Put aside for one moment the recent headlines. Forget about Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg facing politicians in Washington. And park everything you’ve heard about Cambridge Analytica.

There are problems with the way most media organisations report Facebook. It’s something no-one ever talks about.

The first problem is that media organisations are not disinterested external observers.

Media company

You could argue that Facebook is the world’s most powerful media company. You could make a case that it is more powerful than any other media company in history.

Sure, Facebook insists it is not a media company. But that idea is ridiculous. It publishes material and extracts revenue from advertising. That’s a classic description of how the media world has operated for over a century.

Even if you don’t accept Facebook is a media company, it is not separate from the media industry.

The site can channel huge numbers of readers to, say, an online news site. The fact that it doesn’t do a good job of this is neither here or there.

What’s important is that editors and publishers are wary of making an enemy of someone with that power. This doesn’t have to be conscious or cynical. Unconscious influences are as effective as deliberate kowtowing.

Desperate times

That said, some media organisations and their employees feel so desperate that they may put aside traditional media ethics when it comes to scrutinising the hand that they hope will feed them.

Never mind that Facebook is responsible for the mess those media companies are in.

The second problem with the way the media covers Facebook is that most media organisations see it as a technology company. They usually assign specialist technology writers to cover it. A lot of the time, they relegate coverage to their technology ghetto pages.

While Facebook uses technology, so does everyone else. It’s no more a technology company than, say, the newspaper publisher in your city. Sure, there are apps. But most newspapers also have apps. It uses a customer database. So does almost every other business.

There’s very little that is unique, clever or inherently technical about Facebook. The one thing it has going is a powerful algorithm for connecting people to each other, figuring out their preferences and then packaging them so advertisers can target them with, what the company would claim is, pin-point accuracy. It’s big, but in technical terms it is trivial.

Technology

Compared to Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon, Facebook is not a technology company. You could describe it as a technology-enabled business. Now go and find any global enterprise that isn’t.

The problem with this is that media organisations frame Facebook as a technology story. They categorise it in a technology ghetto. They assign the story to journalists who might be skilled at decrypting an annual report from, say, Apple or interpreting the latest software from Google.

And, let’s be honest here, most of the time they do not give reporters the time or resources needed to unpick the story behind the story. After all most stories about Facebook don’t seem worth much more than the once-over-lightly treatment.

All of this explains why the media, indeed most of the world, was blindsided by revelations about what goes on behind the scenes at Facebook. It’s not so much the company was operating in stealth mode, at least no more than any other large corporation, it’s that there’s not enough outside scrutiny.

Framing Facebook: It’s not about technology was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

Facebook News FeedFacebook will drop traditional news stories from the News Feed. Mark Zuckerberg says the goal is to clean up the social network making it a force for good. The move is overdue.

While there are many things wrong with Facebook, matters came to a head when unfriendly forces meddled in both the 2016 US presidential election and the UK Brexit referendum.

As part of the clean-up, Facebook will change the way its News Feed works.

The News Feed is a scrolling list of updates that the Facebook app and website show on the main page. Each News Feed is tailored to the person logged-in to the Facebook account.

News Feed priority

Facebook’s News Feed prioritises items based on the user’s previous activity, their likes and interests. It also serves up news stories from external publisher using similar algorithms to select items Facebook thinks will interest the user.

Zuckerberg says news will downgraded after the change. Instead Facebook will show posts that it considers are more ‘meaningful’. That means Facebook users will see more posts and photos from friends and family members, fewer links to news stories and videos.

Facebook uses the term ‘meaningful’ to mean users will see more items they will interact with. That means writing a response, clicking on links or hitting the ‘like’ button. This is in contrast to the way users tend to passively scroll through news stories and video links.

Users will still get news items in their News Feed. Instead of selecting items based on interests, Facebook will serve up the stories that have more comments or have generated a lot of chatter. This could mean more gossip and sensational stories, fewer hard news items. Although that remains to be seen.

In some ways a positive move

Despite the possibility of poor quality news, giving users material less likely to depress them seems like a positive move. And brave. Zuckerberg admits the change could be hurt Facebook’s business in the short term. Shareholders agree. Facebook shares dropped 4.5 percent after Zuckerberg’s announcement.

If that’s the case, why is Facebook doing this? Zuckerberg and his team have always been aggressive. They run a clear Facebook-first strategy where they only make choices that are good for Facebook shareholders. This move is a long-term play with complex objectives.

Zuckerberg quotes internal company research that shows social networks can often make people feel bad about themselves. There are many reasons for this, one is that other users post carefully edited versions of their news tweaked to make their lives look as exciting or as perfect as possible. Too much Facebook can leave people feeling envious.

