I’d rather like to inveigh against Facebook right now as it would be convenient, given that ever since I raised money for my school from the company, it keeps sinking deeper in a tub of hot, boiling bile in every media story and political pronouncement about its screwups. Last week’s New York Times story about Facebook sharing data with other companies seemed to present a nice opportunity to thus bolster my bona fides. But then not so much.
The most appalling revelation in The Times story was that Facebook “gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages.” I was horrified when I read that and was ready to raise the hammer. But then I read Facebook’s response.
Specifically, we made it possible for people to message their friends what music they were listening to in Spotify or watching on Netflix directly from the Spotify or Netflix apps….
In order for you to write a message to a Facebook friend from within Spotify, for instance, we needed to give Spotify “write access.” For you to be able to read messages back, we needed Spotify to have “read access.” “Delete access” meant that if you deleted a message from within Spotify, it would also delete from Facebook. No third party was reading your private messages, or writing messages to your friends without your permission. Many news stories imply we were shipping over private messages to partners, which is not correct.
And I read other background, including from Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former head of security, who has been an honest broker in these discussions:
And there’s James Ball, a respected London journalist — ex Guardian and BuzzFeed — who is writing a critical book about the internet:
In short: Of course, Netflix and Spotify had to be given the ability to send, receive, and delete messages as that was the only way the messaging feature could work for users. Thus in its story The Times comes off like a member of Congress grandstanding at a hearing, willfully misunderstanding basic internet functionality. Its report begins on a note of sensationalism. And not until way down in the article does The Times fess up that it similarly received a key to Facebook data. So this turns out not to be the ideal opening for inveighing. But I won’t pass up the opportunity.
The moral net
I’ve had a piece in the metaphorical typewriter for many months trying to figure out how to write about the moral responsibility of technology (and media) companies. It has given me an unprecedented case of writer’s block as I still don’t know how to attack the challenge. I interviewed a bunch of people I respect, beginning with my friend and mentor Jay Rosen, who said that we don’t even have agreement on the terms of the discussion. I concur. People seem to assume there are easy answers to the questions facing the platforms, but when the choices gets specific — free speech vs. control, authority vs. diversity, civility as censorship — the answers no longer look so easy.
None of this is to say that Facebook is not fucking up. It is. But its fuckups are not so much of the kind The Times, The Guardian, cable news, and others in media dream of in their dystopias: grand theft user data! first-degree privacy murder! malignant corporate cynicism! war on democracy! No, Facebook’s fuckups are cultural in the company — as in the Valley — which is to say they are more complex and might go deeper.
For example, I was most appalled recently when Facebook — with three Jewish executives at the head — hired a PR company to play into the anti-Semitic meme of attacking George Soros because he criticized Facebook. What the hell were they thinking? Why didn’t they think?
This case, I think, revealed the company’s hubristic opacity, the belief that it could and should get away with something in secret. I’m sure I needn’t point out the irony of a company celebrating publicness being so — to understate the case — taciturn. Facebook must learn transparency, starting with openness about its past sins. I’ve been saying the company needs to perform an audit of its past performance and clear the decks once and for all. But transparency is not just about confession. Transparency should be about pride and value. From the top, Facebook needs to infuse its culture with the idea that everything everyone does should shine in the light of public scrutiny. The company has to learn that secrecy is neither a cloak nor a competitive advantage (hell, who are its competitors anyway?) but a severe liability.
Facebook and its leaders are often accused of cynicism. I have a different diagnosis. I think they are infected with latent and lazy optimism. I do believe that they believe a connected world is a better world — and I agree with that. But Facebook, like its neighbors in Silicon Valley, harbored too much faith in mankind and — apart from spam— did not anticipate how it would be manipulated and thus did not guard against that and protect the public from it. I often hear Facebook accused of leaving trolling and disinformation online because it makes money from those pageviews. Nonsense. Shitstorms are bad for business. I think it’s the opposite: Facebook and the other platforms have not calculated the full cost of finding and compensating for manipulation, fraud, and general assholery. And in some fairness to them, we as a society have not yet agreed on what we want the platforms to do, for I often hear people say — in the same breath or paragraph — that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube must clean up their messes … but also that no one trusts them to make these judgments. What’s a platform to do?
If Facebook and its league had acted with transparent good faith in enacting their missions — and bad faith in anticipating the behavior of some small segment of malignant mankind — then perhaps when Russian or other manipulation reared its head the platforms would have been on top of the problem and would even have garnered sympathy for being victims of these bad actors. But no. They acted impervious when they weren’t, and that made it easier to yank them down off their high horses. Media — once technoboosters — now treat the platforms, especially Facebook, as malign actors whose every move and motive is to destroy society.
