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.

 

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 »

Copyright Makes Strange Bedfellows

It’s probably fair to say that Donald Trump was not the first choice for president among the majority of those within the media and entertainment industries. Since his election last month, however, their official industry representatives have wasted little time trying to ingratiate themselves with the incoming administration and to press the industries’ policy agenda.

“So much of what you wrote in your platform this summer about intellectual property and private property rights resonated with many of us, including: ‘Intellectual property is a driving force in today’s global economy of constant innovation,'” a consortium of music industry trade associations wrote to Trump this week. “‘It is the wellspring of American economic growth and job creation. With the rise of the digital economy, it has become even more critical that we protect intellectual property rights and preserve freedom of contract rather than create regulatory barriers to creativity, growth, and innovation.’

“As partners, many in the technology and corporate community should be commended for doing their part to help value creators and their content,” the groups added. “Some have developed systems to promote a healthy market for music and deter theft. However, much more needs to be done…[T]here is a massive ‘value grab’ as some of these corporations weaken intellectual property rights for America’s creators by exploiting legal loopholes never intended for them – perversely abusing U.S. law to underpay music creators, thus harming one of America’s economic and job engines.” Read More »

Unsafe Harbors: Fake News Is Part Of a Larger Problem For Facebook

Faced with mounting criticism over the proliferation of fake “news” stories on Facebook, and their alleged role in tipping the outcome of the presidential election, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has fallen back on a familiar formulation: Facebook is a technology company, Zuckerberg insists, not a media company. It merely provides a platform where users can post, share, and respond to content posted and shared by others.

“Our goal is to give every person a voice,” Zuckerberg wrote in a somewhat plaintive blog post over the weekend. “We believe deeply in people. Assuming that people understand what is important in their lives and that they can express those views has driven not only our community, but democracy overall. Sometimes when people use their voice though, they say things that seem wrong and they support people you disagree with.”

BN-QU803_1115te_GR_20161115083039The clear and intended implication is that Facebook is not liable for what its users post, and has very circumscribed responsibility to police false, misleading, and tendentious content on its platform. While Facebook and other social media platforms are now taking some modest steps to discourage the spread of fake news content, they’re stopping well short of accepting editorial accountability.

“This is an area where I believe we must proceed very carefully,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Identifying the ‘truth’ is complicated. ..I am confident we can find ways for our community to tell us what content is most meaningful, but I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.” Read More »

The More Things They Change, The More Digital Platforms Become The Same

YouTube is working on a plan to be more like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter. According to a report by VentureBeat, the video platform has been developing a new feature internally called Backstage that will allow users to post photos, links, text posts and other non-video content alongside their videos. The new content will resemble a Facebook Timeline, presented as a feed scrolling in reverse-chronological order on the user’s channel home page, but also appearing in subscribers’ feeds and notifications.

Backstage, or whatever it ends up being called, is expected to be rolled out later this year on select YouTube accounts.

The move to make using YouTube more like using Facebook seems only fair at this point given that Facebook has lately become more like YouTube. The social network has, with considerable success, moved aggressively to turn itself into a major platform for hosting and sharing user-created videos — once the near exclusive facebook_videoterrain of YouTube.

Facebook has also lately taken steps to become more like Twitter, launching Facebook Live to rival Periscope, while Twitter has tried to become more like YouTube by making video a bigger part of its offering.

A similar convergence is underway in the music streaming area. Pandora is reportedly in the final stages of negotiations with the record companies to launch an on-demand tier to its service, which would make it more like Spotify and Apple Music. Spotify, meanwhile, is acting more YouTube and even Netflix, adding original video to its mix of content.

It’s getting to where you can’t tell the players apart without a scorecard.

