Facebook as Publisher

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05qvyzf/player

On the 16th of April, Facebook users were witnesses to a shocking live stream that would help change the conversation about the company’s legal status. The video of Steve Stephens murdering another man in Cleveland remained on Facebook for two hours before it was taken down. The backlash was so immediate that on the following day, Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s vice president for global operations and media partnerships, released a statement saying the company would be analyzing the process for reporting and reviewing such videos. Writing about the incident for Reuters, David Ingram explains how “Facebook relies largely on its 1.9 billion users to report items that violate its terms of service”, adding that “the shooting was the latest violent incident shown on Facebook, raising questions about how the company moderates huge amounts of content uploaded from around the world.”[1]

Brooke Masters of the Financial Times called Facebook’s handling of this incident an “abject failure” citing a 1996 law that essentially relieves internet content providers of all responsibility regarding user postings.[2] A January 3rd article on Wired.com claims the Telecommunications Act of 1996 is “often cited as the most important tool ever created for free speech on the internet”. Quoting straight from section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which makes up part of the larger Telecommunications Act, Christopher Zara highlights the 26 words that “has allowed today’s biggest internet companies to flourish”:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.[3]

However, Masters is not impressed. She points out how a 1998 law obligates internet companies to take down copyrighted material and urges Congress to pass a similar law that would “quickly remove illegal postings — child porn, hate speech and libel”2. Also, Facebook and similar companies already take down material they deem is in violation of their terms and conditions, so it is misleading to think of internet companies as being bastions of free speech and unaccountable to what their users post online.

And this precise need for accountability is only growing.

Some governments are adjusting the way they perceive companies in order to adapt to the changing media landscape, for example. District Magistrate Yogeshwar Ram Mishra and Senior Superintendent of Police Nitin Tiwari issued a joint order on April 20th, warning Facebook and WhatsApp users that they could be held accountable for spreading libel and fake news, stating “There are several groups on social media which are named on news groups and also groups with other names which are propagating news and information which is not authentic”[4]. Similarly, Dame Patricia Hodgson, chairwoman of the UK government’s state –approved media regulator Ofcom, stated that “she believes internet businesses such as Google and Facebook are publishers, raising the prospect that they could eventually face more regulation”, according to The Guardian[5]. In the following day’s article by the same newspaper, Graham Ruddick goes further, reporting that the British government’s culture secretary, Karen Bradley announced “the [UK] government is considering changing the legal status of Google, Facebook and other internet companies amid growing concerns about copyright infringement and the spread of extremist material online”[6].

While the outcry for more regulations on internet companies like Facebook become louder and louder, that does not mean that Facebook has stood idly by disinterestedly. On November 16th, Facebook announced a new initiative it dubbed “Trust Indicators”[7]. The system, devised by the Trust Project at Santa Clara University, “ wants to essentially tag publishers for reliability, so ‘digital platforms, such as Google, Facebook, and Bing, will be able to use machine-readable signals from the Trust Indicators to surface quality news to their users’”7. But even this falls short, according to Jake Swearingen of New York magazine, who feels that the “fake news problem on Facebook is still rooted in how easy it is to start a fake web news site and then use Facebook’s incredible scale and the tendency of its users to share inflammatory headlines to reach many, many people”. He points out that “left to my own devices, if Facebook ever opened up its trust indicators to all publishers, I could conceivably rate my fact checking as impeccable, my correction policy as top notch, my ownership structure as being made up of ‘true patriots,’ and my masthead as being comprised of Abraham Lincoln, Sean Hannity, and Jesus Christ”, – the lack of human beings actually fact-checking Facebook’s postings would essentially render the process meaningless.

It is not just politicians and journalists who are worried about Facebook’s increasing influence. Even Chamath Palihapitiya, who worked as Facebook’s vice president for user growth, expressed deep concern over Facebook’s surmounting stronghold, not just the media landscape, but in society’s psyche in an event run by the Stanford Graduate School of Business on November 10th[8]. Palihapitiya claimed that “”We have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works”, adding that there is “no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth and it’s not just an American problem, it’s not just about Russian ads, this is a global problem”[9].

