its customer’s interest? I’ve never head that.
I suspect the distinction being drawn here is between Facebook’s customers — the advertisers — and the users with everyday accounts. (Who ignore the ads the act on them so infrequently to be within the margin of measuring error.)
So the idea is, I think, that Facebook operates for its own interests and (nominally) the interests of the advertisers/customers, but not for the users.
Facebook optimizes engagement.
Engagement is time spent on the site. More time = more money.
Videos, articles, and photos are categorized by interest by machine learning algorithms and shown to people who have previously had high engagement with that type of content.
Ads are similarly served based on some combination of interest, retargeting cookies, and who the highest bidder for the interest category is.
Concerning the issue you raise in your piece (text follows):
But precisely because we do ‘get it’ — at least at a basic level — we want to know: what are you optimizing for, along with user interest? How do you see your role within a news ecosystem where you are more and more the dominant player? In news, you have power now. It is growing. Help us understand how you intend to use it. What kind of filter will you be? What kind of player… playing for what?
And now, to answer your question with two statements:
1. You do not get it. Most emphatically you don’t get it.
2. Facebook will “play” to advance its own best interests. Period.
If you review your column with this mindset firmly in place, a lot will become clear.
I don’t write this to be sarcastic or smartass. These people are not, as you paint it, good or noble or whatever. They do what they do because it makes them a lot of money and accretes to them a lot of power.
You mean self-interest is involved? I had not considered that. But I will now. Thank you for this insight.
No. Not standard old “self-interest.” We all have that.
Let me try this (sorry, it goes on for a while):
Say you’re sitting at a restaurant, eating a plate of french fries. I want you to really, really picture this. Take a couple of seconds and really focus on calling to mind all the aspects you can of a hot plate of right-outta-the-fryer french fries. See the blob of ketchup on the side for dipping? Feel the heat of the grease as you pick up the fry? Taste it. (If you don’t like fries, put any standard favorite of your own in here.)
Now. Look out the window of the restaurant. See the wire wastebasket tethered to the light pole? There’s a homeless man digging through it looking for something to eat. Doesn’t matter why. Maybe he’s a drug addict, maybe he’s one of your students who couldn’t find a job, maybe he’s a freshly paroled sex offender. Doesn’t matter. He’s there, digging away for scraps.
Does it, for at least just a moment, diminish the satisfaction, the taste, the enjoyment of your plate of nice, hot, fresh, french fries?
The people running facebook don’t care about the guy starving. They care about how his starving impacts facebook. Can they throw a tiny shaving of their billions at some token gesture to show that they “care”(TM) about the issue? If it enhances the position of facebook, they’ll do it in a second. But if you went up to them and said, “I can end homelessness, now and forever, world without end, but Mark Zuckerberg would have to disband facebook” they’d look at you for a moment …
And go back to eating their french fries.
Yes, I know this is cynical and jaded and all those other things that we’re no longer allowed to be because reporters, tee-hee, are supposed to be fun and kicky and think outside the box about stuff and junk and stuff.
But I’m right. As surely as I know that I’d lose my appetite for fries if I had to watch a starving man while I ate them, I know I right.
So if I understand you correctly, you are suggesting that Facebook cares about maximizing profit, not doing some social good, that it is primarily… no, exclusively concerned with enhancing its commercial prospects— not saving the world or even one person in it. And so if we are to take a realistic view of Facebook we should be aware that it is first and last a business. Do I have that right? (Hope so.)
Again, I must thank you. Because I had never considered that. You have opened my eyes, provided me with a fresh lens on the world. Now I see it: Facebook is a business. It makes so much sense. In business to make a profit, and to stay in business to make… even more profits. Yes! I think you nailed it, Alex.
As ‘businesses’ grow and become more powerful and influential, if not instrumental, then surely your definition of business, although perhaps operative, must change?
Interesting. Thank you for the article. It seems facebook has been under some scrutiny lately for other activities– primarily to do with the development and promotion of internet.org.
I’ve read a number of articles questioning the websites facebook chooses to provide, now I wonder about how their alogrithim may further affect what they see. I’m skeptical that Facebook’s changes would go so far as to violate net neutrality, but it’s an interesting question (to me at least). At which point does Facebook’s fiddling with their algorithim, given their place in the new “ecosystem”, qualify as a violation of net neutrality? Furthermore, should we still consider net neutrality when investigating Facebook solely as a website and not as an internet provider (as in Indonesia and India)? Is it ridiculous to even think such a question would be asked in the legal system? What’s the line between acceptable and unacceptable promotion and advertisement?
I suppose I’ll have to research that.
Firstly, let me say what a great article this is and how much I enjoy reading your site. I particularly liked:
“User choice is real. But code is destiny.”
It struck me, and leads me to my main point:
I wonder how much of this results from a myopic tendency among web-developers, coders, and engineering types to see their jobs in a vacuum. Trying to paraphrase the thought process as I see it:
“I’m just a coder building a web-site based on user requests. There aren’t any value judgments being made other than what users have requested.”
Maybe I’m stating something obvious. I’m not sure if it is obvious. I’m a web-developer for a small university and this “myopia” I’m describing is something I have to keep reminding myself of in order to better serve my institution, namely: the choices I make have consequences for people’s lives; they do not exist in a vacuum. Even very small choices can belie judgments. It’s certainly not easy and on my worse days I would just rather hunker down and get to coding rather than working to build effective communication with the community I’m serving.
Let me be clear: I think Mitchell knows what he’s doing by giving the run-around. I’m not trying to excuse him. What I do think is that Facebook at its core has a bunch of web-developers and engineers that just want to write code and build things. They have this view of themselves as being independent from the messy “real” world where actions/choices have consequences. Mitchell is there to keep everyone at bay.
Again, maybe I’m stating the obvious here, and this probably doesn’t speak directly to your points, but for me it highlights just how important it is for coders and domain experts (journalists in this case) to be communicating with each other.
Thank you for your work and for this article in particular.
David Penner makes a very good point. I would tweak it slightly, though. I don’t think it’s so much that coders think their code is value-neutral as it is that we are all blind to the values we personally hold. We don’t see them as value choices, in other words; we just see them as The Way Things Are.
So, when code gets written by wealthy young white guys, it ends up laden with value judgments that reflect the way wealthy young white guys see the world. The guys themselves can’t see them, though. It’s like asking a fish to tell you about water. The values only become apparent when someone who hasn’t spent their life swimming in the same fishbowl looks at them.
That’s the point I was trying to raise earlier. But I think that the mania with which the “wealthy young white guys” approach their creations isn’t being given enough focus.
It isn’t just a business. It isn’t just profit. It’s, literally, The Everything, to them. If you or I or the entire economy has to be ruined to advance The Everything, so be it.
In the past, businesses had natural throttle points. If a car company made a deathtrap that blew up when you turned the radio on, it would go broke. Facebook seems to be immune to most of the throttles I can think of.
True. You can see that attitude in this blog post by Brad Feld, a VC, in which someone says to him
… and his response makes it clear that he thinks that person was saying something positive. It’s great that we’re a cult! Hooray! We just have to be careful not to mess up like those other cults did.
Thanks! I wish I’d seen earlier the blog entry you cited.
How trendy Facebook is now? Does Facebook continue its growth?
The language of choice started out with the First Peoples being caretakers of the world. Then a misinterpretation of a biblical sky god advocating superiority through over consumption and ultimate destruction was spoken. Now the vocabulary of money has become synonymous with the 1’s and 0’s that educates everyone faster everyday and has completed the cycle away from any critical thinking.
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