More to the point, it’s getting harder for digital platforms and services to differentiate themselves from each other. Music streaming services, which already share substantially the same catalog of content and now increasingly share the same business model, are trying, through the increasing use of  individual artist exclusives. Others have sought to make human vs. machine curation a point of differentiation. Read More »

Verizon Completes It’s Web 1.0 Roll-up, But May Not Stop There

With its $4.8 billion acquisition of Yahoo this week, coming a year and two months after its $4.4 billion acquisition of AOL, Verizon now owns the two dominant players in the web ecosystem — circa 1999. But at least it got them cheap.

Yahoo once had a market cap of $125 billion; AOL’s reached $224 billion in the immediate wake of its January 2000 acquisition of Time Warner — roughly the same as Verizon’s market cap today. So, scooping up both for less  $10 billion could be considered a steal.

YAHOO_headquartersThe question is, why bother? Neither AOL nor Yahoo is exactly dominant in its market today. In Yahoo’s case, it isn’t even clear what that market is. Even in announcing the sale to employees, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer could barely articulate a coherent description of what it is Verizon was buying, let alone why.

At best, Verizon is getting, in AOL and Yahoo, a disconnected assortment of online media properties and a pair of online advertising businesses built around display, rather than search, social, or mobile — the dominant modes of digital advertising today. While Verizon’s distribution reach in mobile may be able to breathe some new life into some of those media assets it has a long, long way to go before it could seriously challenge Facebook and Google, the dominant players it today’s digital media distribution and advertising ecosystem, if that’s really its goal. Read More »

When Live-Streaming the News, Who’s Working for Whom?

Last month, from the floor of the House of Representatives, Twitter’s Periscope app and Facebook Live cemented their place within the news media ecosystem. Exactly where that place is, however, is up for debate.

As discussed in a previous post here, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) had ordered the cameras in the House chamber used to feed C-Span turned off, just as Democrats, frustrated over the majority’s legislative stonewalling, were staging a sit-in on the floor. Rather than simply going off us-senate-debates-defense-authorization-bill-video-c-span-org_758399the air, however, some Democratic members then whipped out their phones and started live-streaming their protest using Periscope and Facebook Live, in violation of House rules that prohibit the use of electronic devices on the floor. Here in Washington, the live-streams quickly became the talk of the town on social media.

Frustrated by its inability to cover breaking news on its own turf, C-Span broke with protocol and began re-broadcasting the Periscope and Facebook Live streams. That got the attention of other news organizations, especially the three big cable news networks, which also began picking up the members’ streams, turning what might have been a minor political skirmish into a major national story.

For Periscope and Facebook Live it was a breakthrough moment. Not only did the episode showcase their potential as tools for both news gathering and dissemination, the House members’ use of the apps, and especially C-Span’s decision to defy the Speaker by re-broadcasting the live streams, became part of the story itself, drawing huge national attention to the live-streaming apps just as Twitter and Facebook are each making a major push to become the dominant live-streaming platform. Read More »

The Impoverishment Of Live TV

Live programming, particularly live sports, is widely seen as the last major thread still holding together the pay-TV bundle. Apart from news, nearly all other types of programming are just as enjoyable viewed on demand or time-shifted, perhaps even more enjoyable given the prospect for commercial-avoidance.

Live events, however, especially sports, are more valuable and enjoyable when viewed in real time, providing an incentive for consumers to coachellacontinue to pay their cable or satellite bill, particularly so as more live sports programming moves off free broadcast channels to pay-TV channels.

Live sports are also increasingly available over-the-top, of course. But for the most part those streams are simply retransmissions of existing linear broadcasts targeted at fans who can’t watch the games on their native broadcast platforms either because the games are not available in the viewer’s home market or because the viewer doesn’t have access to a big screen TV at game time. Issues with Given the option, most people would still choose to watch most sporting events on their native broadcast platforms.

