How Facebook broke the internet and killed the news
In mid February, Mark Zuckerberg published a long, open letter outlining how Facebook must do more to affect positive global change. Interpreted as a sign of his future intentions for political office, few journalists considered it for what it really was:
- An acknowledgement that the prophesied utopia of the social web has turned out to be a little more dystopian than we anticipated
- A reminder of what the internet was supposed to portend – greater openness, unity, democracy and equality – before its idealistic promise was lost
The letter was a response to the phenomenon of ‘fake news’, and accusations that Facebook was not responsive enough to its proliferation on the platform. In some ways, it’s a familiar story; Zuckerberg and Facebook have a track record of making decisions and implementing policies that, at best, were naïve and at worst devious. This time round, however, we seem less willing to forgive its transgressions. This is partly because Facebook is now well and truly a commercial behemoth. But I’d also suggest it’s because we’ve reached a turning point in the history of the internet. We’re less enamoured of it, increasingly weary of its pull and wary of its hazards. Judged against Facebook’s mission, the internet is broken – it is making the world less open; yes, more networked but also more adversarial and untrusting.
Facebook and the changing nature of the news play a fundamental role in the breaking of the internet. The news was once a unifying force – benevolent in its provision of information, reliable as clockwork, humanitarian in its handling of tragedy and humanising in its treatment of the trivial stuff. In the centrist days of yore, a reader or viewers’ emotional response to tragedy was similar regardless of political affiliation. And while one set of football fans would have celebrated a score line while another group of supporters lamented it, both agreed with its sequencing; football was less important than crisis, and so it featured later in the programme or towards the back of the paper. Facebook changed this irrevocably. Just as music file-sharing destroyed the pre-eminence of the LP, so too has Facebook destroyed the vaulted place of news in the media industry. Like music, the ‘news’ has been unbundled and is now distributed (as ‘content’) according to tastes and preferences via the social web. Today, media content is the bait by which we’re profiled and manipulated for political and commercial ends, and Facebook is the weapon by which the bait is administered and its effects monitored.
The broken internet
There are two broad laments we increasingly hear and read – that the internet has been corrupted and that life online corrupts us.
The story of the corruption of the internet is a new spin on an old ideological argument – whether markets should or shouldn’t operate without regulatory interference. What is different about this story is just how readily, and for so long, so many of us accepted the free market underpinnings of the internet even though we may not accept the free market in the physical world. Dazzled by the Trojan horse of ‘free’, we overlooked en masse the myriad ways in which we really do pay for online services. Faced with obstructive advertising and the erosion of individual privacy via the exploitation of personal data, it has only recently become widely recognised that the internet has not evolved according to the laws of nature but by virtue of the intentional efforts of young men (and some women) who went west to Silicon Valley and built commercial cyberspace. In 2009, Chris Anderson was strikingly candid about this in his bestseller Free: The Future of a Radical Price. As a price point, he argued, ‘free’ has an aphrodisiacal allure and encourages us to move away from a ‘scarcity’ mindset to an ‘abundance’ mindset. Just seven years later, the zeitgeist suggests we have gorged on this abundance and are starting to feel sick. We fear that the blitzkrieg of platform capitalism might just enslave us as it lays waste to job security, shrinks wages, and uses the data we feed it to manipulate our behaviour and our thoughts.
The corruption of the individual by life online is a story of addiction. Research suggests that our compulsive need for connectivity is fuelled by the same instinct that drives our survival. Our cognitive seeking system craves expectation more than reward – in other words, we get a bigger dopamine hit from the thrill of anticipating new emails than we do from the satisfaction of answering messages and clearing our inbox. The result is stress and fatigue in professionals who are available online 24/7 and struggle to detach from work, and a marked increase in depression and unhappiness amongst teenagers. The anarchic and unregulated nature of the internet also puts vulnerable people at risk of abuse, whether it’s as victims of anonymous trolling and bullying, revenge porn or sexual grooming, or brainwashing and recruitment by extremists. These risks exist in the physical world too of course, but are amplified and exacerbated online to the extent that not only is there a greater probability that an individual will be preyed upon, but also that the experience could be significantly more harmful.
