As with all things, there are two sides to every coin, and that includes the Big F corporation.
Check any reliable source and it’s not uncommon to find Facebook linked to phrases like misinformation, online bullying, and journalism that is of the color yellow. To top it all off: after Cambridge Analytica, it seems that the company may have bitten off more than it can chew in terms of data privacy – which we believe is more than enough cause for concern.
However, as journalists, we cannot neglect the fact that Facebook still maintains a massive influence on how the public consumes news (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). In fact, according to good ol’ Reuters, Facebook’s products (i.e. Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp) reach 84% of the combined sample and 57% for news.
That’s equivalent to saying roughly 1.3 billion Facebook users consume news on a daily basis – and those are now last year’s results.
So, with the year 2020 well underway, what does this tech giant have in store for us publishers? Well, we did a little digging and anticipate at least three potential Facebook-triggered earthquakes:
The whole like removal shebang
At this very moment, if every single person on this planet who owns a Facebook account was to Like a picture of your dog or cat or whatever you’re into, you’d have over 2.4 billion Likes!
But there’s a twist: Facebook and Instagram are gradually removing Likes from their platforms, at least in the sense of who gets to see it (Like tallies would still be visible to the person who created the post). Honestly, who knew such a simple UI/UX quirk would become to have such profound implications?
According to Adam Mosseri, the man in charge of Instagram, the reasoning behind this move is to promote better mental and emotional health (FOMO vs JOMO). Specifically, they are testing this approach because they “want to make Instagram a place where users can connect and see what they love.” This may sound a bit naive on the surface but, so far, the idea seems to hold water in practice.
The pilot study first started last year in April, in Canada. After receiving mostly positive feedback from users, the test later expanded to 6 other countries (Australia, Brazil, Ireland, Italy, Japan, and the Land of the Kiwi). And now, the feature is being tested around the world, though still only on a small percentage of users.
So if on one side of the coin we have encouraging users not to be influenced by the siren’s call of likes, what’s on the other side?
with complexity comes nuance – not something you can get from a pallid thumbs up
Well, advertisers and the content creator industry speculate that this is an attempt to mitigate (possibly even eliminate) the sense of competition that stems between network users. There are accounts of people (i.e. influencers) objecting to this idea, stating that “there’s no audience applause at the end of a performance.”
In fact, according to HypeAuditor’s research, the Like count has a notable effect on reader behavior. They found that where users were unable to see if a post was producing good ‘engagement’ (and we put it like this because at Content Insights we look at this quite differently), the Like count was markedly lower (15% in some regions) than where users could. More evidence, if it were needed, that us humans are inherently social, pack animals. Instagram might have to introduce some new methods of measuring engagement, such as private URLs, API creators, or partner dashboard, so clients can access the stats themselves.
As the developers of a system that champions more complex metrics, we’d argue that it lights the way forward to a culture where publishers accept that to be useful and meaningful, editorial analytics must be more complex. After all, with complexity comes nuance – not something you can get from a pallid thumbs up.
Yet another question hangs in the air: what do Likes even mean today? Apart from being ‘just a number’, we cannot deny the fact that they are also a basic unit of currency on social media. Likes are an easy, universal measure that can add legitimacy to a post or author’s humor, quality, popularity, influence, and even, power (hint: the Kardashian clan).
Indeed, Likes have the power to sway opinions and shouldn’t be considered a mere trifle. But what happens when opinions are swayed on an ‘industrial scale’?
The Cambridge Analytica saga continues in 2020
Now, we’ve all seen (or at least probably heard about) Mark Zuckerberg having to testify to Congress in 2018 after it was reported that 87 million Facebook users had information harvested by Cambridge Analytica. If by chance you haven’t followed up on the story, Netflix’s The Great Hack can bring you up to speed brilliantly.
What was interesting to see was that beneath the deluge of promises, apologies, blog posts, and treatises (which it seems Facebook has a proclivity to unleash during a PR crisis) when the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, the initial response from Menlo Park was a deafening 5-day silence. Journalists couldn’t help but wonder why?
When Zuckerberg & Co. finally did emerge on the sixth day, they admitted their mistakes and projected the image of suddenly being woke to privacy issues. But by the seventh day, they clearly felt that their work [being woke] was done, and it was back to business as usual.
There was no palpable sense of accountability for the fact that Facebook had allowed someone to extract vast amounts of private information from its system – data which was passed along to someone else, who in turn had systematically used it for political ends. Put another way: with Cambridge Analytica, it was not a case of a data breach (which would have been easier to weather, as was the case in October 2018) but of Facebook’s systems working as designed: data was amassed, extracted, and exploited.
