From Fake News to Real Murder: Facebook’s Incentive Problem

Fake news did not originate with Facebook, nor with the 2016 presidential campaign. Planting damaging stories of dubious provenance about a political opponent in the newspaper  is a tradition nearly as old as newspapering itself. And spreading false rumors is as old as human society.

But as we saw in last year’s election, Facebook and other social media platforms have elevated merely spurious information into a weapon of mass dysfunction. During the final three months of the 2016 campaign, the top 20 fake news stories circulating on Facebook racked up 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on the platform, including such classics as “Pope Endorses Donald Trump” (960,000), and “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide” (560,000).

BuzzFeed, which compiled those data, notes that those 20 fake stories attracted nearly 1.5 million more instances of engagement than the 20 top-performing stories 19 major news outlets over the same period. But the issue here isn’t so much real vs. fake but the role that Facebook’s massive scale played in encouraging the production of fake stories.

While some of the top fake news items were created by partisan outlets (or foreign intelligence agencies) for expressly political purposes, far more were created for profit, by people like Bela  Latsabidze, a 22-year old computer science student in Tbilisi, Georgia.

“In Tbilisi, the two-room rented apartment Mr. Latsabidze shares with his younger brother is an unlikely offshore outpost of America’s fake news industry,” the New York Times reported shortly after the election. “They say they have no keen interest in politics themselves and initially placed bets across the American political spectrum and experimented with show business news, too.”

Their pro-Hillary Clinton site did not attract many readers and its made-up news stories rarely went viral, so the brothers shifted their focus to making up positive stories about Donald Trump, where they found a more avid and engaged audience. More engagement on Facebook meant more hits on Google, which translated into more ad impressions, which in turn translated into more revenue for the brothers.

“For me, this is all about income, nothing more,” Latsabidze told the Times. Had his pro-Clinton site taken off, he added, he would have pressed on with that.

Facebook is now taking steps to try to limit the amount of fake news on its platform. This week it shut down 30,000 fake accounts in France ahead of that country’s upcoming national elections, and is currently looking to hire a head of news products to help it deal with the problem. It’s also trying to teach its algorithm to better recognize fake news stories and either flag them or deprecate them in users’ news feeds.

But no algorithm can solve the underlying incentive problem created by Facebook’s sheer size. It’s so big, and it’s reach is so vast and indiscriminate that even reaching only a small percentage of Facebook users adds up to substantial audience. You only need to fool some of the people some of the time on Facebook to make money pedaling nonsense.

Facebook obviously didn’t set out to create a platform for pedaling fake news. Nor is it the only social media platform with a fake news platform. But it’s size and scope make fake news profitable. And so long as that profit motive exists, entrepreneurs like Mr. Latsabidze will find ways to defeat whatever tweaks Facebook makes to its algorithm.

A far more chilling example of the unintended effects of Facebook’s ubiquity occurred on Easter Sunday, in Cleveland, when Steve Stephens broadcast himself on Facebook Live as he shot and killed a 74-year old man, seemingly to make some sort of depraved point.

Stephens explained in a rambling narration to the video that he had just broken up with the “love of [his] life” and had recently lost everything gambling. “I’ve run out options,” he could be heard saying. “Now I’m just doing some murder-type shit.” He then picked out his victim at random, forced the victim to say his ex’s name, and shot him dead.

Stephens eventually took his own life, after being cornered by police. Fortunately, he did not broadcast his suicide, but others have, along with beatings, torture, and rapes.

It is neither possible nor reasonable to try to pin responsibility for those horrific acts on Facebook; Facebook did not cause anyone to commit those crimes, any more than it compelled anyone to create fake news sites.

But for better worse, Facebook is becoming the media platform of choice, by dint of its size, for the depraved as well as the decent. Act out on Facebook and you act out in front of the world. And it’s hard to see what Facebook can do to prevent that.

Facebook will try because it must. “We have a lot of work and we will keep doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at the company’s F8 developers conference this week. But scale is now the essence of Facebook’s business model, as Snapchat is now learning.

