Mark Zuckerberg took to Facebook last week to share his thoughts about his company’s evolving role and remit. Framed in terms of community, it was as much an optimistic statement of intent about what role it can play in an increasingly connected world, as it was – finally – an admission of the platform’s evolving responsibilities with regards to how information and news is being distributed.
At a few paragraphs shy of 6,000 words his ‘post’ is clearly more manifesto than status update, and the fact that his thoughts were able to be unfurled in such a way speaks volumes about the speed at which Facebook’s technological capabilities have evolved, whilst its social responsibilities have lagged somewhat behind. It’s not that Facebook hasn’t been responsive to change – in a technical capacity its ability to adapt and incorporate latest innovations has never been a problem. The humble status update has, after all, increased from a Twitter-esque character limit of 160, to where we are now, evidently able to publish lengthy think pieces that allow the writer to write with the kind of nuance that Zuckerberg now says he understands social media is not the best at facilitating.
What is more obvious is that Zuckerberg has finally – mercifully – acknowledged that Facebook’s role has developed to be more than simply facilitating social interactions. Like it or not, at least part of Facebook’s function now is the business of sharing information and, most importantly for our purposes here, relaying news.
Yes, taken as a percentage of posts across the platform, news items may not feature as prominently as the latest can’t-miss-it-meme, but – and this is absolutely worth stressing, again and again – the fact remains that 62% of American adults say they get news (to a lesser or greater extent) from the platform, with 29% saying that they get the majority of their information about current affairs from it. Journalists and publishers may long have begrudgingly accepted that Facebook has, more often than not, a part to play in the news landscape, but up until now, Zuckerberg himself has remained steadfastly ambivalent about this.
So what’s the gist?
In creating a massive social platform that has made us more connected than ever before, Zuckerberg says he now wants to focus on strengthening the communities we are each part of, whether they are global or local, social or political. Given that something like a quarter of the world’s population now users the platform, it’s not unreasonable for him to say that he sees Facebook’s role necessarily continue to “developing social infrastructure for community”.
How, he asks, do we help build supportive, safe, informed, civically-engaged and inclusive communities? Those are big questions, and whilst he’s obviously placing Facebook at the centre of the answer to each, these questions could easily be ones being asked of any news outlet today.
He doesn’t mention specifically political events in this piece and insists that “no one single event triggered this” but the allusions are self-evident, and the timing spot-on.
OK. How about some examples? What relates to us here in journalism land?
Always happy to oblige. Let’s start here:
“In the last year the complexity of the issues we’ve seen has outstripped our existing processes for governing the community”
Even in the past week there are two obvious examples of the kind of issues about which he’s talking.
A few days prior to this letter’s publication, Leo Martínez and Luis Manuel Medina, two journalists at a radio station in the Dominican Republic, were murdered during their broadcast, and the incident captured on a Facebook Live video. This isn’t the only occurrence of violent crimes being recorded in this manner and whilst it’s true that the media has always had the potential to capture moments like this in the pre-Facebook age any broadcasting of such things would have been as a result of a decision to run it, and not just something that was happening incidentally.
In addition there is also the apparently perennial problem of fake news – something brought into sharp relief during the presidential campaign and not easily forgotten thereafter thanks to President Trump’s persistent assertions that most mainstream media outlets “are fake news”.
Both of these things have been exacerbated by the ease with which Facebook allows users to share content, and it is in this technical aspect that Facebook needs to adapt and innovate. It may not have created the problem, but it can most assuredly be part of the solution (extra brownie points for you, Mark, if you can pull that off).
At Content Insights, we’re well aware of the problems the new industry has with regards to metrics, and Facebook’s reliance on ‘engagement’ when it is measured by likes and shares only exacerbates the culture of sensational click bait and poorly written articles. This comment, therefore, is a welcome one:
“We noticed some people share stories based on sensational headlines without ever reading the story. In general, if you become less likely to share the story after reading it, that’s a good sign the headline was sensational. If you’re more likely to share a story after reading it, that’s often a sign of good in-depth content.”
If Facebook is able to come up with a way to assess – even rudimentarily – if and when an article is lacking this ‘good in-depth content’ wouldn’t that be something? Zuckerberg has long claimed that Facebook is a platform and not a publisher, and therefore not obliged to commit any acts of editing (to paraphrase Emily Bell). With its tech hat firmly atop its tech-business head, though, Facebook might actually be able to commit a simple act of editing and do it from the position of strength (tech) that it has, but tech has its limits, as he admits here:
“We are proceeding carefully because there is not always a clear line between hoaxes, satire and opinion”
Throughout the post, the references to automated, algorithmically-centered solutions to problems are predominant. It’s no surprise of course: Facebook is a tech company, but surely those of us used to the machinations of publishing can see the issue here: human input is very necessary to start to make those distinctions. Technical solutions simply aren’t yet where they need to be.
“We’re operating at such a large scale that even a small percent of errors causes a large number of bad experiences”
As Zuckerberg himself says, even if 99% of content passes muster, that 1% which is problematic is still a huge problem.
“Our goal must be to help people see a more complete picture, not just an alternate perspective.”
In a conversation with Steven Levy prior to the release of his statement, Zuckerberg said “I don’t think it’s fully proven, but I think if you engage with someone as a whole person, you are more likely to actually have a productive conversation” and I would wager there is plenty to reinforce this conjecture: in creating even a slither of anonymity there’s a real danger that users become emboldened to say things they would otherwise not, if they were having the conversations face to face. That’s another tech problem for Zuck’s team, but we’re starting to see newspapers embracing the idea of broadening the scope of reporting from a publishing standpoint, and to apparent succeess: The Guardian’s Burst Your Bubble newsletter brings viewpoints from center-right publications to the Guardian’s more left of center reader base. These are baby steps, of course, but in the timeline of publishing these problems are similarly youthful.
“Social media is a short-form medium where resonant messages get amplified many times. This rewards simplicity and discourages nuance”
There surely can’t be much doubt that the kind of anonymity that Facebook – and other social media platforms – provides makes it all too easy to oversimplify things that are significantly more nuanced, and it’s frankly a relief to hear Zuckerberg’s own admission that when he dismissed claims that Facebook’s lack of response to fake news might have swung the [US] election, “I might have messed that one up by not giving the broader context”. Whilst it’s clearly a modern problem, fueled by a modern news delivery system of which Facebook is a key player, the goal of presenting a fuller picture, is something which applies to all news outlets, publishers and journalists, whatever their platform, and surely has ever been thus.
“A strong news industry is also critical to building an informed community… There is more than we must do to support the news industry to make sure this vital social function is sustainable”
If we’re talking about how best to build our communities through information, conversation and analysis, there’s never going to be a single solution, and that’s where Zuckerberg’s Facebook is always going to struggle. The title of a short response to this manifesto on Medium last week was “Zuckerberg’s global manifesto says…. It’s really, really… really complicated” and all pith aside, that just about sums it up.
Facebook is a subject which we find ourselves dedicating column inches to more often than we’d perhaps choose, but the fact is that Facebook’s plight, its developments, realizations and shortfalls bring into relief issues more broadly in evidence across the journalism industry. It’s easy too, to bash Zuckerberg’s global mission statement, but if you take nothing else from this it should be that finally Facebook has understood that in becoming a kind of social glue for many communities, it now must be careful that its social responsibilities stick.