And so the saga continues…
This year – over the course of the following months – an explosive leak of tens of thousands of documents is set to expose the manipulative inner workings of the now-defunct consulting firm. The release of documents began on New Year’s Day on an incognito Twitter account, @HindsightFiles, which was later revealed to have come from Brittany Kaiser herself, an ex-Cambridge Analytica employee-turned-whistleblower.
“It’s so abundantly clear our electoral systems are wide open to abuse,” Kaiser said. “I’m very fearful about what is going to happen in the US election later this year, and I think one of the few ways of protecting ourselves is to get as much information out there as possible.”
So the crux of the issue is this: the Facebook data scandal was part of a much bigger, further-reaching global operation which seems to have collaborated with governments, intelligence agencies, advertising companies – all with the aim of manipulating and influencing people during political campaigns. Albeit this idea isn’t brand new, the magnitude of this operation is nothing short of Orwellian with huge national and international security implications.
Emma Briant, an academic at Bard College, New York, who specializes in investigating propaganda, has had the opportunity to access some of the documents for research. Her impression is that we have only just begun to scratch the surface of the disturbing experiments that now seem to be permeating the world. “This is an entire global industry that’s out of control,” she said, highlighting that the targets are usually the most vulnerable people who are susceptible to fear-based messaging.
Considering such malpractice with data can bend the future of many nations to the will of the few, journalists should definitely keep at least one of their antennae pointed in this direction. This also brings us to another important matter in which Facebook will definitely have a role to play in its outcome.
Facebook’s impact on the 2020 US political election
“The documents reveal a much clearer idea of what actually happened in the 2016 US presidential election,” Kaiser said, “which has a huge bearing on what will happen in 2020. It’s the same people involved who we know are building on these same techniques.”
No doubt – as a result – Facebook will be kept under a magnifying glass ahead of the upcoming US presidential election in November 2020. Whether or not that will secure fair democratic elections is still open for debate, but Reuters recently announced that Facebook may have learned something from its previous experience.
The social media giant has vowed to curb political manipulation of its platform by enabling users to turn off certain ad-targeting tools. Another feature Facebook plans to introduce is to allow users to choose to stop seeing ads based on an advertiser’s “Custom Audience” – a change that will apply to all types of ads, not just political ones.
So is this the company’s way to make amends after failing to counter Russian interference in the 2016 elections, the misuse of user data by CA, and its hands-off approach to ad policies that exempt political ads from fact-checking standards? Even more importantly, will it be enough?
Twitter also banned political ads in October and Alphabet Inc. – the parent company of Google and its subsidiaries – said it would stop letting advertisers target election ads using data such as public voter records and general political affiliations. Spotify, Pinterest, and TikTok have also joined that club – online platforms that haven’t come remotely close to enduring such an existential reckoning as Facebook did.
There is also the fact that Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the re-election campaign of President Donald Trump, spent more on Facebook ads than any other candidate. The reasoning is that the company’s approach to political messages outperforms those from Twitter and Google as it “encourages more Americans to be involved in the process.” Or as Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management, explained that the policies are based “on the principle that people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all.”
We can deduce that Facebook (as well as its sibling Instagram) will most likely remain the Wild Wild Country of political ads during the 2020 presidential race. Considering the power these platforms have to reach people, politicians of all orientations will have little choice but to invest in Facebook and Instagram ads.
After all, it’s where a lot of eyes and ears are focused (almost 70 percent of American adults to be exact).
It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the Like removal, particularly if it gets rolled out more widely. The note about the effect it might have on engagement is fascinating, and considering that Facebook and Instagram work on the basis that you’re in a social network where you are encouraged to participate, removing a universally understood means of participating might have interesting consequences. Or maybe it won’t – we have yet to discover.
With regards to Facebook ads, it sounds promising to have the ability to adjust your ad settings, but this prospect very much puts the ball in the reader’s court. So much has been written about filter bubbles, which raises the question: do people want to have ideologically charged content removed? Are we even that self-aware? Looking at FB’s user base, there is reason to remain skeptical.
But one thing is certain: you will rarely hear someone say “I’m going to delete Facebook,” and truly mean it. Zuckerberg may have found himself an unexpected heir to an unfamiliar publishing landscape, but that letter F in a blue square is still deeply embedded in our virtual DNA and how we consume news.
We have yet to see how this year will unfold so keep your eyes peeled.