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Zuckerberg Facebook F8 2019

Facebook used its F8 developer conference to tell the world about plans to build a private social media service. Speakers, including chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, hammered home a conference slogan about the future being private.

Zuckerberg did nothing to redeem Facebook’s tarnished reputation.

Instead he undermined the message that he and his company wanted to send.

That joke isn’t funny any more

After promising users a more private feature he went on to joke about it with the audience.

He said:

“Now look, I get that a lot of people aren’t sure that we’re serious about this, I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly. But I’m committed to doing this well.”

One of the things I often tell people about these speeches is that you have to, metaphorically, listen to the words and the music.

Written down the words look plausible. If you see a video of the speech you’ll see Zuckerberg laughing. At least it made him sound insincere. You might worry that this young billionaire is laughing at his company’s users. He has publicly disrespected them in the past.

Zuckerberg’s jokey delivery certainly fell flat with the audience. That video clip could be set to echo down the years if Facebook’s privacy plan goes sour.

Zuckerberg tone-deaf

It’s another example of a tone-deaf response from the leader of a company that has swung elections and been accused of stirring up hate crimes.

If Zuckerberg didn’t think Facebook had a problem when he made his speech. It has one now. He did nothing to address the biggest question hanging over Facebook: why should anyone trust the company?

There’s another question arising from the F8 conference keynote. Facebook is a huge business. It’s worth about half a trillion US dollars. It doesn’t make things. It’s not really a software company in the traditional sense.

Switching focus from inserting targeted advertising in a user’s social media feed to helping them communicate privately is a huge jump. There is a relation between the two, but it doesn’t map well.

Appy talk

Facebook already has a lot of messaging. There’s the Facebook Messenger. There’s also WhatsApp and the messaging feature in Instagram. Integrating the various messaging tools and building them into a new, useful service isn’t going to happen overnight.

Making messaging private means using encryption. Facebook says it will use this technology. Yet encryption is something governments don’t like. Given that a lot of governments also don’t like or trust Facebook that could see the company tied up in complex regulations.

My other fear about the news from F8 is there is too much focus on cosmetic changes to the business. Take the site makeover that was revealed. This may be intended to send a message that Facebook has changed, but it’s more a case of the leopard changing his spots.

Likewise Facebook’s Secret Crush feature. It could turn out to be creepy if poorly implemented. But you can’t help thinking it’s main purpose is to distract people.

New Zealand and France will work together to make it harder for terrorists to broadcast violence through social media. The move is a response to the March 15 attack in Christchurch which the terrorist streamed live.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron will meet in Paris next month to discuss plans. They timed their meeting to coincide with a G7 digital ministers Tech for Humanity event and a separate Tech for Good summit.

A media statement from Jacinda Ardern says:

“We all need to act. That includes social media providers taking more responsibility for the content that is on their platforms and taking action so that violent extremist content cannot be published and shared.

“It’s critical that technology platforms like Facebook are not perverted as a tool for terrorism and instead become part of a global solution to countering extremism. This meeting presents an opportunity for an act of unity between governments and the tech companies.”

Social media terrorist toolkit

This nails the problem. Facebook and other social media outlets have become part of the terrorist’s toolkit. In part they have spent recent years encouraging ever more extreme and violent content on their sites.

Social media companies know that extreme material resonates with audiences. In effect, they have turned people’s anger into rivers of gold. Rather than calm things down, they have learnt that ramping up fear and hate is a lucrative business.

Profit explains their reluctance to act in the past.

Inevitable

Given this, it was inevitable that a terrorist would one day choose to live-stream the murder of dozens of people. It happened in Christchurch, but the live atrocity could have been anywhere.

It’s good to see Jacinda Ardern work with Macron on this. Neither New Zealand nor France are able to fight these battles alone. It’s also good to involve the G7. The more allies the better. It will take co-ordination from many governments to rein-in the social media giants.

Until now the likes of Facebook, Google with YouTube and Twitter have acted amorally.

Above the law?

If they appear to believe they are above the law, that’s because in a sense they are.

The social media giants are all US-based. They can point to that country’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech as a justification for not policing content loaded on to their sites.

What’s more, the US gives them Section 230 protection. In effect, they have legal immunity for what they publish, although there are exceptions. This sets up a climate where the big social media companies act as if they can do whatever they want.

Reputation not considered

In an ideal world, these companies would fear their reputations and long-term business prospects are risk if they don’t take more responsibility. We’re not at that point yet.

Australia has laws which could see them prosecuted for actions like showing the Christchurch terrorist attach video. Incidentally, there’s a report this morning saying these images are still online and easy to find.

Facebook, Google and Twitter can afford to laugh in the face of small governments. To a degree that’s been their strategy until now. Even medium-sized countries like the United Kingdom are openly disrespected by social media executives. Facebook even dismisses ad hoc groups of countries working together.

New Zealand, France and the G7 are a more powerful combination. They can act together. Yet that last sentence has an important word act. The countries must do more than just bat ideas around in a talk fest. They must take collective action if anything is going to change.

I talked to Lynn Freeman on RNZ Nine-to-Noon about the NZ, France effort to tackle violence on social media

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.

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.

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