While good for Facebook’s share price in the short term, that scale has begun to generate forces that do not easily yield to algorithms. And in the wake of last year’s fake news controversy and this week’s very real horror show it’s hard not to wonder whether Facebook is still in full control of its own platform.

 

The Net Neutrality Paradox

One of the more unfortunate wrinkles in the long debate leading up to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2015 Open Internet Order, better known as net neutrality, was its increasingly commercial focus. There were important civil liberties issues at stake, to say nothing of the interplay of engineering and regulation of critical infrastructure and the private ownership of public goods. But much of the public debate boiled down to an argument over streaming — Netflix streaming in particular.

That was due in no small part to the efforts of Netflix founder and CEO, Reed Hastings, who made himself and his company the poster-children of the net neutrality cause by loudly proclaiming Netflix’s oppression at the hands of ISPs looking to impose interconnection fees on the streaming service.

Although net neutrality proponents eagerly embraced Netflix’s cause and Hastings’ pubic advocacy they worked to color the issue as essentially a commercial dispute between different types of service providers, which, paradoxically, is actually an argument against what the FCC did. Disputes between buyers and sellers are not really the FCC’s bailiwick; that’s more a matter for the Federal Trade Commission and the antitrust division of the Justice Department.

It also, ironically, helped set the table for what is shaping up to be another pitched battle over net neutrality, this time over a new FCC chairman’s plan to turn the issue into an explicitly and exclusively commercial matter.

Chairman Aji Pai, who strongly opposed the FCC’s 2015 order while in the minority under previous chairman Tom Wheeler, is moving quickly to try to settle the score. His plan, basically, is to vacate the current rules, then ask the ISPs nicely to commit to certain net neutrality “principles” in their terms of service and turn over resolution of any commercial disputes or consumer complaints that arise to the FTC.

That will require reversing his predecessor’s decision to reclassify ISPs as “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act. Under the so-called “common carrier exemption” in the Federal Trade Commission Act, the FTC has no legal authority over services classified as common carriers, like telephone networks, and to give it jurisdiction Pai will have to un-reclassify ISPs.

But the new chairman could find himself looking through the other end of the net neutrality paradox this time. While he may view the issue as fundamentally a commercial matter that the government should largely stay out of, the commercial and strategic interests now at stake in the streaming economy are orders of magnitude greater than the last time around, and their resistance to any change from the current rules is likely to reflect that increase.

Consider the members of the Internet Association, the Washington, DC, lobbying group formed in 2012 by Facebook, Amazon, Google and eBay. Since the current rules went into effect Google’s YouTube has launched a paid music streaming service, YouTube Red, and this month began rolling out an over-the-top pay-TV service, YouTube TV, that competes directly with the cable TV services operated by the largest ISPs.

Amazon has emerged as a formidable competitor to Netflix in the subscription VOD business and has launched a paid music streaming service. That paid streaming service is tightly connected strategically with Amazon’s Echo voice-activated speaker, which is a pillar of the retailer’s in-home strategy. Amazon also signaled its strong interest in live video streaming earlier this month by spending $50 million for rights to the NFL’s Thursday Night Football franchise.

Facebook has made live video streaming the centerpiece of its strategy to grab a chunk of the $70 billion spent annually in the U.S. on TV advertising, some of which is currently spent with ISP owned pay-TV services. Twitter, another member of the Internet Association, is also placing big bets on live video.

This week the Internet Association sent a letter to the FCC declaring its opposition to any change in the current rules:

IA continues its vigorous support of the FCC’s OI Order, which is a vital component of the free and open internet.  The internet industry is uniform in its belief that net neutrality preserves the consumer experience, competition, and innovation online.  In other words, existing net neutrality rules should be enforced and kept intact.

New players like Roku are also thought to be eyeing the live-streaming business. Last month Roku hired a team of lobbyists in Washington specifically to focus on net neutrality.

(Ironically, Netflix, although a member of IA, is likely to sit this round out, having made its separate peace with the ISPs .)

Major media companies have also seen their direct stakes in the streaming economy grow since the current net neutrality rules were implemented. According to the RIAA, streaming now accounts for more than half the music industry’s revenue and that share is growing rapidly. The major record companies are equity investors in Spotify, the leading streaming service, which is currently valued at $8.5 billion and is preparing to go public.