Way back when Facebook introduced its news feed, Mark Zuckerberg offered a darkly prescient vignette about what the social web might mean for us, even as he extolled the benefits of online connectedness:
‘A squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.’
It’s such a weird allusion that I can only imagine it must have come from personal experience. He seemed to be saying ‘my world is what I see and feel. And my world is more important to me than your world, just as your world is more important to you than mine’. It is a remarkable rejection of shared values in favour of personal experience. It suggests a guiding rule for the individual that the more visceral our emotional response to something, the more important it is, regardless of its triviality in comparison to another event that takes place farther away. It was a shrewd insight into the human condition and marked the end of the news as we knew it.
The news is dead, long live the media
If we are indeed living in a post-truth world, ‘fake news’ (factually inaccurate stories or blatant lies) is a quaint definition that demonstrates just how out of touch (or deluded) so many of us are about the state of the online world. It suggests that there is still important ‘real’ news out there of the kind we used to tune into, before content became something we ‘consumed’ in piecemeal fashion based on lifestyle and identity. There are two big problems with this worldview:
- It’s simply not true. In a world of ‘free’, native advertising and branded content are essential sources of income for all news outlets and feature heavily. The grand old news institutions may have rigorous editing standards, but they simply can’t afford to be sanctimonious about resisting commercial influence in pursuit of journalistic objectivity.
- There isn’t much of an audience for the old ‘real’ news. The old ‘real’ news is an anachronism, representative of a time when certain classes of people had an omniscient view of the world. Once, they were trusted to use their positions of privilege to broadcast the facts about global events; today, with their fussiness for journalistic protocol they are considered elitist.
Omniscience is now a privilege we all enjoy. The social web has drastically shortened the distance between each of the six degrees of separation that joins everyone on the planet with one another. Everyone knows someone who has access to a particular source of news, so access – whether it’s being in the right place at the right time or being privy to classified information – is no longer particularly special. Perspective has replaced access as the most prized journalistic asset.
Opinion is far better suited to the workings of the social web than the old ‘real’ news. It reflects peoples’ lived experiences and interests, and it is curated to make us feel good and satisfy the needs of our cognitive seeking systems. If there is a difference between ‘fake news’ and the perspective-led journalism and sponsored content issued by big media companies, it matters less and less because of the way these stories are received by consumers. If people are willing to believe it – and clearly they are – it may as well be true, whether it’s that Laura Kuenssberg’s reporting is biased against Jeremy Corbyn or that Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS. Like the existence of God, it may as well be true because so many people want it to be true. If it is serving any kind of political agenda, it is also serving our emotional needs – to be outraged or humoured or vindicated in our choices.
Gillian Tett’s recent admission that the Financial Times has used the same behavioural profiling services that Cambridge Analytica allegedly employed to help Donald Trump win the US Presidential Election suggests that the media establishment is leading the charge to beat out ‘fake news’ in the fierce competition for click-rates and eyeballs. It is hard to believe that the feedback from the data these services generate – for example, about how to tailor the way articles are contextualised in social media posts or target specific articles to consumer profiles – will never influence content. Sites such as UniLad, currently the most popular Facebook Page, are already using their astounding insight into what appeals to their customer base to draw attention to causes they deem worthy and to bring in revenue. Access, now a point of parity, provides information – and data can be interpreted in multiple, often conflicting, ways. The creative challenge for journalists today is to construct news stories that weave data and facts in service of emotion. Going forwards, I suspect it will become even more targeted along the lines of extreme A/B testing, whereby one news story is adapted (by intelligent machines?) to appeal to different groups of people with very different, even opposing, values and beliefs.