Well-being suffering

There’s also respectable academic evidence from elsewhere that users who spend too much time scrolling through their feed without much interaction suffer from negative health and mental health problems.. That’s not good for Facebook. If users wise up to these problems and leave en masse, Zuckerberg’s empire could crumble.

Facebook’s own research says that those who get deeper involved with their News Feed have better than normal personal well-being. Which implies it is the news part of the News Feed, that is the stories from journalists and others, along with the sugar rush diet of snackable video material that depresses users.

While cutting down on the bad feed items and increasing the good ones makes perfect sense, there is a problem. It means people will spend less time on Facebook. That means they will see less advertising which, in turn, will mean less revenue for the social media giant.

We can take it as read that Zuckerberg and his senior officers have workshopped how this will play out. The drop in time spent may not be huge.

It’s possible that having happy engaged readers means the advertising is more effective and that Facebook can increase rates. At this point it is worth mentioning that Facebook’s revenue per ad served has been falling for some time. Arresting that fall is important.

Flying below regulatory radar

There’s another angle to the change. Facebook has begun to attract attention from governments and regulators who have many concerns about its power. Acting now may see some of the possible regulatory action before it happens. There’s even a possibility some regulators have had a quite word in Facebook’s ear suggesting this kind of move might be wise.

Facebook’s move looks like a positive step for its two billion or so users. It may even decrease the total amount of unhappiness in the world. Yet that won’t be the case in news organisations and with publishers who depend on Facebook to funnel readers to news websites. They’ll get less traffic than before.

Publishers are understandably angry. In effect those who have used Facebook as a distribution network have been victims of a giant bait and switch con job. Facebook wooed published a decade or so ago with the promise of delivering traffic. The argument for publishers was they may as well fish where the shoals were swimming. Pulling the plug on them is an act of bad faith.

Yet Facebook has steadily dropped the amount of external news material in its News Feed in recent years. The latest move is only a speeded up version of what has already been happening.

Many publishers learned long ago that stories about the colour of a dress or pictures of cute animals were more likely to get Facebook traffic than an in-depth investigation into changes in taxation or other heavy-duty reporting.

The other aspect of Facebook changes is that it will be harder for companies and public relations professionals to get News Feed attention. That will force them to spend more on advertising if they want a Facebook audience.

Facebook is not now and never has been the publisher’s friend. Yet it makes sense to keep customers, literally, happy. In the long term that’s likely to pay dividends. In the meantime, what’s left of the traditional news media will need to find another path out of the internet maze.

Also on:

Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner for competition, says the government has to move fast to ensure that tech does not subvert society. Presumably, she means the European government.

“…as it becomes clearer how those companies were used to manipulate the 2016 U.S. elections, Vestager feels validated in her distrust of Silicon Valley’s power…”

The quotes come from a podcast interview. It shows Europe, or at least Europe’s competition regulator, is moving in a different direction to the USA and Asia. On the surface at least, these regions seem more comfortable with power being concentrated in fewer hands.

European market

“We want a free market, but we know that the paradox of a ‘free’ market is that sometimes you have to intervene. You have to make sure it’s not the law of the jungle, but the laws of democracy that works.”

Vestager said her commission will continue to focus on preventing large tech incumbents like Google from stifling competition from startups. She also has misgivings about the secrecy surrounding the algorithms that power much of the internet.

“I think some of these algorithms, they’ll have to go to law school before they’re let out. You cannot just say, ‘What happens in the black box stays in the black box.’ You have to teach your algorithm what it can do and what it cannot do, because otherwise there is a risk that the algorithms will learn the tricks of the old cartels.”

While it is easy to identify problems caused by tech companies, fixing them looks harder. Regulating for greater competition is a start, so is transparency, yet, for now, the tech giants have momentum.

Source: Europe’s chief regulator Margrethe Vestager on reining in tech: ‘This is the biggest wake-up call we’ve ever had’ – Recode

Also on:

Don Christie - Brandon Keepers

Don Christie writes in the New Zealand Herald Global IT companies are taking profit here and putting nothing back:

An organisation I co-chair, NZRise, has been looking at the problem. We represent New Zealand owned digital companies who generate jobs and good incomes for tens of thousands of Kiwis. Our research shows Facebook, Google, Amazon and many other global digital companies are engaged in similar tax avoidance schemes to Apple.

Most revenues that accrue to those companies from New Zealand simply don’t get reported. They are the result of an online transaction and the money flies out of the country in the blink of an eye. No tax. No multiplier effect. No 41 per cent investment into our society.

