Hindustan Times (Bathinda) - - Think! - let­ters@hin­dus­tan­

The news, the real news that is, is full of head­lines about how Face­book Inc is crack­ing down on fake news. No mat­ter what it does, though, the com­pany can­not do enough be­cause of def­i­ni­tional rea­sons, le­gal li­a­bil­ity (or the prospect of it), a con­tra­dic­tion in its core busi­ness model, and the seem­ing in­abil­ity of its lead­ers to re­alise just how pow­er­ful and in­flu­en­tial the com­pany re­ally is. In the absence of a will­ing­ness to ad­dress th­ese is­sues, noth­ing Face­book does will ever be enough, although, to be fair, the com­pany does seem to be do­ing a lot.

For in­stance, just on Thurs­day past, the com­pany said it is ex­pand­ing fact check­ing to in­clude images and videos in 17 coun­tries, in­clud­ing In­dia, through part­ner­ships with 27 com­pa­nies. The ef­forts seem well-in­ten­tioned (“We know that peo­ple want to see ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion on Face­book, so far the last two years, we have made fight­ing mis­in­for­ma­tion a pri­or­ity,” a blog post on the com­pany’s site an­nounc­ing the ini­tia­tive be­gins); and some of the 27 part­ners do ap­pear to be do­ing good work; yet, none of this is enough.

Even as re­cently as the first week of Septem­ber, ac­cord­ing to a re­port in Quartz, “the fourth­most en­gaged story on Face­book... is a story from Amer­ica’s Last Line of De­fense ... that Michael Jor­dan has re­signed from Nike’s board, tak­ing Air Jor­dans with him.” The Quartz re­port points out that fact-checker Snopes, one of Face­book’s fact-check­ing part­ners, calls Amer­ica’s Last Line of De­fence “a junk news net­work”. The fake news piece was ob­vi­ously prompted by Nike’s ad fea­tur­ing for­mer NFL star Colin Kaeper­nick.

Even when some­thing is la­belled Fake News, it doesn’t get re­moved, only de­moted, so that it doesn’t show up where it oth­er­wise might have. As CEO Mark Zucker­berg said in a July in­ter­view with Re­code’s Kara Swisher, “... we feel like our re­spon­si­bil­ity is to pre­vent hoaxes from go­ing vi­ral and be­ing widely dis­trib­uted”.

It isn’t clear, even af­ter the In­fowars in­ci­dent, what Face­book’s poli­cies are. In­fowars, a far right me­dia out­let owned by Alex Jones, be­came in­fa­mous af­ter al­leg­ing that the Sandy Hook in­ci­dent was staged and that the vic­tims were ac­tu­ally child ac­tors. In Au­gust, af­ter much hem­ming and haw­ing, Face­book fi­nally de­cided to take In­fowars down, a move that came af­ter much fi­ness­ing by its se­nior ex­ec­u­tives on mis­in­for­ma­tion, free speech, and the like. Jones, of course, im­me­di­ately be­came a free speech mar­tyr, but it still isn’t clear what ex­actly will prompt ex­pul­sion from Face­book.

It is clear what should.

That would in­volve some def­i­ni­tional changes, though. There’s enough data to show that Face­book is the sin­gle largest source of traf­fic for most news com­pa­nies. The ex­act num­ber may vary, but it is gen­er­ally ac­cepted that this pro­por­tion is al­most half in most coun­tries. Face­book and Google also dom­i­nate the ad­ver­tis­ing land­scape. To­gether, they ac­count for around half of all dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing, with the for­mer hav­ing an edge when it comes to mo­bile, and the lat­ter when it comes to desk­tops.

If that busi­ness model sounds fa­mil­iar, it is be­cause this is the tra­di­tional busi­ness model of me­dia com­pa­nies. If dig­i­tal gi­ants such as Face­book are un­will­ing to ac­cept this when dis­cussing mat­ters re­lated to the re­spon­si­bil­ity for the con­tent on their plat­forms — most glee­fully ad­mit at all other times, es­pe­cially when it suits them, that they are me­dia com­pa­nies — it is be­cause be­ing in­ter­me­di­aries, and not con­tent pub­lish­ers guar­an­tees them le­gal im­mu­nity in most coun­tries. Their pri­mary con­cern is that too much in­ter­fer­ence could take away that im­mu­nity. There is an­other prob­lem that Face­book doesn’t talk about too much, although most peo­ple who have looked closely at the com­pany and its growth couldn’t but help have no­ticed it (as in­deed, the Quartz re­port high­lights). That is the pop­u­lar­ity of sen­sa­tional news on Face­book, even sen­sa­tional fake news. A com­pany whose busi­ness model is de­pen­dent on en­gage­ment and the net­work ef­fect (shar­ing) has no in­cen­tive to do any­thing that will re­duce both.

The third in­gre­di­ent of the com­pany’s busi­ness model is data. Face­book’s trea­sure trove of data on its users is used to tar­get the kind of con­tent they like to con­sume (even if this is not nec­es­sar­ily ac­cu­rate), and ad­ver­tis­ing. There’s now ad­e­quate ev­i­dence that this data may have been weaponised and used, among other ends, to in­flu­ence elec­tions.

In ef­fect, Face­book isn’t an or­di­nary me­dia com­pany. It is a global me­dia com­pany, and a highly in­tru­sive one, be­cause it knows far more about its users than any tra­di­tional me­dia com­pany does. It knows enough to tai­lor mes­sages, even con­tent, to in­flu­ence them — not just to buy a cer­tain car or eat a cer­tain brand of yo­ghurt but to vote for some­one, to fan the kind of in­flam­ma­tory sen­ti­ments that most tra­di­tional me­dia com­pa­nies would es­chew. As gov­ern­ments around the world, in­clud­ing in In­dia, re­alise this — Face­book’s power to in­sid­i­ously in­flu­ence elec­tions, even fan hate crimes, say — there will be, as there are now, ef­forts to reg­u­late it, to tie it down with tighter pri­vacy and data pro­tec­tion laws, and to hold it re­spon­si­ble for what’s on it.

This writer be­lieves that a good start­ing point would be to take away the im­mu­nity plat­forms such as Face­book en­joy. That would make Face­book re­spon­si­ble and ac­count­able for the con­tent on its web­site — just like other me­dia are.

As Mar­shall Mcluhan wrote, “... a medium is not some­thing neu­tral, it does some­thing to peo­ple.” He also wrote about the “... rough­ing up that any new so­ci­ety gets from a medium, es­pe­cially a new medium...” while ex­plain­ing a vari­ant of his fa­mous state­ment that, thanks to a printer’s devil, he ended up en­dors­ing, and which was the ti­tle of one of his books, “The Medium is the Massage”.

Il­lus­tra­tion: MO­HIT SUNEJA

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