In an article for the New York Times, John Herrman illustrates further Facebook’s ubiquitousness: “Facebook, in the years leading up to this election, hasn’t just become nearly ubiquitous among American users; it has centralized online news consumption in an unprecedented way. According to the company, its site is used by more than 200 million people in the United States each month, out of a total population of 320 million. A 2016 Pew study found that 44 percent of Americans read or watch news on Facebook.”[10]

That there should be mechanisms in place to regulate Facebook and somehow make them more accountable for users’ postings is an argument that has steadily been gaining steam in the mainstream for some time now. Opponents would argue that the phone company is not held liable should a user make a threat or admit to committing illegal acts while making a phone call so why should Facebook and similar companies be held accountable for what users say or do out of their own free will on their platforms?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that Facebook is not merely a conduit for social media interactions. Its sole purpose is to sell warm bodies to advertisers, essentially making big money from what its users are posting online. Facebook and companies like it “have become vassals to essentially unregulated, monopolistic distribution mechanisms” according to Matt Taibbi, “who additionally appropriate the lion’s share of the profits that used to fund things like investigative journalism”[11]. Taibbi is talking about the “life-or-death power” that Facebook holds over media companies” where “they can steer traffic wherever they please simply by tweaking their algorithms” with their “monstrous influence”[11].

The idea of having gigantic media monopolies that bill themselves as unaccountable entities simply because they are mere conduits for material that users choose to share willingly should be alarming to anybody who studies the matter carefully. It is not simply a matter of more big government regulations on what was essentially the last bastion of free speech left, the Internet. It should be imperative to stand up to companies like Facebook and tell them that they cannot have it both ways: they cannot wash their hands off the responsibility that providing a platform for distribution provides while also making huge profits selling access to customers to advertisement companies.

In her conclusion, Adrianne Lafrance cited a 1915 column on the Chicago Daily Book under the heading of “fake news”: “The people of this country will demand as much protection against adulterated news as they now get against adulterated food for the stomach[12].  Well, one would hope, but Facebook is making so money off of fake news, libel and quite possibly highly illegal content, not to mention videos of assassinations, terrorist recruitment groups and child pornography, that it will take massive amounts of public outrage to finally change the tide on this issue. Surely there must be some legal course to regulate Facebook on grounds of profiteering off of illegal content and, if there is not, there should be. That a society would allow Facebook to claim irresponsibility in the face of huge profits should be worrisome and enraging.

***

[1] Ingram, David. “Cleveland killing leads Facebook to review handling of videos” Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cleveland-murder-facebook/cleveland-killing-leads-facebook-to-review-handling-of-videos-idUSKBN17J1Q6

[2] Masters, Brooke. “Facebook is more than just a pipe — it is a publisher too” Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/da427af2-2670-11e7-8691-d5f7e0cd0a16

[3] Zara, Christopher. “The Most Important Law in Tech Has a Problem” Wired.com. https://www.wired.com/2017/01/the-most-important-law-in-tech-has-a-problem/

[4] “Offensive WhatsApp posts can now land group administrator in jail” Economic Times, India Times. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/offensive-whatsapp-posts-can-now-land-group-administrator-in-jail/articleshow/58281149.cms

[5] Ruddick, Graham. “Ofcom chair raises prospect of regulation for Google and Facebook” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/oct/10/ofcom-patricia-hodgson-google-facebook-fake-news

[6] Ruddick, Graham. “UK government considers classifying Google and Facebook as publishers” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/11/government-considers-classifying-google-facebook-publishers

[7] Swearingen, Jake. “Can Facebook Trust Publishers to Say How Trustworthy They Are?” New York Magazine. http://nymag.com/selectall/2017/11/facebook-trust-indicators-fake-news.html

[8] Sini, Rozina. “’You are being programmed,’ former Facebook executive warns” BBC.com http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-42322746

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMotykw0SIk

[10] Herrman, John. “Inside Facebook’s (Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan) Political-Media Machine” New York Times. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMotykw0SIk

[11] Taibbi, Matt. “RIP Edward Herman, Who Co-Wrote a Book That’s Now More Important Than Ever” RollingStone.com http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/matt-taibbi-on-the-death-of-edward-herman-w511766

[12] Lafrance, Adrienne “How the Fake News Crisis of 1896 Explains Trump” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/01/the-fake-news-crisis-120-years-ago/513710/

Advertisements

Fear and Fake News in Las Vegas

Writing about Christian fundamentalists and Republicans in general, journalist Matt Taibbi stated, “Their faith both in God and their political convictions is too weak to survive without an unceasing string of real and imaginary confrontations […] and for those confrontations, they are constantly assembling evidence and facts to make their case.” This was back in 2004 when whipping media consumers into a barbaric and xenophobic frenzy was largely left to the Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys of the world. But what are we to make of a media environment where, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in September, two-thirds of American adults get their news from social media?

