Facebook and Google are giant advertising platforms, not tenets of an open web. It’s time to start treating them as such
Friday 19 February 2021
Facebook did the right thing. Its decision to ban all Australian media organisations from its platform has been derided as a brazen act of censorship. It isn’t. For too long Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has pretended that his creation is a “town square” – a place for friends and communities to connect freely. Recently, Zuckerberg pivoted, insisting instead that Facebook was a “digital living room” – whatever that means. In fact, Facebook is neither. Facebook is an advertising platform hellbent on dominating the attention economy. Zuckerberg himself pithily summed up his company’s mission during a 2018 Congressional hearing into the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Asked how Facebook operates without making people pay, Zuckerberg replied, quite simply, “Senator, we run ads”.
What Facebook has done in Australia could now be repeated around the world. And, largely, it already is. Just four per cent of the posts on the Facebook News Feed are news, the company claims. That’s not because people don’t care about news, it’s because Facebook doesn’t. Everyone needs to start being honest about that. Such is Facebook’s contempt for the media that four years ago it fired its trending news team, replaced them with an algorithm which immediately pumped out a story about a man masturbating with a McDonald’s chicken sandwich. If that was funny. What happened next wasn’t.
A year later, in September 2017, Facebook made the decision to push people towards Groups in an attempt to, it claimed, create a more “meaningful” social platform. Two years later, the company revealed its algorithmic overhaul had been a phenomenal success – hundreds of millions of people were now members of so-called “meaningful groups”. The only problem? Many of these groups, some with hundreds of thousands of members, were pushing out QAnon conspiracy theories, white supremacism and anti-vaxx propaganda. What’s more, Facebook’s engagement algorithm was actively driving people towards more and more extreme content because it was more engaging. News, it turns out, simply isn’t engaging enough. Facebook 1, Democracy 0.
The pivot to Groups accelerated a dangerous attention economy gold rush. In 2017, when Facebook announced the shift, it reported annual revenues of $40.6 billion. By 2020, that figure had more than doubled to $85.9bn. On January 6, 2021, less than four years after Facebook’s grand pivot to Groups, a violent mob born out of its “meaningful” online communities stormed the US Capitol. Five people died. Days later, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg claimed the insurrection was not “largely organised” on Facebook. As she spoke, more than 70 “Stop the Steal” groups, some with thousands of members, remained active on the platform. Charging documents filed in relation to the siege mention Facebook 73 times – more than YouTube, Facebook-owned Instagram and Parler combined. Facebook 2, Democracy 0.
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It might be headline-grabbing, but the game of regulatory brinkmanship playing out in Australia fails to address the profound impact the attention economy is having on how we view the world. Fail to fix that and you fail to fix not just Facebook and Google, but the whole internet. Australian legislators are asking Facebook and Google, two giant advertising platforms, to pay media organisations who wish to post content on their platforms. At the same time, Facebook and Google make billions of dollars from companies who pay to advertise on their platforms. Makes sense, right? But what’s bad news for Australia right now could and should be good news for the whole world when smarter politicians learn from these mistakes.
It’s a ridiculous idea and Facebook did exactly the right thing in calling Rupert Murdoch’s bluff. But Facebook has now left itself exposed to better regulation – and given us all a timely reminder that combatting white supremacism is hard but censoring a free press is easy. Facebook, after years of shirking responsibility for the damage it has done to the world, has finally shot itself in the foot.
What legislators should now do is treat Facebook and Google for what they are: giant advertising platforms. Effective regulation is no more complicated than effective taxation. Get that right and it would then be beholden on governments, not advertising platforms, to use a substantial new source of tax revenue to fund a media industry decimated by a brutal ride through algorithmic adland.
But there’s a trickier tangle that taxation alone won’t unpick. For many, Facebook and Google are part of the mythical “open web” – one where hyperlinks can be freely posted on any website. That makes sense on, say, Wikipedia, but it does not make sense on Facebook and Google which, despite their scale and mission statements, are essentially closed advertising ecosystems. Sure, news organisations can choose to post articles and videos on Facebook. And in return, people on Facebook may play those videos and click on those links. Rarely, they might click on an advert on the news organisation’s website or pay to subscribe to that publication. Or, if you’re the Epoch Times, you can game Facebook’s engagement algorithm to transform yourself from a low-budget far-right newspaper founded by an obscure Chinese spiritual movement into one of the most-read publications on the planet. If Facebook prioritised social wellbeing over engagement, this wouldn’t have happened.
On Google, the value exchange is different but similarly broken. Google trawls the internet and indexes almost everything on it by default. A news organisation can opt out by inserting a short piece of code on their website’s backend, but doing so would be commercially ruinous. Sure, publications don’t choose to be on Google in the same way that they choose to be on Facebook, but the sheer scale of both platforms makes it an inevitability. Google without news is unthinkable – so unthinkable that Google and Murdoch struck a secret and lucrative pay-to-play deal to keep news flowing in Australia. But a Facebook without news? Well, that’s easier to imagine.
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The problem here isn’t Facebook or Google. Nor is it the decades-long failure of the media industry to innovate. The problem isn’t Murdoch’s belligerence or a digitally illiterate Australian legislature. The problem is that we’ve ended up at a moment in history where almost all information in the world is disseminated by two gigantic advertising companies that are better at making an ad for buttless pyjamas stalk you around the internet than they are at stopping an attack on the US Capitol or preventing genocide. Regulators can and must do better to address this imbalance. And no, the answer to our broken internet is not to hand News Corp more power and money. Unless you’re Google.
For years it has been clear that the web, which has been shaped in Facebook and Google’s image, is in no way open. Facebook is not a social network. Google is not a search engine. They are an advertising duopoly. In the US, more than half of advertising spend now goes to big digital platforms. In the UK, Amazon, Facebook and Google account for almost 70 per cent of digital advertising spend. If Facebook doesn’t want news on its platform, that’s Facebook’s prerogative. If Google wants to hand giant wads of cash to Rupert Murdoch to secure deeply troubling pay-to-play deals, that’s Google’s prerogative. It’s an irresistible tug-of-war: there would be no Facebook or Google without the terabytes of stuff we shout into the void every hour of every day. And yet, without Facebook and Google, there would be no void to shout into. Unless you’re still on Bing or MySpace.
Which brings us back to Zuckerberg’s “town square” – or “digital living room”. In Facebook’s alternate reality, a town square is a place for the free expression of views, where people and communities come together to find a sense of common purpose and belonging. Facebook’s living room, by the same logic, is a more intimate, personal version of this. In reality, Facebook’s town square is a place where people are ruthlessly surveilled, where hopes and dreams are turned into data profiles and sold to the highest bidder. It is a town square where all the white supremacists get handed free megaphones. In Facebook’s digital living room, your every utterance is used to sell you weird trousersor encourage you to join a group campaigning to “stop white genocide in Suid Afrika”. Facebook has spent years failing to tackle dangerous disinformation and misinformaton on its platform. Then it censored news for an entire nation at the touch of a button. Those are the rules of the attention economy – and nothing else matters.
James Temperton is WIRED’s digital editor. He tweets from @jtemperton
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