I wanted to like Kara Swisher’s piece in the New York Times about Facebook’s attempt to wrestle with its daemons, but I can’t because it feels too much like self-delusion. To cut to the chase, Facebook announced it was forming an oversight board that will eventually have about 40 members with responsibilities for policing its domain and reducing or even eliminating the fake news and propagandistic uses the service has been subjected to at least since the 2016 election cycle.
I am not impressed.
I am not swayed because it appears to me that the company can’t or won’t come to terms with a valid definition of the problem. Facebook has a quality control problem and building structures that chase after bad actors and their content once they’ve had a chance to pollute social media doesn’t work. If it was a manufacturer with defective products, we’d all quickly conclude that the way to improve product quality is to build it in and not to attempt to add it after the fact, which is what the oversight board would do.
The auto industry of the 1970s provided all of the case study information you need. American car companies tried to improve the quality of their products after they were built shunting aside cars that needed rework. The Japanese in contrast broke down the assembly process and tried to improve every aspect of it to drive error out and build quality in. During the 1970 and 1980s Detroit lost roughly half of its market share to foreign competition that just built better cars and it has not recovered.
Social media is a bit different. Bad actors are building defects into social media so that any policing strategy or oversight board will always be a day late and a dollar short. Social media, and Facebook in particular, need to face the fact that products once intended for private individuals to communicate with have been adopted by government and industry for other purposes because they represent a commoditization of other modes of communication. They’re cheap and effective and nothing attracts government and business like cheap and effective.
Right now, you could call yourself Neil Armstrong and launch a page that said the moon landing was faked and you’d be off to the races. Social media companies want to be able to wash their hands of responsibility for the misinformation except that they also want to capture revenue from it. This is a two-tier business model mascaraing as one: they are platform and apps. Solving the social media problem requires a model that separates ownership and requires commercial and government users to demonstrate a fundamental understanding of the tools and resources including their proper use. Penalties for misusing the services would be a big plus.
Lots of people will call this draconian and a violation of imagined rights, but it is the way we’ve regulated other businesses for a long time. Every plumber, electrician, beautician, doctor, dentist, lawyer and many more professions have to sit for licensing exams before they’re allowed to practice on the public. This sets up a reasonable malpractice regimen too. Social media use by commercial and government entities should face the same regulation.
Regulating at the user level would do a lot to reduce or even eliminate bad actors and misinformation it would effectively add quality to an industry that was once a good idea but is increasingly becoming a cesspool with geopolitical ramifications.
So, I am not a fan of an oversight board for Facebook and, with due respect, Kara, you should know better.
The reputations of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg are in tatters today after a long expose in the New York Times that examined how the pair dealt with the rolling crisis that engulfed the company during and after the 2016 elections that saw Donald Trump elected under a cloud of suspicion that he had help from Russia.
The story has been picked up on cable news and it paints a picture of a company led by two executives more interested in company growth than anything else. The story includes examples of attempts to pass the blame on to others, withholding useful information from investigators and repeated denials of culpability when the known facts inside the company said otherwise.
Most significantly, it shows a company in constant reactive mode in part because no one seemed to have a moral center, a clear sense of right and wrong, and the fortitude to take the right actions for customers and the country regardless of how those actions might hurt the executives or damage the company’s reputation.
A day earlier, the Times also published a three-part video, “Operation Infektion,” describing a decades-long effort by the Kremlin to spread fake news (active measures) about the West and the US especially in an effort to weaken its adversaries. The overlap between the stories hasn’t received as much attention in the media, which is a shame because social media became the accelerant in an act of political arson.
There’s a lot of information already available on the debacle so let’s skip ahead to Infektion to get a big picture view of how Russia’s use of Facebook damaged society in the West and how its repercussions will play out for a long time.
The most relevant part of the Times video series comes in part 2 dealing with the seven commandments of active measures, a term that encompasses Russia’s approach to spreading fake information to the detriment of the West. The seven commandments are,
Find the cracks—social, economic, linguistic, religious, or ethnic issues that can be exploited and wedge them open. This can include almost anything from gender issues, to religion, to immigration and abortion. You get the picture. Russia started out picking sides but grew to realize it could manipulate both sides of any issue to manufacture discord. There are examples of confrontations during the 2016 election in which both sides were galled into action by Russian efforts, often on Facebook.
Create a big bold lie—something that is so outrageous no one would believe it was made up. Example, the AIDS virus was manufactured by the US to hurt minorities and escaped from a lab at Fort Detrick, MD, where it was supposedly made.