What is one to make of the New York Times’ October 2nd article that examines the spread of fake news in the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting this week? Whereas Matt Taibbi criticized misinformed editorializing and invective opportunism inspired in part by the fringes of the political spectrum over a decade ago, according to the New York Times, “Over the past few years, extremists, conspiracy theorists and government-backed propagandists have made a habit of swarming major news events, using search-optimized ‘keyword bombs’ and algorithm-friendly headlines” and that these organizations “are skilled at reverse-engineering the ways that tech platforms parse information, and they benefit from a vast real-time amplification.”

Alex Jones’ Infowars website, for example, was in rare form this week, publishing unsubstantiated claims such as, “The Las Vegas shooter didn’t commit suicide as the mainstream media is reporting, but was killed by a FBI hostage rescue team who also found Antifa literature in his hotel room” a day after the October 1st shooting in Las Vegas. The author, Kit Daniels, cites a source “linked to the team” that raided the hotel room but one suspects that citations such as the ones Infowars use are merely for aesthetic purposes than for actual transparency. Elsewhere in the article, Daniels will go on to quote a “deep-level Intelligence insider” who will lay all kinds of pre-verified truths and speculations on readers such as “I was forced to reach the conclusion that [9/11] has finger prints of a possible false flag event itself […] so, sadly we now have to consider that as a possibility here” and that “we can be sure this will increase the Shadow Government’s surveillance state, specifically inside the United States.” Not only has the FBI not announced the finding of Antifa literature in the shooter’s hotel room but law enforcement officials have plainly denied statements that the shooter was “killed by a FBI hostage rescue team”.

The question remains: what are we to make of the systemized (and weaponized) use of misinformation and plain fake news in our mainstream media diet? Matt Taibbi, once again, goes a long way to understanding this issue. In his same 2004 article where he dissected the motives of fundamentalists and Republicans for believing unsubstantiated editorials, he wrote, “ They are not looking for facts with which to defeat opponents […] they are looking for facts that will create opponents.” The ultimate goal, he concludes, is not to win the argument but to make sure the argument is never-ending. Confrontation is the currency of our new political discourse – faith through conflictive reinforcement. It does not matter whether or not your arguments are logical or whether they are even based on facts or not; what matters is that the reactionary outrage never stops.

How Trump’s DACA Was Covered

On September 5th, Attorney General Jeff Sessions officially announced the Trump administration’s decision to rescind the Obama-era policy of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Breitbart’s coverage of the day’s news hailed it as a triumph for law and order, warning of a “staggering” stream of crimes perpetrated by DACA recipients against Americans. John Binder’s September 5th article puts the number of criminals, or alleged criminals, protected from deportation under DACA at 2,139 – a number which includes “criminals, gang members or suspects in crimes against Americans”.

What follows Binder’s lead is a collection of horror stories sourced from all over Breitbart’s site with such headlines as, “DREAMer Who Killed Two Girls In Hit And Run Won’t Be Deported, Still Protected By DACA”, “DREAMer Accused of Raping Woman in Sanctuary City”, and the sensational, “DREAMer Helped Drag Queen Smuggle Illegal Aliens in Texas, say Authorities.” A week earlier, Neil Munro had written an article for Breitbart outlining how the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has been systematically pulling their DACA protections from an increasing number of recipients since 2013. What Munro is trying to point his readers to, by quoting from the same stories that John Binder did in his September 5th article, is a kind of lawlessness rampant in illegal immigrants protected under Obama’s immigration policy.

Left-leaning Democracy Now!, however, took a different approach when it comes to their DACA coverage, choosing to highlight “Widespread Protests” in their September 6th headline. In a strangely unaccredited article, Democracy Now declared Trump’s DACA decision as “a major attack on immigrant communities”, citing major protests in New York City, Washington D.C. and Denver. In a “web exclusive” published a day earlier, Democracy Now! also wrote that Trump was being “slammed” for “siding with Xenophobia” while grabbing dissenting quotes from congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Vanita Gupta. While Breitbart at least had some semblance of statistics to back up their rhetoric, it seems like Democracy Now! offered only rhetoric and examples of dissent.

