Make Facebook Transparent Again

November 14, 2016

​​When Facebook first launched, it forced users to register under their real names to "keep our community safe." It urgently needs to adopt routine editorial standards of disclosure for exactly the same reason.

 

​Cigarettes have warning labels. Most food products come with a list of ingredients and nutritional facts. Responsible news outlets disclose their funding, masthead, corporate structure, conflicts of interest, and other critical information about what they report.

 

By one estimate the primary news source for 44 percent of the public, Facebook has been described as a "global Editor-in-Chief," and it wields that awesome media power with staggering irresponsibility. Picture a news outlet that treated all sources of information as identical, lent equal weight to a years-old editorial and breaking news, did not distinguish between a Macedonian meme farm and the New York Times, had an algorithm you could not see decide what you should read, and outsourced its editorial oversight to a contractor in the Philippines.

 

That's Facebook, now coming under withering attack for disseminating endless streams of fake and junk news during the 2016 election. Now, the president-elect is former reality TV star Donald Trump, who is contemptuous of the press and ran a campaign that fact-checkers universally agreed showed blithe disregard for facts and the truth.

 

Under fire, Facebook usually claims that the only alternatives to the status quo are censorship or the logistical nightmare of policing billions of posts.

 

Do not be fooled by these pleasant-sounding rationalizations: Silicon Valley has reaped immense profits pushing a techno-libertarian ethos that has poisoned the public discourse, inflamed paranoia, and rewarded disinformation around the globe. The much-maligned traditional principles of disclosure and verification are the only antidotes that can save it.

 

Pressure Facebook to adopt to the same transparency and ethical standards encouraged by the Society of Professional Journalists.

 

For better or worse, Facebook is consumed as a journalistic enterprise by millions. Reforming it does not require any blacklists and is not mainly about oversight. It is about disclosure and design.

 

Treat Facebook as a News Organization

 

To hold Facebook to the same standards as any other news outlet is not to pretend that it serves the same function as the Washington Post.

 

Guiding professional journalists for more than a century, the SPJ Code of Ethics breaks down reporters' responsibilities into four categories: "Seek the Truth and Report It," "Minimize Harm," "Act Independently" and "Be Accountable and Transparent."

 

On Sunday, Mark Zuckerberg announced his intention to conform to the first principle by cracking down on fake news, but his defensive announcement does not inspire hope.

 

"Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes," Zuckerberg insisted, according to the BBC. "The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics."

 

This misses a deeper point that Facebook's design does not distinguish between truth and fiction, reporting and public relations, or independent news outlets and partisan think tanks. Nor does it provide users with the most basic information about when and from where a story originated, including the blog post that you are currently reading. It can correct that problem with a disclosure and verification system that can have Facebook spearhead one of the largest and most effective media literacy campaigns in modern journalism.

 

In order to become a verified news provider on the website, Facebook should force an outlet to disclose information about its funding, masthead, editorial structure and conflicts of interest, which the social media should make available to users. Verification should be open to all outlets based on disclosure, not on size or editorial orientation, to prevent the appearance of favoritism found in Twitter's model or Reddit's ban on alternative news sites in 2013.

 

​​Throughout the presidential season, Blue Nation Review's posts boosting Hillary Clinton's campaign regularly went viral among her supporters. Users should not have to stumble across this Huffington Post article to learn that BNR's financial and editorial ties made it, for all intents and purposes, a house organ of the Clinton campaign.

 

Readers may still choose to select outlets that conform to their ideological bubbles, but they will be armed with information to make informed decisions about their news consumption. News outlets without a firewall between editorial and the newsmakers that they cover should come with a clear warning label.

 

Expecting readers to do this research themselves should be no more acceptable than other print, TV, radio and online outlets failing to disclose their own conflicts.

 

​​On the Republican side, the New York Observer muddied its reputation as an independent, nearly 30-year-old conservative weekly when the paper endorsed owner Jared Kushner's father-in-law, Trump, for President of the United States.

 

As declining news standards afflict even established outlets, Facebook should help educate readers when a newspaper's masthead breeds a conflict of interest. This will guarantee that a Facebook disclosure system would not primarily burden plucky start-ups, but become a tool to rewards independence and help to keep the industry more honest.

 

This would not only aid the public discourse during an election year, but provide users with critical tools to assess the credibility of the news they click, like and share.

 

​​Through this initiative, readers would have a user-friendly way to learn how many of their news outlets are concentrated within the so-called Big Six media giants: Comcast, the Walt Disney Company, 21st Century Fox, Time Warner, CBS and Viacom, whose control over the airwaves inspired this classic spoof in the style of Schoolhouse Rock, which ran once before being banned on NBC.

 

The same holds true for the top newspaper companies like Gannett, MediaNews Group, News Corporation, McClatchy, and Advance Publications, and online giants like Yahoo and AOL. Government-funded broadcasters like Al Jazeera (Qatar), PBS (United States) and RT (formerly known as Russia Today) would disclose that information to have their viewers make informed decisions about their geopolitical analysis.

 

An app could ferret out potential conflicts-of-interest between the owners and the subject of the news story, transforming a social media company criticized for amplifying misinformation into a tool for accountability journalism. Facebook could also weave these ethical standards into their terms of service for its verified news providers, and threaten to revoke verification for outlets that mislead their audience about their corporate structure or refuse to make timely corrections of misinformation.

