Facebook’s new “content transparency report” is full of intriguing tidbits but sheds little light on problems the social-media giant is causing for society and the news industry.
The release and Facebook’s pledge for more transparency reporting came just after the company was criticized for halting an academic research project providing insights into political advertising on Facebook.
It also coincides with the Federal Trade Commission refiling its antitrust lawsuit against the company, to clarify why the government believes the social-media giant is a monopoly.
Simultaneously, Congress is working on a bill that should get Facebook and Google to start fairly compensating publishers for news content that appears on their sites and adds value to the platforms.
This reflects the multipronged response needed to sustain America’s local free press system.
Immediate support is needed to stop widespread job losses and newspaper closures, especially in rural areas. One such lifeline is the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would let publishers collectively bargain with platforms. The goal is to get dominant platforms to finally pay for news content that’s earned them billions as publishers struggle to survive.
Another prong is regulatory reform and enforcement, to start leveling the playing field in digital advertising. That would help a range of industries but it’s a longer-term endeavor that may take years. By then much of America’s local news system may be extinct.
Meanwhile more transparency about Facebook is necessary. But the latest report — with a few top 20 lists — isn’t much progress.
One surprising nugget: The top link posted during the first quarter was to a regional newspaper story, about a doctor who died two weeks after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
Some characterized this as evidence of misinformation about the virus.
Not to defend Facebook, but maybe the problem is that millions of people saw a headline or snippet, apparently didn’t read the story and jumped to a wrong conclusion.
Facebook said the story, posted by the Chicago Tribune, was viewed 53.8 million times but a spokesperson declined to say how many users clicked through to the story, which was reported by the Florida Sun-Sentinel and shared with the Tribune. The Tribune’s managing editor said she was unavailable for comment and I didn’t get a response from an email to the reporter, who has left the Sentinel.
If people read the whole story, they’d know the cause of death was uncertain and vaccine risks are low. If they were regular readers of the newspapers, they’d get later updates and know the doctor had a clotting disorder and his death was determined to be from natural causes.
Perhaps banking on the unlikelihood that people would actually read the story or follow-ups, the snippet was widely shared by people trying to increase vaccine fears.
This is further evidence that tackling the misinformation crisis is horrendously complex and punitive policies aimed at online publishers may miss the mark.
Even legitimate news stories can be misconstrued and amplified on Facebook because of the way it’s designed and moderated. Users also need to be careful and critical consumers of information shared online.
Facebook is stepping up its whack-a-mole response to harmful information, including its recent decision to ban a Russian operation seeding fake information to cast doubt on U.S. vaccines.
I’d argue that the only real remedy is increasing reporting and readership of legitimate, trusted local news.
If Congress spent as much time working on solutions to save local news as it has on “fixing” Facebook, the problem may be solved.
That’s not to let Facebook off the hook. The company’s ongoing lack of transparency given it’s role in civic dialogue and commerce is abysmal. Its unfair business practices must be stopped.
Facebook and Google should also be watched closely in coming months, as the JCPA advances. It has bipartisan support and a stronger version is expected soon.
When similar legislation was proposed in Australia earlier this year and Facebook and Google were facing the prospect of having to pay for news content they’d been using for free, they went nuclear, blocking access and threatening to leave the country.
Nobody would take such threats seriously in the U.S. so they’ll have to take a different approach.
That makes me wonder if Facebook’s “transparency report” is a partly a preemptive response.
It dazzles readers with the vast scale of Facebook traffic and suggests the site’s mostly used to view things like memes, babies and animals.
The report states that even the largest publishers only account for a tiny share of content viewed on Facebook, with the top 20 accounting for .057% of all views. It does not discuss the influence or credibility that different types of content bring to the platform.
Spin or not, this positions the company to start low if it’s forced to negotiate payments for news in the U.S., as it’s now doing in Australia. Stay tuned — it looks like an interesting fall.
This column is excerpted from the free, weekly Voices for a Free Press newsletter. Subscribe at st.news/FreePressNewsletter.