A Technical Glitch – Stratechery by Ben Thompson

One week ago, moments after her boyfriend Philando Castile was shot by a police officer during a routine traffic stop, Diamond Reynolds flipped on Facebook’s live streaming feature. The resultant video, with Reynolds documenting what had happened, as well as her interaction with the police officer, immediately started to spread like wildfire.

And then it was gone.

Approximately an hour later, the video was back, this time with a “Warning — Graphic Video” label attached:

When asked why the video had temporarily disappeared, Facebook simply said “It was down to a technical glitch.” The company had no further comment on the matter.

Facebook Versus Journalism

One needn’t travel far on the Internet to find a think piece bemoaning how Facebook has destroyed journalism, with a whiff of nostalgia for a time when The New York Times decided what news was fit to print and Walter Cronkite declared nightly “That’s the way it is.” It’s a viewpoint that is problematic in two regards.

First, the destruction of journalism is about the destruction of journalism’s business model, which was predicated on scarcity. In the case of newspapers, printing presses, delivery trucks, and a healthy subscriber base made them the lowest common denominator when it came to advertising, right down to four line classified ads that represented some of the most expensive copy on a per-letter basis in the world.

TV news, meanwhile, in large part existed to fulfill broadcaster obligations under the Fairness Doctrine, which required licensors of publicly-owned radio frequencies to devote airtime to matters of public interest, and to air opposing views of those matters. The Fairness Doctrine was revoked in 1987, for reasons that were the canary in the coal mine for news’ business model. The New York Times reported at the time:

In explaining the conclusion that its fairness rules were “no longer necessary to achieve diversity of viewpoint,” Ms. Killory, the commission’s counsel, noted the major growth of broadcast outlets in recent years.

There are now more than 1,300 television stations and more than 10,000 radio stations in the United States — in contrast to 1,700 daily newspapers — and 95 percent of viewers receive five or more television signals. Radio listeners in the biggest 25 markets receive an average of 59 radio stations.

Two decades later the average American home received 189 TV channels, and thanks to the Internet, an effectively infinite number of news websites. Scarcity was gone, and the publishing bubble is popping as a result. That Facebook has been the most effective service in collecting and funneling attention to the abundance of news on the Internet is a separate story.

More importantly, the nostalgia for a world of journalistic gatekeepers is nostalgia for a world where the death of Philando Castile would be little more than a one paragraph snippet in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that would have sounded a lot like the initial police report that dryly noted “shots were fired”, and that would have been that.

Crucially, though, it’s not that, thanks to Facebook. On the conservative site Daily Caller Matt Lewis wrote:

In the era of Facebook Live and smart phones, it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than the fact that police brutality toward African-Americans is a pervasive problem that has been going on for generations. Seriously, absent video proof, how many innocent African-Americans have been beaten or killed over the last hundred years by the police—with little or no media coverage or scrutiny?

Those old business models were great for journalists; they weren’t so great for those not deemed worth covering. Those nostalgic for the “good old days” are likely wishing for far more problems than they realize.

Launching Facebook Live

On April 6, the day that Facebook Live launched for everyone, BuzzFeed ran a feature that included an interview with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg:

“Because it’s live, there is no way it can be curated,” [Zuckerberg] said. “And because of that it frees people up to be themselves. It’s live; it can’t possibly be perfectly planned out ahead of time. Somewhat counterintuitively, it’s a great medium for sharing raw and visceral content.”

A week later, during the opening keynote of Facebook’s F8 developer conference, Zuckerberg enthused:

Just the other week I saw a live video of a woman and her kids skiing down a hill. It was just mesmerizing! I watched it for a few minutes because I was like ‘I just want to make sure these kids get down this hill.’ There’s usually people who are playing music or dancing in there, but every once in a while there’s something that is really important and special happening. Like a couple of days ago a woman named Lena commented on one of my posts to tell me that when her mother was sick in the hospital she streamed her wedding on live so her mother and her friends across the country could not only see it but could be there with them. Now that’s pretty meaningful.

Raw, visceral, meaningful. That’s a pretty good way of describing Reynolds’ video. Newsworthy is another, and that’s where things get a whole lot more complicated for Facebook.

Facebook the Journalism Company

I noted above that Facebook is not necessarily to blame for the destruction of journalism’s business model, but with live video the social network has moved from feasting on what remains of publishing to becoming a journalistic company in their own right: Facebook’s 1.6 billion users have been deputized to not only chronicle their ski trips and weddings but also killings by police and, a day later, the killings of police.

In retrospect, given this reality, what is so striking about the aforementioned BuzzFeed feature and all of Facebook’s public comments about live video is how little thought seems to have been given to this use case. There is talk about recruiting engineers (150 in a week), all of the features that had to be built, the huge technical problems involved, and of course the potential payoff for Facebook:

Live solves a lot of problems for Facebook. It gives people an easy way to create video content that doesn’t require scripting or much production. Which in turn creates more content for Facebook. Live also helps the company tap into real-time events, an area where it’s struggled compared to Twitter…

One recent trend in social media has been a move away from highly produced content, particularly video…This is precisely what Snapchat is so good at, and why it has become such a threat to Facebook. And it’s clearly something that’s been on Zuckerberg’s mind as well.