I have argued for a few years now that Facebook should hire an editor to bring a sense of public responsibility to the company and its products. As a journalist, that’s rather conceited, for as I’ll confess shortly, journalists have issues, too. Then perhaps Facebook should hire ethicists or philosophers or clergy or an Obama or two. It needs a strong, empowered, experienced, trusted, demanding, tough force in its executive suite with the authority to make change. While I’m giving unsolicited advice, I will also suggest that when Facebook replaces its outgoing head of coms and policy, Elliot Schrage, it should separate those functions. The head of policy should ask and demand answers to tough questions. The head of PR is hired to avoid tough questions. The tasks don’t go together.
So, yes, I’ll criticize Facebook. But I also believe it’s important for us in journalism to work with Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, et al because they are running the internet of the day; they are the gateways to the public we serve; and they need our help to do the right thing. (That’s why I do what I do in the projects I linked to in the first sentence above.)
Instead, I see journalists tripping over each other to brag on social media about leaving social media. “I’m deleting Facebook — find me on Instagram,” they proclaim, without irony. “I deleted Facebook” is the new “I don’t own a TV.” This led me to tweet:
People with discernible senses of humor got the gag. One person attacked me for not attacking Facebook. And meanwhile, a few journalists agonized about the choice. A reporter I whose work I greatly respect, Julia Ioffe, was visibly torn, asking:
I responded that Facebook enriches her reporting and that journalists need more — not fewer — ways to listen to the public we serve. She said agreed with that. (I just asked what she decided and Ioffe said she is staying on Facebook.)
Quitting Facebook is often an act of the privileged. (Note that lower income teens are about twice as likely to use Facebook as teens from richer families.) It’s fine for white men like me to get pissy and leave because we have other outlets for our grievances and newsrooms are filled with people who look like us and report on our concerns. Without social media, the nation would not have had #metoo or #blacklivesmatter or most tellingly #livingwhileblack, which reported nothing that African-Americans haven’t experienced but which white editors didn’t report because it wasn’t happening to them. The key reason I celebrate social media is because it gives voice to people who for too long have not been heard. And so it is a mark of privilege to condemn all social media — and the supposed unwashed masses using them — as uncivilized. I find that’s simply not true. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of smart, concerned, witty, constructive people with a wide (which could always be wider) diversity of perspective. I respect them. I learn by listening to them.
When I talked about all this on the latest This Week in Google, I received this tweet in response:
I thanked Jeff and immediately followed him on Facebook.
A moral mirror
These days, too much of the reporting about the internet is done without knowledge of how technology works and without evidence behind the accusations made. I fear this is fueling a moral panic that will lead to legislation and regulation that will affect not just a few Silicon Valley technology companies but everyone on the net. This is why I so appreciate voices like Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, now head of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, who often meets polemical presumptions about the net — for example, that we are supposedly all hermetically sealed in filter bubbles — with demands for evidence as well as research that dares contradict the pessimistic assertion. This is why I plan to convene a meeting of similarly disciplined researchers to examine how bad — or good — life on the net really is and to ask what yet needs to be asked to learn more.
Dave Winer, a pioneer in helping to create so much of the web we enjoy today (podcasts, RSS, blogging…) is quite critical of the closed systems the platforms create but also was very frustrated with the New York Times story that inspired this post:
Could this be why usually advocacy-allergic news organizations are oddly taking it upon themselves to try to convince people to delete Facebook?
This is also why Dave also had a suggestion for journalists covering technology and for journalism schools:
A bunch of us journo profs jumped on his idea and I hope we all make it happen soon.
But there’s more journalists need to do. As we in news and media attack the platforms and their every misstep — and there are many — we need to turn the mirror on ourselves. It was news media that polarized the nation into camps of red v. blue, white v. black, 1 percent v. 99 percent long before Facebook was born. It was our business model in media that favored confrontation over resolution. It was our business model in advertising that valued volume, attention, page views, and eyeballs — the business model that then corrupted the internet. It was our failure to inform the public that enabled people to vote against their self-interest for Trump or Brexit. We bear much responsibility for the horrid mess we are in today.
So as we demand transparency of Facebook I ask that we demand it of ourselves. As we expect ethical self-examination in Silicon Valley, we should do likewise in journalism. As we criticize the skewed priorities and moral hazards of technology’s business model, let us also recognize the pitfalls of our own — and that includes not just clickbait advertising but also paywalls and patronage (which will redline journalism for the privileged). Let us also be honest with ourselves about why trust in journalism is at historic lows and why people chose to leave the destinations we built for them, instead preferring to talk among themselves on social media. Let he who should live in a glass house — and expects everyone else to live in glass houses — think before throwing stones.
I’m neither defending nor condemning Facebook and the other platforms. My eyes are wide open about their faults — and also ours. They and the internet they are helping to build are our new reality and it is our mutual responsibility to build a better net and a better future together. These are difficult, nuanced problems and opportunities.