Taking News at Face(book) Value

By: Sumeet Goel

As you may be aware from my most recent post, I attended the 20th Annual Milken Institute Global Conference. The “Davos of the West” brings together speakers from the worlds of politics, finance, entertainment, and technology to discuss issues facing the world. This year’s theme was “Building Meaningful Lives,” and many of the discussions took on this area, with panels on healthcare in the developing world, aligning endowment investments with non-profits’ philanthropic missions, and improving public education. At times, it felt forced as well —  witness the now annual “Private Equity bigwigs” panel comprised of four individuals collectively managing upwards of half a trillion dollars in investor capital. Given what these folks do on behalf of their investors, they were not the right ones to be talking about building meaningful lives, and the conversation on this area felt forced — in fact it was inserted as a sort of throwaway towards the end of the discussion.

For me, the highlight of the conference was the panel on everyone’s favorite topic as of late: fake news. With a panel composed of former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, as well as representatives from The New York Times, The Weekly Standard (a conservative journal of opinion), Cheddar (a millennial financial news site), and Facebook, I was hoping for a vibrant and provocative discussion. The group did not disappoint.

At its most basic level, the general consensus was that fake news is indeed a problem (not exactly earth shattering) and that it is all Facebook’s fault. Again, not earth shattering, especially when it’s easy to point the finger at the 800 (8000?) lb. gorilla in the room.

The best summation of the fake news problem and Facebook’s culpability in the matter came courtesy of the Cheddar CEO, Jon Steinberg. Using a grocery store as an analogy, he compared traditional news media to your supermarket where you have different aisles for different items. There are produce sections, meat sections, and junk food sections, all clearly marked. When you go to an aisle, you know what you’re getting. The expectations are set. Facebook is like a grocery store whose items have all been mixed up and thrown together in one big aisle. Random headlines are scattered throughout your feed, all given the same weight, no matter the credibility of the publication. As an illustration of this, I pulled headlines from a variety of sources with varying levels of credibility and bias.

Headlines 2 and 3 communicate the same information, but one of those titles obviously displays more bias and, as a result, would maybe catch your eye a little more when mixed among pictures of babies and restaurant recommendations. It should come as no surprise that #2’s incendiary title is courtesy of National Enquirer and #3 is from The New York Times, publications with wildly different news credibility. In the grocery store, National Enquirer is placed in the checkout aisle alongside other trashy celebrity tabloids indicating its reliability as a news source, but in the newsfeed, it’s just another article posted by a friend.

A further look at these headlines reveals that so-called “news” is also presented through a biased lens. #6 and #7 come from the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication, and Occupy Democrats, a liberal one. I’m guessing you can guess which headline belongs to which organization. These publications both have clear allegiances and their reporting of news follows suit. Yes, there have always been biased publications, but Facebook has increased their power. By now, Facebook’s echo-chamber effect has been well-documented. People with liberal circles see more liberal news and it’s the same with conservatives. The Wall Street Journal actually made a site where you can see this force in action called “Blue Feed, Red Feed.”

The site simulates a Facebook newsfeed and shows, side-by-side, articles that are more likely to appear to someone who leans conservative and someone who leans liberal. McClellan argued that the polarization of news, represented in our small sampling of headlines, is what opened the door for fake news in the first place. The hysterical way the 24-hour news cycle would cover stories on both sides of the aisle made people question the trustworthiness of these networks and made people more willing to look to other sources for information.

What McClellan was pointing towards is the increase in confirmation bias that has eliminated the ability to have even reasonable debate. In fact, The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes said that his site’s supporters have shocked even him, recounting a dinner party of conservatively-minded guests like himself, who asked him, as a news editor, about how many journalists Hillary Clinton had ordered to be killed and whether she was being fed answers through a headset during the debates. Even as the editor of a right-wing publication, he was publicly denouncing these assertions, but his followers believed them to be true because his was just one of many right-wing publications that they read.

The below, oft-cited characterization of news outlets resonates with what McClellan and the other panelists were discussing.

Source: Vanessa Otero Twitter: vlotero

There are a whole host of sites sitting across all levels of the credibility spectrum. It is now the reader’s responsibility to figure out where these publications sit and put appropriate “discount” filters on the content to get to the truth. Understandably this is not how we have been raised to consume news, and, as a result, we are now individually migrating towards what makes us feel most comfortable — whether that comfort comes from anger, fear, joy, etc. — in essence, being in places with folks that agree with us.

You’ll notice Facebook is not on this chart as it is not an actual news content provider, but you could argue it should be here. It is hard to give it any definitive classification in terms of bias or journalistic quality though because the Facebook newsfeed is individualized and different for everyone. All newsfeeds would land on different parts of the spectrum depending on the quality and bias of the content being shared within the individual’s network (which is the exact problem with Facebook becoming the general news source for much of the population). Therefore, it would probably be best depicted as a “big brother” filter or overlay on the entire chart.

The battle against fake news is not all doom and gloom though. The New York Times representative, Rebecca Blumenstein, did note that they gained a NYT record 308,000 paid subscribers for their digital product in Q1 of 2017 — beating their previous high set during and after the most recent election in Q4 2016 — and believes it is a direct response to the proliferation of fake news. She argued that all of the reporting on fake news has made people realize the value of real journalism and that it is something that needs to be paid for.

This growth is all well and good, but when you look at Facebook’s overall numbers and user growth in that same period of time, the NYT growth pales in comparison.

It’s also worth noting that Facebook now claims that 50% of its U.S. users visit the site every single day. The Times can grow at 10 times the rate it is now, and it will be but a drop in the bucket next to the influence of Facebook. Put another way, the all-time peak distribution of The New York Times print edition was 1.8 million Sunday editions, set in 1993, and that represents 0.6% of Facebook’s current Monthly Active Users, all of whom get that newsfeed on the right side of their homepage.

Blumenstein explicitly stated that “Facebook and Google do bear some complicity for what has happened because, like it or not, they are now media platforms.” Proving this is a bipartisan issue, Stephen Hayes, editor of the Weekly Standard, also decried fake news saying, “We want people to be making arguments based on facts, logic, and reason and we think it’s important that we have a common understanding of what those facts are in order to have a real, substantive, productive back-and-forth about how we solve the problems we face as a country.”

Throughout this entire discussion, Campbell Brown, Facebook’s recently appointed Head of News Partnerships, was playing defense. As the other panelists piled on to Facebook she struggled to refocus the conversation elsewhere. Her one argument that seemed to land was that Facebook never intended to be a news organization. This was a development that happened organically over time and was driven by its users. She stated that Facebook is just now coming to terms with what it means to be a media company, and has recently rewritten its company mission to reflect that change. Brown explained that Facebook’s original intent was just to connect people, but now its goal is to “create informed communities” and stopping the spread of fake news is a major part of that.

There are little steps being taken. For example, in early 2017 they introduced links to the sources of the headlines in that news feed — you may not have noticed, but they’re there — in lighter font, right after the headline. Of course, for each of these steps, we get stories about them targeting emotionally vulnerable teens, withholding data about fake accounts used to propagate fake news, and their inconsistent policies governing objectionable content.

I remain skeptical of how truly independent and unbiased Facebook can ever be. And as they become (have become?) the default news source for the majority of our population, this bias may continue to push constituent populations further into their own corners. I’m not optimistic about where this will end up.