Archive of political content becomes batleground between publishers and platforms
George Orwell wrote in his essay Politics and the English Language: In our age there is no such thing as keeping out of politics. All issues are political issues. When Facebook constructed a new archive of political advertising, had it thought a little more about this concept of what is political, it might have more accurately anticipated the subsequent Orwellian headache. As it is, journalists are finding their articles restricted from promotion because they are lumped in with campaigning materials from politicians, lobby groups and advocacy organisations.
The new archive of ads with political content, which Facebook made public last month, has become the latest contested piece of territory between platforms and publishers. The complaint from publishers is that Facebook is categorising posts in which they are promoting their own journalism (paying money to target particular groups of the audience) as political ads. Publishers have reacted furiously to what they see as toxic taxonomy.
Mark Thompson, the chief executive of the New York Times, has been the most vocal critic, describing Facebooks practices as a threat to democracy and criticising the platform in a recent speech to the Open Markets Initiative in Washington DC. When it comes to news, Facebook still doesnt get it, said Thompson. In its effort to clear up one bad mess, it seems to be joining those who want to blur the line between reality-based journalism and propaganda.
At a separate event at Columbia University, Thompson and Facebooks head of news partnerships, Campbell Brown, fought openly about the initiative. Thompson showed examples of where New York Times articles, including recipes, had been wrongly flagged as political. Brown emphasised that the archive was being refined, but stood firm on the principle that promoted journalism ought to be flagged as paid-for political posts. On this you are just wrong, she told Thompson.
Publishers took to social platforms to question the labelling and representation of their work. One of the most egregious examples came from investigative journalism organisation Reveal. Last week, at the height of the scandal around the separation of undocumented migrant families crossing the US border, it published an exclusive story involving the alleged drugging of children at a centre housing immigrant minors. It was flagged in the Facebook system as containing political content, and as Reveal had not registered its promotion of the story, the promoted posts were stifled. Facebook did not remove the article, but rather stopped its paid circulation. Given the importance of paid promotion, it is not surprising that publishers see this as amounting to the same thing.
The furore and confusion over what had happened to the post demonstrated that publishers were themselves confused about the new system. It also demonstrated the way in which even a well-intentioned initiative to add more clarity to political advertising could in fact militate against the rapid spread of what many would consider important high-quality news.
The central problem exposed by Facebooks advertising archive is the flaw in its entire business model. Targeted advertising represents 98% of Facebooks revenues which were $40bn last year.
Many people who use Facebook remain unaware that what shows up in their news feed can get there two ways: it is targeted by an algorithm based on their behaviour, profile and preferences; and often it is targeted at their demographic by paid promotion. It is routine for publishers to pay to boost pages of their own journalism in order for them to reach a wider audience. In fact for many publishers it is a prerequisite of being read, as Facebook does not recognise or seek to categorise good journalism or urgent news over any other material.
It is precisely these mechanics which led in the 2016 US election cycle to the platform playing host to all types of propaganda and fake news often masquerading as legitimate journalism. The idea that Facebook should add transparency to what was being paid for as political advertising was almost universally welcomed as a first step to combating misinformation.
The friction over its implementation highlights a key tension within Facebook and all tech companies when it comes to dealing with cultural concepts. Should companies just rely far more heavily on human judgment or should they leave it to algorithms?
Robots, algorithms, computers and maths are amazingly potent in their capacity to sort unique objects: faces, places, images and text can be searched and identified quickly at great scale. But things which are not unique, or which carry with them inherent ambiguity such as culture, politics, humanity even are unsuited to evaluation by any kind of artificial intelligence application. Orwell was right, everything is political: holiday photos are political; fashion, weddings, theatre and film, architecture, are all in one sense political. (Maybe it is only the cat picture which the whole of the internet can agree on as being apolitical.)
In deciding that a New Yorker piece in praise of adultery is political, the Facebook advertising archive algorithm might be making a profound, almost philosophical, judgment about hetero-normative values, but more likely it is just incompetently sorting material it cant recognise. These examples are good copy, but essentially teething problems that Facebook has the capacity to solve.
However, there are profound issues about the nature and control of the public sphere. As the large platforms now effectively are the internet for many people, their governance structures are of key public interest. If categorisation as being political has consequences for how fact-based reporting is perceived both by the public and by the algorithm, this could be catastrophic. It could lead to local news or urgent political coverage being harder to find or prioritised according only to the amount a publisher or advertiser spends.
The second is that Facebook is to some extent on the right side of the argument when it comes to labelling content. But it is unfortunately ill-equipped to deal with the type and scale of the task it has created for itself. There is a looming civic crisis in the field of political communications. The provenance of material masquerading as news often deliberately obscures funding sources and influences; comb the Facebook political advertising archive around any keyword and you will find a host of apparently neutral news media entities which are funded and controlled by hyper-partisan groups. And these groups can also pay to promote articles from other news organisations in pursuit of their own aims. The number of New York Times articles paid for by candidates boosting their own campaigns is just as large as the Timess own promotional strategies.
The unavoidable core of this issue is taking transparency into the realm of political judgment, and separating legitimate news sources from non-legitimate. Nobody, including Facebook, wishes this organisation to have such a level of control over the free press or even political campaigning. The answer to Facebook, as has often been said, cannot be more Facebook.
News and journalism are now dependent on Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple and others for many aspects of their existence. What is clear is that these companies are not inherently suited to be custodians of our information ecosystem, and arguably never will be.