As Nick Clegg starts his job, questions are swirlingabout misinformation in the messaging app
By Casey [email protected] Oct 20, 2018, 6:00am EDT
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Today, three shorter items to carry us into the weekend.
One, Facebook has hired a new head of global policy and communications to replace Elliot Schrage. It’s Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom. Clegg is a former European Commission trade negotiator, where he played a role in punishing tech companies for anticompetitive behavior — most notably Google, which received a $5 billion fine for issues involving Android. With Facebook currently in the crosshairs of European regulators over a wide range of issues, Clegg brings a perspective and a clout that the company has previously lacked.
British people have a proud tradition of loathing their elected leaders, and they eagerly traded zingers about Clegg on Friday morning, many of which are funny only if you have a solid grasp of British politics. (It helps to know that Clegg presided over a collapse in support for his party, the Liberal Democrats, and that the party abandoned a pledge to oppose tuition increases for students. The Guardian has a helpful mini-profileembedded in his op-ed about taking the new job.)
Clegg is a former journalist, a centrist, and unlike Schrage, has a large Twitter following. Is he what Facebook needs for the role? A global head of policy and communications needs to be very good at two things: knowing people, and arguing. By that measure, Clegg would seem to fit the bill. In any case, he deserves a chance. Here’s what he said in the Guardian:
I remain a stubborn optimist about the progressive potential to society of technological innovation. It can transform how we work, play and build relationships. It can help to protect our environment and keep our streets safe. It will fundamentally change how we teach our children at school and at home. It is transforming healthcare and transport. If the tech industry can work sensibly with governments, regulators, parliaments and civic society around the world, I believe we can enhance the benefits of technology while diminishing the often unintended downsides.
Of course, managing those unintended downsides will probably represent the bulk of Clegg’s time at Facebook. He’ll have his work cut out for him.
Two, the new head of WhatsApp made his first public comments about an issue of any significance. Chris Daniels, who took over the messaging app during Facebook’s big org-chart shuffle in May, posted to the company blog on Thursday to explain how Facebook is trying to prevent WhatsApp from being misused in Brazil. (This was also the subject of my column yesterday; Daniels’ note hadn’t been posted by press time.)
Anyone hoping to better understand Daniels’ product philosophy will be disappointed by his charmless and notably defensive blog post, which includes the full complement of October 2018 Facebook talking points: misinformation didn’t start with us; most people don’t use WhatsApp to spread misinformation; a global platform will inevitably host both the good and the bad. He also adopts Facebook’s unfortunate tendency to speak about world-scale problems in percentages.
Today, over 90 percent of messages sent on WhatsApp in Brazil are individual, one-on-one conversations. The majority of groups are about just six people — a conversation so private and personal that it would fit in your living room.
(You can stop over 90 percent of asteroids from crashing into your planet and still have a major problem on your hands.)
Nowhere in Daniels’ post does he acknowledge some of the unique ways in which his popular app, with its potent combination of encryption and viral sharing mechanics, has created new and extremely difficult problems for Brazil. (A far-right, anti-democratic climate change skeptic is now poised to win, after his backers funded a fake news campaign on WhatsApp.) Instead Daniels lists six steps the company has taken to reduce its level of harm, before saying “it will take all of us” to solve the problem.
In the meantime, it’s not clear that Daniels even understands what the problem is. He comes across as a colonial governor telling a restless public that the crown is taking their concerns very seriously. Brazil deserves better. So does WhatsApp.
Three, the media had a weeklong fight over whether Facebook intentionally misled them about the extent to which people had an interest in watching video, prompting publishers to lay off their writers in an ultimately fruitless “pivot to video” that impoverished journalists and journalism. The spark was a lawsuit I mentioned here earlier in the week, in which advertisers said a metrics reporting error — which Facebook acknowledged in 2016 — was well known within the company for a year.
At issue is how Facebook reported video views. Here’s Suzanna Vranica with a concise explanation:
For two years, Facebook had counted only video views that lasted more than three seconds when calculating its “average duration of video viewed” metric. Video views of under three seconds weren’t factored in, thereby inflating the average length of a view.
Facebook replaced the metric with “average watch time,” which reflects video views of any duration.
The metric may have been overstated. But as the linchpin of a theory that publishers pivoted to video on a false pretext, it’s pretty flimsy. As Laura Hazard Owen notes, much more important was the way Facebook talked about video, with Mark Zuckerberg himself predicting that video would soon become the dominant form of communication on the platform.
Much of the conversation has concluded that people did not want to watch news-oriented video. This conversation tends to omit the existence of YouTube, on which people do watch quite a lot of news-oriented video. (May I please recommend to you the Vox channel, with 1.1 billion views and a successful Netflix show, or Verge Science, which reached more than half a million subscribers in under a year.)
In 2016, traditional publishers were still having trouble cracking YouTube. But they were willing to take a flier on Facebook, because more than 1 billion people were looking at it every day, and Facebook had turned the knobs on video all the way up. Importantly, some publishers appeared to be succeeding with a video strategy:
In September, Tasty’s main Facebook page was the third-biggest video account on Facebook with nearly 1.7 billion video views, according to Tubular Labs. Viewership per video is also staggering: During the last three months, Tasty’s Facebook videos have averaged 22.8 million video views in the first 30 days alone. That’s better than BuzzFeed’s main Facebook page and the separate BuzzFeed Food account, which averaged 4.7 million views and 1.1 million views per video in the same timeframe.
Overall, Tasty now accounts for 37 percent of BuzzFeed’s video views, according to Tubular. This is all the more remarkable considering BuzzFeed started Tasty just in July 2015.
There were three problems with Facebook video. One, Facebook never figured out a good way for publishers to make money from them. Publishers assumed that some kind of pre- or mid- or post-roll advertising would offer a return on their investment, but it never did. Two, Facebook had a product problem. The News Feed is meant for rapid, near-mindless scrolling; video is meant for intent, lean-back viewing. A handful of formats, most notably Tasty’s, thrived in the News Feed. But most died — which is why Facebook is now shunting video over to its Watch tab, and even there nothing has really broken out of the pack.
Finally, in the aftermath of the 2016 election, Facebook ratcheted down the amount of publisher content in the feed, in the hopes that seeing more of our friends and family would discourage us from sharing viral memes and destroying democracy. Video will still play a major role in Facebook’s future, but it’s likely to look more like the video you see in Instagram stories and less like those square videos with text captions posted on B-roll.
There’s a valid critique of Facebook in there somewhere. But much of the anger feels, to me, misplaced. Journalists would have benefited if Facebook had done a better job predicting the future. But publishers could have done a better job predicting the future, too.