“Journalism is the best obtainable version of the truth…It’s a simple concept for something very difficult to get right because of the enormous amount of effort, thinking, persistence, pushback, removal of ideological baggage, and the sheer luck that is required, not to mention some unnatural humility.”
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, White House correspondents dinner 2017
Leo Tolstoy, in a story called the Kreutzer Sonata, once described a character who visited a P.T. Barnum circus in Paris. The man paid a franc to enter a tent promising a rare “water-dog” – and saw only an ordinary dog wrapped in sealskin.
“Ask the gentleman if it is not worth seeing!” shouted Barnum as the man emerged from the tent. “Come in, come in! It only costs a franc.”
“In my confusion I did not dare to answer that there was nothing curious to be seen,” explains the character in the story. “And it was upon my false shame that the Barnum must have counted.”
Many in the “news business” count on your shame in the same way. With a straight face they profess to be driven by “quality journalism” and an intent to divine the truth, but it’s a game. Truth is no longer a process of collective discovery, but a dogma known in advance to a chosen few whose role in life is to hand it down from on high to everyone else. You know and they know that the news they offer you is superficial, partisan, and even, in a way, demeaning. They know you’re too embarrassed to admit that you spend hours every day poring through dramatized “news” content specifically designed to stroke your point of view. Like Tolstoy’s character, you’ll pay to hide your shame.
But by stroking your point of view, they keep you reading, and coming back for more.
How did we get to the point where the news is compromised by this mad pursuit of engagement?
Well, engagement has always been a key metric of media consumption. Attracting a reader, a listener, a viewer and a user is one thing. Holding their attention for valuable minutes is another, for the longer they stay, the more they consume, the more valuable they are, the less time they can spend with a competitor. If a newspaper reader turns more pages, then she sees more ads, if a tv viewer stays for the full 30 minutes of a newscast, the more ads she shall see, too. Headlines and subheads and photographs in newspapers, the use of music signatures and fades in radio programming, the evolution of television news into the lurid and the brief accompanied by the wildly self-promotional – “live, local, late-breaking” – all are designed to hold attention and extend consumption.
Over time commercial success in media required that news be visual, personalized, dramatic, simplistic, stereotyped…and overtly partisan. And these engagement techniques reach their zenith in digital media.
An engaged consumer is – presumably – a satisfied customer and therefore more likely to return than a user who leaves abruptly. In other words, “hold time” is a key measure of customer satisfaction in media. The problem is that in the digital world, users have always acted like locusts. They alight, they devour, and they leave, as quickly as they arrived, eager for the next nibble, the next thrill, always just a little click away. There’s a reason why digital consumers were christened “users” back when we were building the early Internet – we wanted to turn them from transitory visitors into dependents, hooked on our stuff and coming back again and again for another fix of it.
In the early days of the internet, the financial value of a digital media company devolved to just two measures: DAU, or active daily users, and MAU, or monthly active users. But then, as the usage patterns of user-locusts became clear and particularly as internet consumption shifted towards mobile and social, engagement emerged as the bigger challenge. That’s because we no longer live with the internet. We live in it. A user now sees a news story flashing by in the hectic flow of a social feed on a phone, just another media object in danger of getting lost amongst the memes and photos and videos and personal stories and recipes and weather updates and endless texts and emails.
A century ago, in his book “Liberty and the News,” Walter Lippmann wrote:
The news of the day as it reaches the newspaper office is an incredible medley of fact, propaganda, rumor, suspicion, clues, hopes, and fears and the task of selecting and ordering that news is one of the truly sacred and priestly offices in a democracy.
Instead of flowing into Lippmann’s “newspaper office,” these days the news of the day streams from social media platform directly to you, the user.
It takes three things for a news story to break through in this saturated, splintered, recklessly-paced, digital media environment:
First, strident content which endorses your political point of view.
In an earlier post, The media system is broken, and only you can fix it, I argued that you watch the news you watch and visit the sites you visit and curate the feeds you want not for the reporting, not for a balanced presentation, not to have your opinions formed, but to have your ideological point-of-view reinforced.
News does not create a point of view.
News endorses a point of view.
How do you know if a news story is true?
If you agree with it.
As a result, journalism is no longer the pursuit of Woodward and Bernstein’s “best obtainable version of the truth,” if it ever was. Nobody wants the plain truth, they want their version of it. This has driven an important trend in journalism, away from the mundane business of reporting itself to explaining what a particular news event signifies, putting it into a particular context, interpreting it. I call this “perspective journalism.” For more on the development of this trend, click here for this paper by Katharine Fink and Michael Schudson of Columbia University
Perspective journalism not necessarily a bad thing, provided the particular perspective is delivered with an experienced eye that struggles for balance. Unfortunately it seldom is, and so we now live in a social media cycle of rotating partisan hysteria. It makes us feel good, it sustains engagement, if you’re a social media company it’s good for business, but it is damaging in the extreme to civil society
Second, emotional content, especially if unexpected
Another way to breakthrough is to focus on emotion.