From a business owner’s perspective it also represents a huge disincentive to invest in R&D, which is already at shockingly low levels by international standards. We find ourselves at a disadvantage to our multinational competitors.

Why create software and technical services in New Zealand when we will always be facing uneven tax playing field?

New Zealand has had a problem with multinational companies and transfer pricing for decades.

Yet the problem Christie writes about is on a different scale.

While the old multinational would shuffle money to minimise liabilities in New Zealand, they still paid some tax. They employed people, trained people and contributed to the economy in other ways. They funded university chairs, sports clubs and other worthy causes. If the new breed does any of that, it’s invisible.

Little contribution

The new multinationals pay next to no tax. They employ next to no New Zealanders. They contribute little to the economy.

Sure, you can argue that Apple products make New Zealanders more productive and that’s a positive economic contribution. The net positive economic contribution may even be greater than Apple fails to contribute in more direct ways.

That is an argument against banning or boycotting Apple products. No-one is suggesting that.

It is not an argument against taxing Apple.

After all, our roads carry Apple products to market. Our schools give people the skills people need to use Apple products. Our health system keeps Apple’s customers alive and healthy. In some cases our tax dollars buy Apple products.

Google this!

You could argue something similar about Google. Some believe Google software makes workers more productive than they would be with other software. Maybe.

Some think that Google’s activities in the advertising sector has an economic benefit. Try saying that to a New Zealand journalist or someone who works in the media.

Again, these are not arguments against taxing Google.

Google is quite happy to sell its products and services to New Zealand government departments that it doesn’t help fund.

It’s harder to argue Facebook offers any economic benefits to New Zealand. If anything it undermines productivity. It is the digital equivalent of an all-sugar diet.

Christie has a good point

There’s little change Apple, Facebook and Google will stop selling in New Zealand if we force them to pull their economic weight.

Until recently the problem was limited. Most of the non-contributors were technology companies. That’s changing with services like Uber muscling in on our markets. If things continue our economy will be hollowed out. Let’s not allow that to happen.

It’s been said that what the companies do is legal. That’s true. It doesn’t make it right. We have the power to change that. We have left this problem in the too hard basket for too long.

facebook-ads
facebook-ads

For years publishers, broadcasters and anyone else in the media business have wondered if Facebook could be their salvation.

The old publishing business model has crumbled. Building mass audiences with entertainment or information then selling advertising no longer delivers rivers of gold.

Some saw Facebook as an answer. Perhaps not the answer, the question is too complex for a single response. And anyway, Facebook has always been part of the problem.

Yet for a moment it looked as if the social media giant could breathe life back into the advertising-lead business model.

Mighty empire

After all Facebook is a mighty empire. It has greater reach and more influence than any organisation in history.

Yet it turns out the emperor has no clothes. Well, fewer clothes.

The Wall Street Journal reports Facebook has misreported its viewing figures for the past two years.

Advertisers have been given numbers that overestimate the amount of time Facebook users watch video by between 60 and 80 percent. This comes after the social media giant talked about the rapid growth in its video numbers.

Advertiser fears

There’s a growing fear among advertisers that Facebook and Google hide too much of this kind of information. That’s ironic, because one reason advertisers tell traditional publishers they prefer online media is ‘accountability’.

This isn’t the only bad news Facebook has for traditional publishers. In June there was an algorithm change which saw Facebook prioritise material from human accounts while decreasing the number of posts users would see from media companies.

Those publishers who depend on Facebook to deliver readers get less traffic as a result.

Many publishers feel they have no choice but to throw in their lot with Facebook. After all, it is the largest source of traffic for most big media companies. And Facebook has consistently pushed itself to publishers in a bid to fill its pages with their, free-to-Facebook, material.

Fickle, unsympathetic

Yet Facebook has proved a fickle and unsympathetic partner. Its relationship with traditional media is asymmetric.

It’s not clear if Facebook’s recent misreporting was deliberate or accidental. The difference doesn’t matter much to publishers, either way they suffer.

Facebook’s business is all about building compelling services that win large audiences. It then sells that attention to advertisers. Google is the same.

Scale

In many respects both are following the traditional media-advertising model, although there are huge differences of scale and neither invests heavily in producing original material. Instead they let other people do the heavy lifting.

You can see this as a parasitic way of making money. Despite all the goody-two shoes rhetoric about extending the reach of the internet into the poorer areas of the world or bringing people together, the pair are vast empires that care little for what goes on down at the grass-roots level.

Facebook is not the answer to publishers’ prayers, it is yet another nail in their coffin.