 

In this regard, a Facebook transparency system could serve as the most powerful and up-to-date resource for informing the public about media power and ownership since the late Ben Bagdikian published "The Media Monopoly," the seminal book analyzing the power and effects of mass media concentration.

 

Shining a Light on Facebook's Opaque Design

 

Endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, Trump ran on a platform of expelling three million immigrants from the United States, a temporary travel ban on 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, and promised to ratchet up stop-and-frisk practices after a federal judge ordered court oversight over these practices. The New York Times recently reported that the election wrought the largest hate crime spike against Muslims since the wake of 9/11 attacks.

 

Set against that backdrop, this alarming news story made the social media rounds. The Los Angeles Times reported violence at a KKK rally in Anaheim, Calif., where three people were stabbed and 13 arrested.

 

The shocking report from an unimpeachable news source caught fire quickly. The alarmed post by this Facebook user, whose privacy has been protected, had been shared 88 times by readers gazing at the gruesome picture of the bloodied man on the ground.

 

There was only one problem with the story: It was published on Feb. 29, 2016, more than eight months before Election Day.

 

In times like these, it is crucial to separate corroborated reports from internet rumor in order to more effectively combat a serious and persistent problem. This story was in fact genuine, but untimely. Other reports of hoaxes have been uncovered.

 

According to a recent study, only 59 percent of users will read past an article's headline before sharing a story. Facebook's design is geared not only for the 41 percent who click through, but the even smaller number who will glance up at the dateline. Responsible publications never fail to include a dateline and time-stamp in an article, and neither should Facebook.

 

Notice too how the Los Angeles Times is identified in the same, small, grey font used for conspiracy sites and tabloid trash like InfoWars and the National Enquirer.

 

Facebook should not purge fringe publications, but it must come up with a way to make the name of a publication more prominent and guarantee that all new outlets do not blend together. This responsibility can no longer be shunted upon the users.

 

Tilting at Meme Mills

 

Trump's campaign slogan may have been "Make America Great Again," but, according to BuzzFeed, one of his most powerful meme factories ran on teenage labor in Macedonia.

 

The bizarre story reported how a unknown website called WorldPoliticus.com disseminated false memes generating "over 140,000 shares, reactions, and comments" by peddling dubious claims that inside FBI sources revealed Clinton would be indicted for her email practices in 2017.

 

Facebook promised to crack down on stories like these, but if the website wants this initiative to be anything more than a game of Whack-a-Troll, it has to go farther to "drain the swamp."

 

Imagine that every meme circulated by WorldPoliticus said "Dateline: Macedonia." Would hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens have trusted this unknown website to provide them the uncorroborated, inside skinny on their local politics?

 

Facebook should also peel back the curtain on meme farms like Conservative Daily and Occupy Democrats. It should differentiate the design and labeling of these organizations from news outlets, in the same way newspapers use a special design to denote advertorials from partisan advocacy groups.

 

Toward a Facebook Task Force

 

Treating Facebook like the de facto news organization that it is will require a paradigm shift for the company, including hiring independent editorial staff to guide its new design, algorithm and firewalls.

 

As the legendary media theorist Marshall McCluhan observed, "The medium is the message."

 

The late and esteemed Canadian professor had been commenting on television's effect on the public consciousness. He helped illuminate how TV shapes public opinion and culture not only through what it broadcasts, but through the very cues embedded in the medium. Social media's effect has been no less seismic, but far less understood.

 

The Silicon Valley giant should hire an independent group of professional journalists, media theorists, editors, and ethicists from around the globe -- call it a Facebook Task Force -- to make sure the medium's subtle cues conform to generally accepted journalistic practices. Such a task force should operate away from Facebook's California headquarters, and answer only to the users through a public audit.

 

In this model, Facebook also would hire a public editor whose job would be to publicly criticize the company for failing to meet its transparency goals and chart its progress. It would make a regular accounting of its top-trending articles daily, and where these articles originated. Many independent companies analyze this type of information for a fee. Facebook should dismantle this cottage industry by presenting this information daily in public reports.

 

In the coming days, I will reach out to a wide variety of experts -- including designers, attorneys, press-advocacy groups and online civil libertarians -- to comment on how Facebook can embrace such editorial standards while keeping its forum free, given the site's size and the constant flux of its user-generated content. 

 

There will be another challenge: impunity. 

 

As a reality TV star's ascension to the presidency busted Nielsen Ratings records, Facebook announced an incredible pull for its third financial quarter this year: $7.01 billion in revenue, a fact that gives the company 7.01 billion reasons to resist a regime that would have users think twice before sharing.

 

The good news is, the slow recognition that Facebook is indeed a news outlet -- whether it wants to be or not -- has made the company at least pay lip service to reform. Facebook announced in August that it would tweak its algorithm to weed out and marginalize clickbait headlines.

 

Unfortunately, Facebook's problem is less about isolating clickbait, but improving its editorial standards so that the medium itself is not institutionally clickbait. The changes proposed here promote a design encouraging more thoughtful consumption and engagement, a potential drain on Facebook's short-term revenue that would nonetheless improve its long-term viability as a site with editorial credibility and corporate responsibility.

 

Users of the world, demand that Facebook right its editorial ship. It has nothing to lose but its clickbait revenue streams. Please share!

 

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© 2019 by reporter ADAM KLASFELD. Contact him at adam@adamklasfeld.com.

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