According to NewsWhip, a company which measures social media reaction, in the week after the January 26 helicopter accident when Kobe and Gianna Bryant were killed, stories about the event generated 208 million interactions on social media. That’s more than the coronavirus, (this was January, so it was early), Trump impeachment, the Super Bowl, the Iowa caucuses and the Grammys, combined.
In a news ecosystem fragmented by niche and ideology, the arms race for engagement has made it harder for all but the most shocking stories – or prosaic stories artfully wound up to appear truly shocking – to break through. The truth? It’s trumped by emotion every time.
Third, news featuring people saying or doing things so sensational you can’t help but watch – like when the traffic up ahead slows down to look at the wreck on the side of the road. While you hate yourself for joining in on the rubbernecking, you cannot help yourself. It’s as desirable as that dark chocolate Bounty bar when you’re waiting in the check-out line. You know you don’t want it. You certainly don’t need it. But there it is, sitting there, winking at you.
Buzzfeed has the dubious privilege of becoming the acknowledged leader at the digital sensation game. But even Buzzfeed may be trumped by our current president.
Say what you like about President Trump, the guy is a master of the media engagement game. His social media presence is an artful confluence of each of these three engagement triggers; His tweets and posts are intended to reinforce his followers’ partisan loyalty, they are always emotive and they are typically sensational. He knows how to break through the noise and engage your attention. Exaggeration, mistruths, false claims, it doesn’t seem to matter. The only thing that seems to matter is outrage. The more outrageous his tweets, the more outraged his supporters, the more engaged in his message they are.
The fact that the president of the United States of America is responsible for the outrage has finally forced social media platforms into an uncomfortable – and dangerous – position.
It has forced them to become moderators of the news content flowing through their platforms.
They are becoming censors.
Nearly every major social media platform has recently taken editorial action against Trump or the far-right channels that support him.
On May 26, Trump tweeted about mail-in ballots and he got this footnote:
For the first-time, the president of the United States had been fact-checked.
When the #BlackLivesMatter protests erupted, Trump piled on with a burst of tweets including this one, deemed by many as a blatant incitement to violence. This time, it was met by a stern warning from Twitter:
This is a smart approach. Warning is not censoring. And providing more information on mail-in voting does not in any way hinder anybody’s free speech. But other digital media companies have taken an even stronger approach.
Twitch has temporarily suspended the president’s account. “Hateful conduct is not allowed on Twitch,” a spokesperson for the streaming giant told TechCrunch. “In line with our policies, President Trump’s channel has been issued a temporary suspension from Twitch for comments made on stream, and the offending content has been removed.”
Twitch specifically cites two incidents from campaign rallies, including this one from the recent rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma:
Hey, it’s 1:00 o’clock in the morning and a very tough, I’ve used the word on occasion, hombre, a very tough hombre is breaking into the window of a young woman whose husband is away as a traveling salesman or whatever he may do. And you call 911 and they say, “I’m sorry, this number’s no longer working.” By the way, you have many cases like that, many, many, many. Whether it’s a young woman, an old woman, a young man or an old man and you’re sleeping.
Then Reddit banned the massive The Donald subreddit, which sported more than 790,000 users, largely devoted to sharing content about Trump.
Reddit confirmed the update to its policy that resulted in the ban, along with 2,000 other subreddits, including one devoted to the hugely popular leftist comedy podcast, Chapo Trap House.
The company cited the following new rules:
Rule 1 explicitly states that communities and users that promote hate based on identity or vulnerability will be banned.
Rule 2 ties together our previous rules on prohibited behavior with an ask to abide by community rules and post with authentic, personal interest.
Debate and creativity are welcome, but spam and malicious attempts to interfere with other communities are not.
All communities on Reddit must abide by our content policy in good faith. We banned r/The_Donald because it has not done so, despite every opportunity. The community has consistently hosted and upvoted more rule-breaking content than average (Rule 1), antagonized us and other communities (Rules 2 and 8), and its mods have refused to meet our most basic expectations.
Reddit said that it also banned the smaller, liberal, Chapo board for “consistently hosting rule-breaking content and their mods have demonstrated no intention of reining in their community.”
Until early August, only Facebook had taken no action.
Mark Zuckerberg himself defended his decision to maintain Trump’s posting. “I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online. Private companies probably shouldn’t be, especially these platform companies, shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”
Let me digress here for a moment. When you’ve been in the game for as long as I have, you recognize that Facebook’s position is not something Zuckerberg has simply dreamed up. In fact, you can trace its roots to the tenets of “common carriage” that long underpinned the U.S. telecommunications industry. The principle of common carriage was designed to protect free speech, because it mandated that any utility providing a communications service, like, say, a telephone company 30 years ago, must be neutral on content and use. Carriers could not be selective based on the content carried on their lines, and explicitly could not censor.
