The media is a business and journalism is a job. Get it together.
Facebook is partnering with fact-checking organizations to eliminate the scourge of fake news from your feed, only it doesn't seem like partnering. Aren't partners supposed to treat each other like equals?
Many of the common objections* to journalism by the alt-right center around news being click-bait and rather uninformed discussions of impression-based advertising. The essential idea is that journalists are being corrupted by money. It isn’t a hard argument to make because mainstream journalists also don’t like the idea of mixing business and editorial goals. Yet as these arguments move towards the extreme the eventual implication is that money corrupts and money corrupts journalists absolutely. Therefore, any publication that makes money through advertising is inherently untrustworthy, because — after all — they’re just writing for the clicks.
This is bullshit.
I could go deep into the many ways how this is terribly wrong but holds just the slightest truth to make it difficult to end the conversation. I’ll just say it is bad thinking coming from a core of alt-right manipulators who know it‘s a lie but continue to promote it to their own benefit.
Yet that sneering contempt for the idea that journalists should eke out a living was on display in Facebook’s statements about it’s new journalistic partners in fake news fact-checking.
[ Facebook’s VP of News Feed Adam] Mosseri confirms that these fact-checking services won’t receive any payment from Facebook, but may get a traffic and branding boost from the debunk post links.
You can almost hear the apology: ‘We wanted to make this ethical by assuring no journalist gets paid for doing it. We’re sorry, we can’t help that some small money might be made by a media organization.’
Of course, many will try to blame Facebook in this transaction; these accusers are mistaken.
As for why services would do the fact-checking labor for free, Mosseri says, “We’ve been met with a lot of positivity. What we’re doing, we believe, is aligned with their mission.”
Yes, I’m sure it was met with a lot of positivity. After all, the last decade has mostly consisted of media’s worshipfulness of Silicon Valley extending so far as to drive the entire business model of many news organizations — drive it right down a ditch.
You don’t need a Ph.D. in economics to understand the inherent flaws in the thinking of news organizations who have become the unpaid interns of Facebook for this project. You increased production of journalistic work while not making additional money? Congratulations! Now Facebook really is devaluing journalism and it couldn't have done it without media organizations’ so-called “genuine public service”.
This is unethical because journalism is worth something.
The worst part is that it isn't even a new mistake. Not many missteps in the last few years have been new ones. The media industry, in refusing to acknowledge any role in its own decline, never learns not to repeat its mistakes. I don’t hold much with the theory that putting content on the web for free was the embryonic mistake of digital journalism. The failures have always been that the ethics of the editorial side of the media don’t apply to business decisions. Yet, we are repeating both mistakes in an even more obvious context.
Again we are putting journalistic work on the web for free and failing to take an interest in how it gets paid for. This is unethical because journalism is worth something. To do it free for Facebook, a very wealthy company, is inherently a failure to value ourselves. These failures in considering not just how to write, but do business, ethically, are endemic and continual.
Facebook isn’t even the worst player in the fake news ecosystem. Advertising platforms are. Notably Google in one form or another continues to talk the talk without walking the walk in terms of putting controls on its funding of fake news.
What exactly did these news organizations trade in their capacity to make a profit to gain?
They’re not helping people who need to distinguish fake news.
The fix is already in for betting on users’ trust of Facebook fact-checking. The organizations trusted by fake news readers are already prepping their audiences to mistrust every fact-checker on the current and future list. With enviable speed Infowars has deployed not one but four separate employees to assure that every member of their audience will fully distrust Facebook’s new, lackluster, warning message. Well-known conservative writer Jim Hoft blogged his opposition. Breitbart’s slurs on the trustworthiness of the selected fact-checkers has, at this time, reached 8,506 shares on Facebook. That’s 3,000 more then the TechCruch article I’m quoting and over 2,000 more than the actual announcement from Facebook itself. So is the Fake News Alert on Facebook going to be respected much by the people who most need it? Seems unlikely.
They’re not gaining much for their brand.
Despite Mosseri’s claim of a “branding boost,” the alert on display in the Facebook demo doesn't seem to show much branding. I’m not sure what the dubious benefit of a branding boost is, but it doesn't seem likely to occur.
They’re not getting traffic.
Facebook has promised that the message will have “a link to the debunking post on News Feed stories and in the status composer if users are about to share a dubious link have links to the fact-checkers’ work.” Yet that message isn’t on display in the demo on Facebook’s announcement. It seems whatever footprint the links out will have, it won’t be much. Facebook doesn't consider it even worth previewing in their demo.
More of an issue is the tendency of Facebook users to share and interact with articles without ever clicking through. If they’re not going to click on the article, why would users click on a link to something disproving the article (especially when that link seems to be two or more user actions deep)? They won’t.