Recent developments in the world of live streaming hint at how that could start to change, however. Read More »

From Winky-Dink to Facebook Live: Social TV’s Next Chapter

Broadcasters have long dreamed of making TV interactive and social. From the days of “Winky-Dink & You,” which encouraged its young viewers to draw on the TV screen along with the show’s host (much to their parents’ dismay), to Time Warner’s Full Service Network in Orlando, Fla., to the short-lived flowering of second-screen apps, broadcasters and their technology partners have tried for decades to make watching TV a more engaging experience by giving viewers the means to interact directly with their programming, and with others watching at the same time.

Most of those efforts have failed to catch on as their backers had hoped, largely because broadcast platforms are inherently uni-directional. They’re winky_dinknot networked to support much beyond overlaying some pre-baked interactive elements. Even today, when second-screen use while watching TV is a mainstream behavior, most of that activity involves something other than the content on the TV screen, or happens on unrelated social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook that are opaque to the broadcaster until after the fact. Dedicated second-screen apps allow for greater dialog between broadcaster and viewer but don’t really capture the broader conversation around the content.

This month, however, we’ve seen the first steps toward what could be a new and more promising stage in the evolution of social TV. Last week, Twitter landed a deal with the NFL to live-stream a package of 10 “Thursday Night Football” games next season. Though Twitter was not the highest bidder for the streaming rights, the micro-blogging service is a natural online home for the NFL. Nearly 50 percent of the conversations on Twitter are sports related and the NFL is one of the most frequent topics of those conversations. Read More »

How Twitter Beat Out Rivals For NFL Deal

Twitter this week landed streaming rights to a 10-game package of Thursday Night Football games next season for a surprisingly modest $10 million, edging out rival bids from Verizon, Amazon and Yahoo, at least one of which reportedly came in 50 percent higher than Twitter’s offer. Another rival, Facebook, reportedly dropped out of the bidding last week over objections to the advertising framework imposed on the deal by the NFL.

Twitter, in fact, will get minimal advertising rights as part of the deal. As a technical matter, it will be rebroadcasting the CBS and NBC feeds of the nfl_gamegames, which the networks will also be streaming over their own, authenticated TV Everywhere platforms as part of their $450 million deal to broadcast the games, and the networks will be handling the bulk of the ad sales for both broadcast and digital channels. Twitter will get a little bit of inventory around the margins to sell, plus some pre-game, player-created spots on Periscope. The deal is basically a $10 million brand-building exercise for micro-blogging and live streaming platform.

The games, in fact, will be available for free, without authentication, both on Twitter’s own platform and across its entire, syndicated global footprint.

That last point was obviously critical for the NFL, which has been working feverishly to expand its audience outside the U.S. and sees streaming as a way to reach potential fans in territories where broadcast rights would be a tough sell. Read More »

Live Streaming Gets A Prosumer Twist

Broadcasters, news organizations and marketers have all begun experimenting with Meerkat and Periscope, but the reach of those efforts has been limited to people using the Meerkat and Periscope apps on particular platforms.

Meerkat last week rolled out a new, embeddable player that will expand the reach of Meerkat broadcasts, but now someone from the professional broadcasting world is looking to offer a more robust solution for distributing live broadcasts generated from mobile apps.

webstreamur_iphoneappMobile Viewpoint B.V. is a maker of wireless video and data transmission equipment for professional broadcasters that uses 3G and 4G wireless broadband links to transmit live, IP video from remote locations. At the NAB show in April, the Netherlands-based company introduced a “low cost” live streaming platform called WebStreamur aimed at small-scale and semi-pro videographers that leverages YouTube to deliver live streams via WebStreamur channels to any device from anywhere on the web.

“Since the beginning of Mobile Viewpoint we looked into the broadcast of smaller but attractive sport events on the Internet,” CEO Michel Bais said in a press release at the time. The growing popularity of watching video online via streaming platforms like YouTube, LiveStream, Meerkat and Periscope opens a marketplace for the delivery of live sports and other events that do not have the reach to get on normal Broadcast Television… WebStreamur gives the smaller content producers and sport teams easy access to a bigger audience and a global marketplace to monetize their content.” Read More »