Facebook needs to stop hiding behind data and hire a damn public editor
“When Facebook is discussed in tomorrow’s history books, it will probably not be about its quarterly earnings reports and stock options.” - Zeynep Tufekci, New York Times
About now, it must surely be dawning on Mark Zuckerberg just how badly he has handled Facebook’s culpability in the election of Donald Trump.
You’d think that being blamed for helping usher in a new dawn of American fascism would be as bad as it could get for a 32-year-old tech founder. Impressively, though, Zuckerberg has managed to make himself look even worse by flatly refusing to accept that Facebook played any adverse role in the election, and failing to announce a concrete plan to fix the problem of fake news on its platform.
Anyone even passingly familiar with the inner workings of Facebook recognizes the problem. Zuckerberg’s Facebook is a company where emotion, ethics or any question of civic responsibility always -- always -- takes a back seat to data. That is, employees, users or the media can argue right or wrong til they’re blue in the face, but unless they can point to hard numbers showing a decision is good or bad for Facebook then Zuckerberg will generally remain unmoved.
That policy of recalcitrance has served Facebook well, for the most part. It has allowed the company to stay on course, where others might have been buffered by the daily media or user outrages that surround any startup of Facebook’s global magnitude.
It also explains apparent ethical inconsistencies such as Zuckerberg’s strong public rebuke to board member (and Pando investor) Marc Andreessen for his boneheaded and offensive tweet about colonialism in india but his continuing, unwavering support of board member (and, groan, Pando investor) Peter Thiel whose financial and political support of Donald Trump, views on women, and secret attacks on the media make Andreessen's tweet seem like a burp in a thunderstorm.
One need only look at the data: India has 1.25 billion potential Facebook users, millions of whom might boycott the service if Prime Minister Modi decided to stir up a boycott. By contrast, maybe a thousand people might close their Facebook accounts over Peter Thiel. The same calculus was at play when Zuckerberg decided to appease angry right wingers over (apparently non existent) newsfeed bias, lest they organize a boycott. But it took far, far longer for the CEO to address journalists’ anger over censorship of Napalm Girl, an issue which frustrated and angered a lot of reporters, precisely none of whom would ever quit Facebook in protest.
Similarly, Zuckerberg appears to have calculated that Facebook’s role in the election is an issue that only media wonks care about. That it might dominate a newscycle or two but ultimately will fade as journalists realize the company isn’t going to change a damn thing to stop fake right wing news sites promoting defamatory stories about their enemies. As Buzzfeed reported, those right wingers bring a shit load of traffic -- way more so that fake news from a left perspective -- which is why Macedonian kids build fake Trump sites but couldn’t get traction for their fake Bernie ones. One of the leading producers of fake news, Paul Horner, confirmed the gullability and profitability of Trump supporters to the Washington Post today, adding "I think Trump is in the White House because of me."
And yet, and yet. Zuckerberg must slowly be realizing that he’s finally sailed his ship into a storm that can’t be navigated with data alone. That when it comes to the rise of Donald Trump, there’s no algorithm to guide the way.
It must be dawning on him that, whatever the data tells him, his current strategy of denying Facebook’s role in electing a monster is fast turning him into the most unpopular tech CEO on the planet. A genuinely impressive feat in an industry that includes Travis Kalanick.
And another thing. Zuckerberg might run his company as a data guy, but in recent years he’s worked hard to build a separate personal profile as a world statesman. One might say that his day job is being data savant, while his hobby is being human. He must be realizing the damage his CEO role is doing to his stature on the world stage.
His own staff are reportedly rebelling, and his face is on the front page of every newspaper, alongside stories of Trump’s plans to deport millions of Americans (remember: Zuckerberg was previously hailed for his backing of the Fwd.us immigration group) and reports of hatecrimes spreading across the nation.
The data might say “hold your nerve, this too will pass” but karma is screaming “she cannae take much more of this cap’n”.
There are plenty of things Mark Zuckerberg could do to fix this. But there’s one in particular that’s really easy and would buy time from the vast majority of critics, all without Facebook adding a single line of code.
Facebook should follow the lead of the New York Times and countless other media outlets and immediately hire a public editor. An independent figure, appointed by committee and protected from the wrath of the CEO, to respond publicly, freely, and regularly to criticisms of Facebook’s news platform.
That public editor, likely a veteran journalist or (maybe maybe but probably not) a media professor, would have a simple remit: To ask tough questions of Facebook leadership, to do independent reporting from inside the company itself and to make those findings public, along with recommendations of how Facebook could do better. In some cases, that might involve explaining to users why Facebook does something a certain way, in other cases it might be to call out stupidity or inaction by senior executives.
There is a decent enough definition of a public editor or ombudsman on Wikipedia:
The job of the public editor is to supervise the implementation of proper journalism ethics at a newspaper, and to identify and examine critical errors or omissions, and to act as a liaison to the public. They do this primarily through a regular feature on a newspaper's editorial page. Because public editors are generally employees of the very newspaper they're criticizing, it may appear as though there is a possibility for bias. However, a newspaper with a high standard of ethics would not fire a public editor for a criticism of the paper; the act would contradict the purpose of the position and would itself be a very likely cause for public concern.
The important thing is that Facebook users -- individuals and groups -- would have a name and a face to whom they can address their concerns, and expect a good answer.
I can already hear Facebook executives tutting at how I don’t understand that Facebook isn’t a media organization or how it’s vitally important that the CEO remains the final decision maker. There’s been a lot of tutting from inside One Hacker Way of late about how nobody understands what a special magical thing Facebook is.
In fact I understand that perfectly well and so, surprisingly enough, do many of the company’s other critics in the media. We understand that Facebook simply saying it isn’t a media company doesn't make that true any more than Trump’s boasts of having the best words confers any actual vocabulary. When you admit that 1% of stories shared on Facebook are deliberately false then, like it or not, you’re the biggest fake news company on earth.
Of course the CEO has the ultimate say and no one is suggesting that a public editor would be able to order changes be made to Facebook’s mysterious news algorithm. In the same way that public editors at the Times or any other media outlet don’t get to overrule the Editor in Chief or CEO of that gigantic organization. But what a public editor absolutely could do is earn back the trust of Facebook users and show that their voices are being heard. And they can also win the trust of Facebook executives themselves, in the way that voices inside a company (with knowledge of why things aren’t always as easy as they seem) are always louder than those of the peanut gallery.
A simple and clear statement of “I hear your concerns, I agree with many of them, and I’m going to get answers” would do more to calm the storm surrounding Facebook than anything Mark Zuckerberg has said in the past week. They might also have some insight on how news media actually works that even the genius product and tech folks inside Facebook haven’t thought of (or at the very least be able to explain to them why it isn’t censorship to stop fake stories ending up on the trending stories list, or to append a note saying “this is likely fake” to stories that are… very likely fake.)
Having someone in that role would certainly come in handy the next time someone needs to make a quick judgement call on whether to block or whitelist a Pulitzer-winning news photograph. Or if to tacitly support the ascension of a half-witted orange fascist to the highest office in the most powerful nation on earth.
Gotta be worth a try, right Mark.
Oh. I guess he unfriended me.