Likewise, Fox, ABC and NBC own Hulu, the subscription VOD service that is also gearing up to launch a virtual pay-TV service (NBC is barred from having a direct operational role in Hulu under the terms of its merger with Comcast).

Those examples just skim the surface of what the streaming economy has become over the past three years premised in part, at least implicitly, on the current net neutrality rules. Undoing those rules at this point, paradoxically, could represent an even greater intervention into the commercial arrangements of the internet by the FCC than implementing them in the first place.

 

Amazon in Good Field Position After NFL Deal

Amazon won the auction for live-streaming rights to this season’s Thursday Night Football franchise with a bid of $50 million dollars for a package of 10 games. That’s 5 times what Twitter paid last year for essentially the same deal: Amazon will share the games with NBC and CBS and will stream the networks’ feeds, including their ads. Amazon will also be able to sell a handful of ads per game itself.

The games will be available for free to Amazon Prime members.

Although the 5X increase in price is impressive — and was probably too rich for Twitter — $50 million is still pretty small beans, both for the league — whose deals with the broadcast networks run into the billions — and for Amazon, which has $20 billion on its balance sheet. For both, it’s largely an add-on business at this point.

For the NFL, streaming is still largely an experiment aimed at finding a way to reach cord-cutters and out-of-home viewers, and to test the viewership waters outside the U.S., not to supplant its traditional broadcast deals. For Amazon, the NFL deal is a way to enhance the value of a Prime subscription and to attract to new subscribers at a relatively modest price. Read More »

Courts and Congress Put Spotlight on Copyright Office

The federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals handed broadcasters a major win this week in their long-running legal battle with Aereo-clone Film On. A unanimous three-judge panel overturned a lower court ruling, which had held that FilmOn was eligible for the compulsory license under Section 111 of the Copyright Act that allows “cable systems” to retransmit copyrighted programming contained in broadcast signals without needing to get permission from the copyright holders.

In overturning that ruling, the circuit court closed an apparent loophole created by the Supreme Court in its 2014 ruling against Aereo, in which it held that Aereo was infringing broadcasters’ public performance right by retransmitting broadcast signals over the internet. In addressing whether Aereo was “transmitting” broadcast signals as defined in the statute, Justice Stephen Breyer reasoned that Aereo was acting, for all intents and purposes, like a cable system, which unambiguously “transmits” a signal, and therefore Aereo required a license under the statute’s Transmit Clause.

Maria Pallante

FilmOn seized on that reasoning to argue in its defense against a lawsuit brought by Fox, that it should be treated as a cable system for purposes of the compulsory license, which is a related but legally separate issue under the law. Several courts rejected that argument (FilmOn was sued in multiple jurisdictions) but one judge, U.S. District Court Judge George Wu, accepted it, ruling in Aereo’s favor, which led to Fox’s appeal to the Ninth Circuit. Read More »

More Than One if Five Broadband Households Have No Pay-TV Service, Study Finds

You don’t have to look far these days for news on cord-cutting. According to a report out this week from Leichtman Research Group the largest U.S. pay-TV providers lost a combined 795,000 subscribers in 2016. According to a report out last week from TiVo the share of cord-cutters who have dropped service within the previous year reached 19.8 percent in the fourth quarter, the highest ever registered, suggesting the phenomenon is accelerating.

In yet another report released this week, The Diffusion Group turned the telescope around and looked not at how many pay-TV households have dropped their service but at the number of U.S. broadband households that are going without pay-TV service. If anything, the view was even worse for the pay-TV industry.

According to TDG’s survey, 22 percent of the 100 million households that subscribe to broadband — some 22 million homes — do not have pay-TV service. That’s up from 9 percent of the 85 million broadband subscribers in 2011, or 8 million households, and up from 18 percent just since the beginning of 2016. Read More »

Broadcasters’ Goal-Line Stand

CBS Corp. chairman and CEO Les Moonves has long been one of broadcast television’s most indefatigable boosters, so it was no great surprise this week to hear him tell an investor conference that he expects the traditional broadcast networks to remain the mainstay of the National Football League’s TV rights package when the current contract is up in 2022, despite the near-certain interest from Facebook, Google, and other aspiring digital TV outlets.