“People look at live video and they think this is a lot of pressure because it’s live; it takes a lot of courage to go live and put yourself out there. But what we’re finding is the opposite,” Zuckerberg said in a phone interview the day before the Live relaunch. “A lot of the biggest innovations have been things that take some of the pressure out of posting a photo or video.”

I wrote after this year’s F8 about how Facebook from the very beginning had always been about projecting your best self online; given that, I wondered if the focus on Live Video might ultimately prove to be a distraction from what Facebook was good at (owning identity online). This last week is validating that concern in a far more profound way than I appreciated.

The risk is this: Facebook’s control over what the vast majority of people see online — news included — is overwhelming. Before the advent of Live Video, though, Facebook could more easily claim to be a neutral provider, simply serving up 3rd-party stories via an allegedly objective algorithm that was ultimately directed by the user itself, and using that user direction to build the best identity repository in the world to sell ads against. And while the reality of Facebook’s News Feed is in fact not objective at all — algorithms are designed by people — actually creating the news will, I suspect, change the conversation about Facebook’s journalistic role in a way that the company may not like.

Facebook and the Fairness Doctrine

Back in 1949, when the Fairness Doctrine was established, the FCC wrote in a report entitled In the Matter of Editorializing by Broadcast Licensees:

We do not believe, however, that the licensee’s obligations to serve the public interest can be met merely through the adoption of a general policy of not refusing to broadcast opposing views where a demand is made of the station for broadcast time. If, as we believe to be the case, the public interest is best served in a democracy through the ability of the people to hear expositions of the various positions taken by responsible groups and individuals on particular topics and to choose between them, it is evident that broadcast licensees have an affirmative duty generally to encourage and implement the broadcast of all sides of controversial public issues over their facilities, over and beyond their obligation to make available on demand opportunities for the expression of opposing views. It is clear that any approximation of fairness in the presentation of any controversy will be difficult if not impossible of achievement unless the licensee plays a conscious and positive role in bringing about balanced presentation of the opposing viewpoints.

Facebook is not a broadcaster: they don’t depend on a government-granted monopoly over radio frequencies that comes with strings attached. And frankly, even were I inclined to agree that the end of the Fairness Doctrine contributed in some way to the United States’ increased polarization, the clear free speech issues inherent in its application, combined with the explosion in media outlets, lead me to believe the FCC was right to revoke it.

That said, Facebook’s influence over what most people see quite clearly rivals that of television broadcasters circa 1949, and the vast majority of jurisdictions in which Facebook operates have much less absolute free speech laws than the United States. The more that Facebook is perceived as a media entity, not simply a neutral platform, the more likely it is that the company will face calls for regulation of the News Feed in particular, in language that will likely sound a lot like the Fairness Doctrine.

Facebook and Transparency

Two weeks ago Facebook took an important step in dealing with the increased scrutiny it will inevitably face, posting a document detailing “News Feed Values”. For the first time Facebook offered a hint of transparency about how its algorithm works, making clear that “friends and family come first”, but also that “your feed should inform” and “your feed should entertain.”

To be sure the document does nothing to address the question of providing both sides of an issue; quite the opposite, in fact. The document states:

We are not in the business of picking which issues the world should read about. We are in the business of connecting people and ideas — and matching people with the stories they find most meaningful. Our integrity depends on being inclusive of all perspectives and view points, and using ranking to connect people with the stories and sources they find the most meaningful and engaging.

We don’t favor specific kinds of sources — or ideas. Our aim is to deliver the types of stories we’ve gotten feedback that an individual person most wants to see. We do this not only because we believe it’s the right thing but also because it’s good for our business. When people see content they are interested in, they are more likely to spend time on News Feed and enjoy their experience.

You may think this is problematic for society (as I do), but at least Facebook is being honest about it; transparency is the company’s best tool to remain free of regulation.

It’s also why the “technical glitch” was so disappointing. The reasons why Reynolds’ video was taken down are probably innocuous — I suspect the video was flagged for graphic content by a Facebook user and removed by a contracted content reviewer (like these in the Philippines), and then restored by someone at Facebook headquarters — and the company is probably both embarrassed that it happened and shy about revealing the degree to which it farms out content review. The most powerful journalistic entity in the world, though, doesn’t get the luxury of sweeping such significant editorial decisions under the rug: that rug will be pulled back at some point, and it would be far better for society and for Facebook were they to do so themselves.

One thing is for sure: this won’t be the last time something truly raw, visceral, and meaningful happens on Facebook Live. Zuckerberg has gotten his wish, even if the implications will ultimately be more than he bargained for: all of the eyes on those live videos will only increase the number of eyes on Facebook itself. It’s a classic case of unintended consequences: Facebook’s attempt to capture Snapchat’s private gestalt has only solidified its position as a public platform with the added component of a newsmaker in its own right, and while that carries clear benefits for society, society will expect more transparency from Facebook, willingly delivered or not.

https://stratechery.com/2016/a-technical-glitch/