A kernel of truth—provide a speck of facts to make the lie more believable. The US does have labs that work on viruses and ways to combat them in war. Fort Detrick is one place where this research goes on. The kernel of truth in this case is the name of the lab assigned blame for the fictional virus release.
Conceal your hand, make it seem like the story came from elsewhere. The first mention of the AIDS story came from a small paper in India and it took years for it to percolate through the journalism community in the 1980s. One weak spot exploited by this approach is that fact checking didn’t go all the way to establishing primary sources. News stories up to and including some in America only used other stories as their sources. Thus, the people relying on the transitive property of truth were severely exploited.
Find a useful idiot, someone who would unwittingly promote the fake news story as real. The emphasis in that phrase is evenly distributed. A useful idiot can be anyone who unwittingly (the idiot) takes the pseudo-information at face value and passes it on (the useful bit), often amplifying it. In the case where a news organization propagates an untrue story, it is serving as a useful idiot, even if it attributes the story to another news outlet in another country.
Deny everything when the truth squad shows up. We’ve seen way too much of it lately. When the truth squad tried unraveling the AIDS scare it had to go through many layers of news outlets and reporters to find Russians who denied everything. Or consider “no collusion.” Collusion isn’t a crime in the US but conspiracy is. So in this two word phrase you have a useful idiot spreading a big lie with a kernel of truth in an effort to conceal his hand. It’s brilliant.
Play a long game. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Regardless of costs, keep your eyes on the prize and understand that losses and setbacks are temporary when you play a long game. It’s a very Zen idea. Consider the birther movement. The only way to silence it was to meet its terms by producing President Obama’s birth certificate. The choice was continued low grade carping with erosion of public trust or swallowing a larger amount of humiliation all at once.
In nearly all these commandments you can see how Facebook was taken advantage of during the election cycle thus playing the useful idiot. But also, you see the tactics the company tried to use to deflect attention from itself during investigations—keep in mind the Times’ story headline is “Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis.”
In the process, Facebook has become a useful idiot on steroids, thanks to the Internet and social media’s reach. In the age before the Internet and social media these tactics might have caused some trouble but the disturbance was usually self-contained because it couldn’t spread as well. The truth squad eventually rode in and set things right. Today it’s much harder. For example, in the pre-Internet era, the fake story about the AIDS virus took 6 years to spin up. The story about a child sex ring run by the Clinton campaign and operating out of a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC only took 6 months to bear “fruit” if that’s even the right term for the mass shooting that happened.
What to do?
There is a nascent movement in Congress to develop some form of regulation over Facebook and other social media giants, which is reasonable but not very welcome. It never is. The result of the tech revolution is that we can no longer function very well as a society without information, a trend that is still increasing. This trend makes equal and transparent access to information something that must be spread throughout society.
At the same time, social media and Facebook can no longer be regarded as neutral platforms that foster free speech. They have become publishers bringing eyeballs to advertisers and they have responsibilities that go with this status as well as First Amendment rights. Sen. Mark Warner (D, VA), already has a draft working paper circulating suggesting some components of regulation. Michelle Goldberg Opinion columnist at the Times wrote that,
Among them are amending the Communications Decency Act to open platforms up to defamation and invasion of privacy lawsuits, mandating more transparency in the algorithms that decide what content we see, and giving consumers ownership rights over the data that platforms collect from them.
My two bits
Facebook, Google, Amazon, and many other platforms that use a social media model to capture consumer data and remarket it to advertisers, is now a utility. My definition of a utility is something that started as a disruptive innovation and proved so useful that it has become indispensable to modern life. Modern transportation beginning with the railroads, electricity, telephone, and cable have all trod the same path. At the moment cable, especially as a gateway to the Internet, is the outlier thanks to decisions by the Trump era FCC. By rolling back net neutrality rules set by the Obama administration, the FCC negated the principle of the common carrier that over-arches other utilities. We can and should hope this is a temporary aberration.
But back to data and its collectors and merchants. The consumer and the nation at large have a right to expect that the purveyors of modern life’s essentials will abide by the essence of the Hippocratic Oath and first do no harm. Enacting a common sense set of regulations to make this so should not be a heavy lift.
A century ago President Theodore Roosevelt pushed legislation enacting standards for food and drugs ushering in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A generation later, after Wall Street shenanigans brought on the Great Depression, his cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, brought forth the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). We’re at a similar crossroads today. The path forward might be shrouded in mist but the way backward is completely unacceptable.