“Look, the tech giants all want to be involved in the NFL. It’s the best product in television,” Moonves told the Deutsche Bank 2017 Media and Telecom Conference. “There’s going to be a lot of activity. As we head toward that large deal, I think these companies are going to be part of it, [but] I think the NFL still believes in the sanctity of broadcasting.”

Moonves was also likely correct in his assessment. Despite the accelerating pace of cord-cutting, and the ongoing unbundling and rebundling of the pay-TV ecosystem, and declining overall viewership the broadcast networks remain atop the ratings heap. While all of those trends are likely to accelerate further between now and 2017, the broadcast networks are likely to remain the NFL’s most efficient path to the largest audience, however those channels end up being delivered. Read More »

Plenty of Bundles, Not Much Joy in Linear OTT

YouTube this week formally unveiled its long-gestating linear over-the-top services, YouTube TV, which will feature a skinny-ish  bundle of about 40 live channels for $35 a month. When it begins rolling out later this year in select cities YouTube TV will join Dish Network’s Sling TV, AT&T’s DirecTV Now, and Sony’s Playstation Vue in the linear OTT sweepstakes, and will soon by joined by a previously announced entry by Hulu and perhaps one from Apple.

As with those other services, however, the lineup of channels in YouTube’s bundle is a bit of a hit and miss affair at this point. Subscribers will get all the major broadcast networks, along with ESPN, USA, Bravo, Fox News and MSNBC, but no CNN, Turner or TBS, and no Viacom-owned networks.

Sling TV will get you CNN and Turner but the broadcast networks are only available in select markets, and again, no MTV, Nickelodeon or Comedy Central.

DirecTV Now will sell you a big bundle of 100 or so channels at the skinny-bundle price of $35 a month, but so far AT&T hasn’t figured out how to deliver it to you without its crashing. Read More »

A Chunk of History: The Medieval Roots of Digital Publishing

One of the wonderful paradoxes of the digital era of media is its retrograde quality. We tend to think of inventions like the internet and peer-to-peer digital networks as apotheoses of modern communication, but their economic impact on many media industries has been to unravel their modern industrial structures and to resurrect many of their pre-industrial, folk foundations.

Nowhere has that been more true than in the case of music. MP3 files, P2P networks, and now streaming have blown up the multi-song bundle we called the album — and the profit margins that came with it — and restored the single to prominence, as it was in the days before the invention of the long-playing record (LP).

The much-derided phenomenon of unlicensed “sharing” of music over P2P networks also carries echoes of music’s past. Until the Gramophone and the Phonograph made private performances of music practical, music was almost always shared, in the sense that it was usually experienced as part of a public performance. While the industrial technologies of recording and playback made private performances lucrative the instinct to share music never really went away. Read More »

Apple TV Needs To Get Off The Couch

Earlier this month Apple poached Timothy Twerdahl from Amazon, where he had headed up the Fire TV unit, to serve as VP in charge of Apple TV product marketing, raising hopes that Apple is gearing up for another try at transforming Apple TV from a hobby into a meaningful product line. But if so the transformation won’t be immediate.

Apple is reportedly testing the next iteration of the Apple TV set-top box, which could be released later this year. But early indications are that it will be another study in incrementalism, adding support for 4K streaming but no groundbreaking new functionality.

Apple is also rolling out two new original TV series, a long-form version of James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke segments from the “Late Late Show,” and reality TV-type series called “Planet of the Apps.” But neither series is being launched under the Apple TV banner. Instead, as Apple content chief Eddy Cue explained at the Code Media conference this week, both will be made available through Apple Music in a bid to boost subscriptions to the music streaming service. Read More »

Have Netflix, Will Travel: EU Digital Single Market Inches Closer

Negotiators for the European Commission, the European Parliament, and European Union member countries this week reached agreement on new rules that will allow citizens from one EU country to access digital services they subscribe to, such as Netflix, Spotify, and sports live streams, when traveling in another EU country starting in 2018.