The New York Times offered a more robust criticism of Trump’s DACA decision, albeit with the subtlety of a paper that enjoys cultivating an image of “objectivity”. In “Trump Moves to End DACA and Calls on Congress to Act”, Michael D. Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis also cite the outbreak of protests regarding Jeff Sessions’ announcement while grabbing quotes stemming primarily from DACA proponents such as President Barack Obama and Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg. By cultivating an image of resistance towards the decision, the New York Times constructs a vision of the political landscape as being mainly critical of Trump’s agenda, a view further cemented by lines such as, “Democrats and some Republicans, business executives, college presidents and immigration activists condemned the move as a coldhearted and shortsighted effort”. Finally, in order to further drive the thesis home, the entirety of the Times’ article is published under a short documentary titled “Condemning Trump’s Refugee Ban” in which, at a certain point, a voice over claims “Compassion is a Christian tradition”.

What becomes fascinating after a careful study of how each of these publications covered the DACA story is how much of the big picture is missed if readers only choose to take their cues from one source and one source alone. Though each of these companies has their inherent biases, the editorial decisions made by higher-ups in these publications paint a clear picture as to the kind of world they want to envision for their readers, each with their careful ignorance of pertinent facts and context. Even a publications as seemingly “objective” or “balanced” as the New York Times advertises itself to be can have clear editorial decisions that speak to the opinions and the mindsets of the editors in charge. Only when a deep-dive of the issue is made, across platforms and political ideologies, does the inherent complications of the political landscape actually begin to take shape. Even so, it becomes crucial to be aware of how readers are consistently manipulated by editorializing – whether one agrees with the reporter or not.

24-Hour News Blackout

1:39 a.m., Monday morning. I am an hour away from ending a day-long media blackout imposed by someone who presumably gets their kicks out of putting Millennials in a bind. Maybe it was naïveté that led me to believe it’d be easier than it turned out to be, refraining from obtaining news of any kind or discussing current events with friends and family, or maybe it’s hard for me to accept how much of a demographic cliché I actually am, the hapless media junkie always looking down at a gadget in his hand.

In any case, it was hard – even on a Sunday.

I thought I was being clever, doing the assignment on what I had assumed was a “slow news day”, but even that turned out to be unsustainable when I opened up my email and realized just how many worthless newsletters I am signed up for. Newsletters I have no intention of ever reading. I cannot, for the life of me, explain why I am signed up for the Business Insider newsletter, for example, but as soon as I saw the words “Trump”, “Mueller” and “Investigation”, I began to understand how much information is just promiscuously flung at my face from all kinds of unexpected directions.

I wanted to avoid all kinds of impulses to check my phone for news so I decided to go to the gym for a couple of hours to get my head straight. It took less than thirty seconds inside the place to remember that every wall in my neighbourhood gym is lined with televisions tuned to either CNN or NY1. I thought about texting friends of mine with sarcastic comment about my predicament until I realized that most of them are feverish junkies much in the same way I am. When I re-read the guidelines and noticed that sports news fall into the category the kinds of things we should avoid, I realized that human contact was probably not advisable.

Ultimately, what ended up helping tremendously was media itself, which I am a little ashamed to admit. The best way to ignore the news for a media junkie is to resort to hellishly scattered movie marathons, the soothing consolation of books and about a gallon of carbonated water. At night, as I am wont to do, I called my mother to check up on her and we discussed the assignment briefly. She had started to talk to me about current events, being a politician herself, and I told her about my essay. Laughing, she said that it is probably for the best, and in Brechtian fashion, claimed that you could stick your head in the sand and still live a well-nurtured life.

I have been thinking about it all night. Can we really choose ignorance in the age of information, is that at all possible? Data, information, media, news – it all seeps in, somehow, through every medium and orifice it can find. I have used the word “junkie” three times in this essay and I was only half-joking. Truth is, more and more, our identities and our sense of self is entwined with the endless stream of information. This essay is already too long but if I have enough space for lessons learned, even wildly rushed ones, I would mention the fact that I never quite understood how much we live inside this flow of information, particularly in metropolitan cities. Ever since we received the assignment I have been pondering this. Staples of existentialism have always pointed to the way in which humans use information as being one of the cornerstones of identity and this is particularly interesting in these Modern Times of ours. Where it gets interesting is what starts happens to identity once we remove ourselves, or attempt to remove ourselves, from the flow of information. Who do we become then?