Like so many things riling society today, from global warming to immigration, fixing the problem is not the hard part. Getting the various sides to agree there is a problem that needs addressing and negotiating a solution is. Doing nothing is never a solution because letting a situation fester only makes it worse. The recent revelations of Facebook’s failures has demonstrated that putting its house in order is more than it can do internally. Perhaps a reconfigured political landscape in the US and a new year will bring solutions into focus.
Adam Smith famously referred to “the invisible hand” of the free market in his landmark book “The Wealth of Nations” and with that made himself one of the very first political economists. Smith’s observation was so on point that today most of us assume markets run through the agency of individuals pursuing their enlightened self-interests. A lot of this drove the evolution of CRM as a tool for tracking customers.
If you pay attention today you can notice a not-so-invisible hand functioning in multiple areas. For instance, if you’ve been following the aftermath of the school shooting in Florida, you know that an activated group of kids and adults nationwide has begun a movement to get something done about gun safety. The #MeToo movement in which women are banding together to change the workplace by eliminating sexual harassment is another, and so is the Black Lives Matter movement. But you can argue that all of them are free market responses in that they arose from the grass roots without much prompting from elite power centers.
What each has in common is the initiative by engaged individuals to cause change in what are essentially marketplaces in the broadest conception of that term. Much closer to home, even in the technology world we’re seeing the stirrings of user dissatisfaction with social media and it’s not clear where this will go. Its impact on CRM could be big because social has become one of the key channels linking vendors and customers.
A recent article in Wired, “Facebook Doesn’t Know How Many People Followed Russians on Instagram” by Issie Lapowsky, documents Facebook’s foot dragging on producing information for the various inquiries surrounding the 2016 American election. Jonathan Albright of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, has been looking at the details and producing information that’s uncomfortable to Facebook. He’s been quoted in Wired, The New York Times and elsewhere.
Albright’s work has uncovered many things concerning Facebook’s approach to the investigation which you might call passive aggressive. For instance, when asked why it had not produced information about how many people had seen Instagram information produced by Russian operated troll accounts, a spokesperson for Facebook, which owns Instagram, said, “We have not been asked to provide that information.” So little curiosity…
It’s not necessary to repeat the article here; it’s worth reading but that’s your call. It documents how Facebook has so far assisted investigators but only if they ask the right questions. The final paragraph summarizes this point,
Facebook has shown consistent reticence in detailing how these trolls infiltrated its platform and who that propaganda reached. They’ve repeatedly had to correct prior statements about the reach of these ads and accounts. By working with outside researchers like Albright, the company might be able to paint a more complete picture, but Facebook has been unwilling to open its data up to researchers.
It’s not necessary to re-examine every time Facebook denied their involvement or disputed findings that upwards of 150 million people saw content from the Russians or that all the US intelligence services agree that the Russians did indeed hack the election. That’s all very interesting from another journalistic angle but not this one.
The totality of Facebook’s unwitting involvement in the hack plus its efforts to downplay their importance brings up a bigger issue for Facebook, and by extension all social media: How useful are Facebook and social media generally considering the Russian hacks?
A glib answer might be that it doesn’t have to be terribly useful because it’s free and users get whatever utility they can from using it. But that misses the point. If Facebook’s utility is small or especially if it’s disputable, its business model would be in serious trouble.
Social media’s primary product has always been the user. It is valuable to each of us when we use it to gather information about our personal grafs and we knowingly pay an in-kind fee by letting social sites collect data about us, which they can then sell to advertisers. It’s a classic network effect—the greater the audience the more valuable the output of its data.
But what happens if the veracity of information on social media is in doubt? Social media’s value is directly proportional to its veracity and if one can doubt that veracity it might be prudent to seek alternatives. People and corporations that invest heavily in using social media’s information might begin doubting if their investments deliver value.
So far Facebook’s approach to the hacking scandal has been to deny and ignore it only admitting something when there’s no other choice. This presents another problem associated with stonewalling—dissipating trust. However unpleasant the facts, the more a party tries to ignore or hide them the lower the market’s trust in that entity and the greater the opening for a disruptor.
The truth value of what people put up on the networks and what they believe about the truthfulness of others’ posts makes social media’s world go around. That truth is what makes some people spend hours a day surfing the sites and it’s what makes advertisers purchase ads. Once that trust begins to erode, even a little, the business model can begin to unravel.
Whoever is advising Facebook on its strategy should reconsider. It’s human nature to not enjoy dealing with criticism and serious accusations. But impinging the free flow of information won’t solve the problem. Free markets depend on transparency and Facebook is a free market of ideas. If it stops being that, or even if people stop believing it, there’s no reason for them to continue using it.