Up to now, exclusive territorial licenses between rights owners and online services, as well as other rules, have generally prevented services from granting access to subscribers from outside their home country.

“Today’s agreement will bring concrete benefits to Europeans. People who have subscribed to their favourite series, music and sports events at home will be able to enjoy them when they travel in Europe,” EU vice-president in charge of the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip said in a statement. Read More »

The Great Re-bundling: The Wireless Future of Music and Video

Bundled media services are becoming table stakes in the wireless business. With plain old wireless service (POWS?) at or close to the saturation point in the U.S., wireless operators are increasingly fighting over slices of a fixed pie, and feel a growing need to differentiate from their competitors in pursuit of market share.

With the costly build-out of 5G networks looming, operators also need to increase ARPU by adding services.

Thus, it was no big surprise this week when Softbank-owned Sprint snapped up a 33 percent stake in Jay-Z’s Tidal music streaming service. Sprint already had a partnership with Tidal, but as MIDiA Research analyst Mark Mulligan noted in a blog post,  the bundling game has changed for wireless operators, and meaningful differentiation increasingly means having your own skin in it.

“The original thinking behind telco bundles was differentiation, but when every telco has got a music bundle there’s no differentiation anymore,” he wrote. “Additionally, if you are a top tier telco and you haven’t got Apple or Spotify, then partnering with one of the rest risks brand damage by appearing to be stuck with an also-ran. By making a high profile investment in Tidal, Sprint has thus transformed its forthcoming bundle from this scenario into something it can build real differentiation around.” Read More »

Netflix Ponders Life Without Net Neutrality

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings did as much as anyone to shape the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules. CEO Reed Hastings’ aggressive public lobbying for what he termed “strong” net neutrality, after Comcast and AT&T successfully forced Netflix to pay for access to their last-mile networks, was largely responsible for putting interconnection arrangements between ISPs and edge providers at the center of the debate and helped persuade former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler to push through reclassification of broadband access as a Title II telecommunications service, which gave the commission jurisdiction over those deals.

Yet, as Republicans in Congress and on the commission sharpen their knives to disembowel Wheeler’s hard-won rules Netflix says it no longer needs the protection.

“Weakening of US net neutrality laws, should that occur, is unlikely to materially affect our domestic margins or service quality because we are now popular enough with consumers to keep our relationships with ISPs stable,” Hastings said in his Q4 letter to shareholders this week.

Translation: we’re too big now even for Comcast to push around, a point Comcast itself obliquely acknowledged in November by integrating Netflix into its flagship X1 set-top box. Read More »

Apple Tip-Toes Into Original Video

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Apple has begun talks with producers in Hollywood about buy rights to original TV series and movies. If true it would represent at least the third attempt by the iPhone maker to crack the TV code, so far without notable success, although its strategy this time appears to be different from its previous efforts.

I say “appears” because, according to the Journal, Apple itself  “is still working out details of its business strategy built around original content.”

The new shows, which could begin appearing by the end of this year, will reportedly be made available to subscribers of Apple Music, suggesting this isn’t an attempt (yet) to build a direct competitor to Netflix and Amazon Prime. The fact that Apple is targeting individual movies and TV series rather than networks suggests this is also not some sort of skinny bundle play to compete with Sling TV and the new Hulu service. Read More »

Talking Back to the TV

TV manufacturers, set-top box makers and smart TV software developers have tried for years to get rid of the old D-pad remote control and on-screen programming grid for search and navigation. They’ve tried motion control, Bluetooth qwerty keyboards, touch pads, and casting from mobile devices. With the exception of casting, most have proved pretty kludgey.

At the International CES underway in Las Vegas this week, voice activation has emerged as the TV interface flavor of the month. Amazon announced that it has licensed its Fire TV interface — complete with its Alexa voice-controlled digital assistant — for use in a trio of low-end 4K TV brands based in China.

Display sizes will range from 43 to 65 inches and device will come with 3GB of RAM, 16GB internal memory for apps, and a remote control with integrated microphone for talking to Alexa.

Not to be outdone, Google announced it will bring Google Assistant to all TVs and set-top boxes running Android TV, including Sony’s Bravia models and Sharp’s Aquos line. Read More »