From The Wall Street Journal:
It’s a good time to re-examine our relationship with Facebook Inc.
In the past month, it has been revealed that Facebook hosted a Russian influence operation which may have reached between 3 million and 20 million people on the social network, and that Facebook could be used to micro-target users with hate speech. It took the company more than two weeks to agree to share what it knows with Congress.
Increased scrutiny of Facebook is healthy. What went mainstream as a friendly place for loved ones to swap baby pictures and cat videos has morphed into an opaque and poorly understood metropolis rife with influence peddlers determined to manipulate what we know and how we think. We have barely begun to understand how the massive social network shapes our world.
Unfortunately, Facebook itself seems just as mystified, providing a response to all of this that has left many unsatisfied.
What the company’s leaders seem unable to reckon with is that its troubles are inherent in the design of its flagship social network, which prioritizes thrilling posts and ads over dull ones, and rewards cunning provocateurs over hapless users. No tweak to algorithms or processes can hope to fix a problem that seems enmeshed in the very fabric of Facebook.
. . . .
On a network where article and video posts can be sponsored and distributed like ads, and ads themselves can go as viral as a wedding-fail video, there is hardly a difference between the two. And we now know that if an ad from one of Facebook’s more than five million advertisersgoes viral—by making us feel something, not just joy but also fear or outrage—it will cost less per impression to spread across Facebook.
In one example, described in a recent Wall Street Journal article, a “controversial” ad went viral, leading to a 30% drop in the cost to reach each user. Joe Yakuel, founder and chief executive of Agency Within, which manages $100 million in digital ad purchases, told our reporter, “Even inadvertent controversy can cause a lot of engagement.”
Keeping people sharing and clicking is essential to Facebook’s all-important metric, engagement, which is closely linked to how many ads the network can show us and how many of them we will interact with. Left unchecked, algorithms like Facebook’s News Feed tend toward content that is intended to arouse our passions, regardless of source—or even veracity.
An old newspaper catchphrase was, “If it bleeds, it leads”—that is, if someone got hurt or killed, that’s the top story. In the age when Facebook supplies us with a disproportionate amount of our daily news, a more-appropriate catchphrase would be, “If it’s outrageous, it’s contagious.”
. . . .
“Facebook has become so central to how people communicate, and it has so much market power, that it’s essentially immune to market signals,” Dr. Benkler says. The only thing that will force the company to change, he adds, is the brewing threat to its reputation.
. . . .
Mr. Zuckerberg acknowledged in a recent Facebook post that the majority of advertising purchased on Facebook will continue to be bought “without the advertiser ever speaking to anyone at Facebook.” His argument for this policy: “We don’t check what people say before they say it, and frankly, I don’t think our society should want us to.”
This is false equivalence. Society may not want Facebook to read over everything typed by our friends and family before they share it. But many people would feel it’s reasonable for Facebook to review all of the content it gets paid (tens of billions of dollars) to publish and promote.
“Facebook has embraced the healthy gross margins and influence of a media firm but is allergic to the responsibilities of a media firm,” Mr. Galloway says.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal
PG understands the controversy, but disagrees with conventional wisdom about its seriousness.
Complaints about Facebook are similar to earlier complaints about the internet – anybody can say anything they want to say.
Do Facebook users really compare a paid advertisement to a posting and give more credence to an advertisement because someone paid Facebook to distribute it? PG doesn’t think so.
If anything, PG tends to be a bit more suspicious of advertisements in any medium because the ideas contained in the advertisement were presumably not able to rise to a higher level of visibility without someone paying money to cause the publication to give them more visibility.
The idea that people are so stupid that large organizations, whether governments or private companies, are obligated to protect them from bad ideas (whatever that means) is pretty much the ultimate in slippery slopes.
If people don’t like what they see on Facebook, they’ll stop visiting Facebook and go elsewhere. Alternatives are a click away.
If advertisers think their reputations are harmed by their advertisements appearing on Facebook, they will pull the ads. At present, a large number of advertisers think their reputations are just fine on Facebook and are willing to continue to pay Facebook for visibility.
If the experts are correct that Facebook’s reputation is being commercially tarnished by what is appearing on its site, advertising or something else, we’ll see it in the number of visitors and the number of advertisers on Facebook. If visitors and advertisers continue to appear, we’ll know the experts are wrong. Again.