In one case, a customer’s telephone service was disconnected because of suspicion that it might have been used for transmitting gambling information. But, the court reinstated service since the telephone company “is not at all qualified, in the absence of evidence of illegal use, to withhold from the petitioner, at will an essential and public utility.” In another case, telephone companies, reacting primarily to outside pressures and concerns about corporate image, attempted to ban sexually-oriented audio programming. Again, the court refused to allow such a ban. In yet another case a California court stated, “public utilities and common carriers are not the censors of public or private morals, nor are they authorized or required to investigate or regulate the public or private conduct of those who seek service at their hands.”
As the Internet took off and under lobbying pressure from cable companies, the U.S. Congress and the FCC radically updated common carriage regulations in 2002 and we could get lost in talking about what has transpired since, but I wanted to highlight the concept because it means there is really only one fundamental question we need to ask: Is Facebook merely providing a neutral conduit for individuals and companies to share content, or is it in fact, a publisher in its own right? If Facebook is a publisher, then like any publisher it should be held accountable for what it publishes.
Now sure, Facebook is not a publisher in the strict, conventional sense – it doesn’t produce any content itself. But while it may not actually produce content, it selects what you see by using algorithms built on personalization. That involves an “editorial” process of selection, particularly with a view to potential engagement. That process is in turn built on scoring against a variety of measures, including the potential for virality and also, interestingly, something called “quality.” You know as well as I do that one person’s quality news is another person’s schlock, but someone, somewhere at Facebook is making that kind of judgment and working it into the algorithm.
All this might in the end be an algorithmic process, a digital production process, but it is perilously close in nature to the classic print newspaper production process where an edition is constructed atop a pyramid of subjectivity – what stories to cover, how intensely to cover them, what sources to seek out, and include, what pieces of information are highlighted, what are downplayed, and so on. If you understand that process, you know that for newspapers objectivity is and has always been a charade, and little more that a self-serving promotional slogan. This is especially true in today’s world, when it’s plain to any person of moderate intelligence that newsrooms now operate rather like universities – they follow an esoteric academic discipline called “critical theory” which among other things is characterized by intolerance of any point of view that is insufficiently “woke.” I wrote about that here, in a post called Culture Clash. For a more eloquent examination of the consequences of critical theory in media, read this: https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/07/andrew-sullivan-see-you-next-friday.html
Last but not least, Facebook sells advertising against this content, just as regular news media companies do.
So yep, they’re publishers all right. Whether they choose to accept it or not, they’ve set themselves up as the arbiters of truth, the precise role that traditional news companies so righteously proclaimed. That made Zuckerberg’s position untenable. His idealistic faith in the user was misplaced – or was it a cynical cover? Whatever the motive, it was unsustainable. The zeitgeist began rolling against him. Politicians, commentators, FB employees, everybody’s piling on. He couldn’t win this one.
As a result, on August 5, for the very first time, Zuckerberg changed his position. Facebook removed from the president’s account a Fox News video clip in which he claimed that children are “almost immune” from COVID-19.
To be fair, the scale of the problem doesn’t help. Facebook deals with 100 million links on a daily basis. (Google is managing 80,000 search queries per second, or seven billion a day. On YouTube, 500 hours of video are uploaded every minute).
My colleague Frederic Filloux has argued that dealing with misinformation of this mammoth scale requires a dual approach. One is machine-based with algorithms that detect prohibited content or fake accounts at scale: as an example and to their credit, Facebook removed 3 billion bogus accounts between October 2018 and March 2019, 99% of them automatically. YouTube takes down videos that violate its Terms of Service at a rate of more than 60,000 per day, in most cases with no human involvement.
The automated approach creates a lot of false-positives Hence the second pillar of content verification, the human part. Facebook employs 15,000 people, and YouTube more than 10,000, to check content. Both work with third-party fact-checkers, a growing ecosystem of 236 outlets operating in 80 countries, according to ReportersLab.
None of this is enough, of course, for President Trump. He and congressional Republicans have long alleged that social media companies are attempting to censor Republican voices. It’s not a valid argument, right-wing “news” posts typically score higher on re-posting measures and on engagement than those considered centrist and left-leaning. Nonetheless, he signed an executive order taking aim at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which these days protects sites from being sued for content posted by users. And, with his allies, he is encouraging supporters to join an alternative social networking app called Parler. Good luck with that.
Zuckerberg’s faith in his users’ ability to arbitrage the truth for themselves was sweet, but in the last presidential election the Russians taught us that such a thing is way, way beyond them. Why, it’s even beyond many of today’s journalists.
So it looks to me that Twitter got it right in the first place. And now, at last, Facebook is not so far behind.