The benefit is?
There is no benefit to the news organizations that have volunteered for the endless, immense and ultimately futile job of fact-checking Facebook. Even if all the things Facebook has apparently promised were true, it doesn't matter because the huff and puff over fake news on Facebook is flawed.
It seems likely that most fake news enters Facebook organically, so it gets posted by numerous people before it gets seen on the news feed. Even if that post is somehow blocked, that’s plenty of people who are taking in false news without ever entering Facebook.
Then there are the numbers underneath the Fake News hype. Working with others, I worked out a likely range of traffic and earnings for a ‘top fake news site’. At the most absolutely generous estimation, the site would earn under $100,000 a year with slightly over a million hits a month. If we use the more realistic estimates supplied by others on the ad side of media (still generous for the fake news site) the numbers work out to under $80,000 a year and 5.4 million hits a month. That’s taking someone who apparently lies for a living at his word. In all likelihood all the numbers are a lot less.
In BuzzFeed’s analysis the top fake news stories during the three months leading up to November 8th, election day (which was the fake news phenomenon’s peak period on Facebook), garnered 8.7 million engagements. Which aren’t even all clicks. Engagements include likes, comments and shares.
If fake news has become an epidemic the leading cause is news organizations.
All these numbers sound large when presented without a scale, as reporters have for most of the fake news coverage. But we can put them into a meaningful context. As I write this, a 14-hour-old animated comedy video is about to break 3/4ths of a million views. This rap battle video is a mere three days old and has already hit 3.5 million views. Oh and a John Oliver Last Week Tonight YouTube featured video? About 5 million views. One from a mere two months ago is well on its way to 11,700,000 views.**
Notably these are videos watched for at least ~30 seconds, usually with an ad first. That is a more significant measure of engagement then the impressions that display ads require. More significant than Facebook engagements, which may comprise of less than a second taken to like an item.
So why are we constantly going on and on about “fake news”?
We could go into any number of proposed reasons why journalists have spent a full month or more obsessing over fake news (which isn’t even a new thing). The truth is laid bare with this deal with Facebook. They’re desperate. This obsession with fake news is one more panicked attempt to look anywhere but internally to resolve the commercial failings of the media industry. We’ve recently seen what desperate people do when threatened: they turn to an authoritarian. So with every op-ed asking Facebook to take a more direct hand in the flow of information, journalists are mirroring the mistakes of the desperate and casting a vote for Facebook to step in and further seize the means of distribution. It is an immensely foolhardy and shortsighted request. That door is one we don’t want to open, because it leads to a short step off a very steep slippery hill.
If there was any doubt that this was coming from a place of desperation, that doubt is dismissed by the event of professional news organizations working for free at Facebook’s behest. A jump into unproven and questionably profitable technology (also not a new mistake).
The media’s failures aren't the fault of fake news, Russia, or Facebook. They are purely our own. When The New York Times, our paper of record, is unable to prevent fake news from showing up in a story about fake news being terrible it’s time to face the fact that the media industry is structurally and deeply troubled. We can’t pretend that the industry is working when we can’t avoid auto-play video on leading sites; fake news in our footers; or propaganda at the top of the page.
If fake news has become an epidemic the leading cause is news organizations, who put lies on their page in ad units and trained readers to be unable to distinguish real news from fake. We lost reader trust.
All these desperate measures aren’t helping journalism. We’ve lost local news outlets and can no longer connect in neighborhoods where we have no presence. The declining momentum in much needed unionization for digital journalists looks like it may stall. We haven’t managed to bring more voices into the newsroom with any great effectiveness. We badly need to.
I don’t have the recipe for a better future but it isn’t going to come without some deep and fundamental changes for most news organizations — that, or the complete collapse of mainstream media companies. Whatever is going to save journalism, it requires acknowledging that we are our own worst enemies. We must take the ethics of the newsroom and bring them to the boardroom.
Our problems won’t be fixed by Facebook, ad blockers, Google or the IAB or anyone but ourselves. They sure as hell won’t be fixed by working for Facebook for free.
*Here are some links to sites that commonly use this argument. Some of them are nasty, one of them is straight up Nazi, so I am putting them at the bottom and wrapping that one in an archive link:
**A direct comparison:
So let’s measure the impact of fake news on a more useful scale: John Olivers. We’ll use the average of about 5 million views.
The entirety of top fake news over three peak months on Facebook doesn’t add up to the reach of even two John Olivers.
That top performing fake news site? It’s entire reach for a month doesn’t even come out to one John Oliver. Hell, it doesn’t even reach 2 rap battle videos.
Much thanks for editing help to Catherine Kustanczy. Any remaining errors are all on me.
As always, this piece is my own and doesn't reflect the opinions or data of current or past employers.