Facebook, the genie is out of the bottle and you’re responsible

There was a time on the Internet before search engines existed. I know, for my kids’ generation that’s like saying ‘ there was a time before life on Earth’ or “there was a time before electricity”. But it’s true and I was there.

I had a web page back when the Internet was not actually a thing everyone took for granted. Back before Google. Back when instead of search engines you had pages which were nothing but lists of other pages people might find useful. From memory, my own page was a slight agglomeration of pages about the law (I was a legal publisher) and a few pages that just seemed interesting to me. For a strangely long while, my page of links was in the low three-digit numbers of most popular pages on the Internet. I write that now, and think that’s probably pretty cool from today’s perspective, but back then it was not something I brought up at dinner parties (I hasten to add, I don’t bring it up now either, but I almost could in the same way that your mother’s cigarette case is old enough and unusual enough now to become an heirloom and interesting).

None of this might be dinner-party-worthy, but that does give me some real perspective on the bewildering pace that the Internet has developed over the last two decades. The thing that no one back then realised was that the Internet would become ubiquitous. I remember long, tough arguments amongst a management team with people saying that the important thing was the money coming from paper books (publisher, remember) and people patronising me when I said that in a few years it would all be coming from electronic sources and so that was where we needed to attribute value. Back then the idea that people would go to the Internet as their first source of information was risible (I rejected the Internet as a viable medium for the first two online systems I set up and bought banks of modems instead, yes actual shelves full of modems with individual telephone lines and lots of flashing lights). Yet today, our debates center on the quality of information coming from the Internet, not the idea that that’s where it comes from.

Apart from taking you with me on a stroll down memory lane, what is the significance of all of this? Well I’ve been thinking about false news and the role of social media companies like Facebook, and in particular how much responsibility they bear for what is passed on via them. Facebook is arguing that it is somewhat like the Internet of yore before search engines: Your feed is a compilation of stuff from your friends and contacts that they think you’ll find interesting, and for which Facebook bears no responsibility. And if that’s all it was, I’d be struggling to hold Facebook responsible for the quality of the information passed on via its platform – any more than the Internet was responsible for my list of sites back in the dark ages.

The line between false news and your lunatic uncle’s opinionated drivel is so fine as to be almost indistinguishable – as long as you’re the one choosing to read it.

But there’s a bit more to it. Facebook isn’t just passing on the rantings of my friends and acquaintances, it’s curating its own lists and news sources.  And it is allowing advertisers of any sort access to filtered lists of targeted individuals. So people who fit the profile of Trump voters in the last US election were directly targeted with pro-Trump stories and people who fit the profile of Clinton voters saw all the negative stuff about her (thanks to the Trump campaign). I know this, by the way, because the big data crunchers hired by Trump, Cambridge Analytica, have proudly explained what they did.

One recent advertising product on Facebook is the so-called “dark post”: A newsfeed message seen by no one aside from the users being targeted. With the help of Cambridge Analytica, Mr. Trump’s digital team used dark posts to serve different ads to different potential voters, aiming to push the exact right buttons for the exact right people at the exact right times.

So it’s getting pretty hard for Facebook to argue that it is not responsible for what you see when it is tailoring what you see, or letting others pull the tailoring levers. The minute it started sticking its editorial fingers into your feed, it had to take some responsibility. It is certainly no longer just providing a platform for others to curate lists of interesting stuff on.

And what of Google? Being a search engine makes for a trickier bit of analysis (if we leave Google Now etc to one side – because they are clearly curated news). Again there was a time when Google just provided search results. Then, thanks to advertising, they started tailoring their results to the individual. They started making decisions about what we should see, not just what looks like the most credible result.

You see that’s what publishers have always done. They filter what you will see, decide what looks most useful, tailor to your wishes. And in doing those things the publisher has always had to take responsibility. The move from infrastructure to publisher comes with a responsibility for what is published.

The move from infrastructure to publisher comes with a responsibility for what is published.

Facebook in claiming to be only a technology company, not a publisher, is being disingenuous at best. The difference is, in old-style publishing terms, the one drawn between the printer and the publisher. The publisher decided on the content, the printer just got ink onto paper. But the core point is that the publisher decided upon, and was therefore responsible for, the content. While Facebook may not produce much, or even any, of the content that it pushes, as long as it’s deciding on what to reproduce it’s got to own up to the responsibility that comes with that power.

But there’s a practical problem. Facebook and Google have power over the algorithms that determines what is displayed to users but they have little control over the underlying flood of material produced by Facebook users or indexed by the Google search engine.  Now, with literally billions of people involved, they are caught between an increasing level of responsibility and in increasingly impossible job in policing the content that gives rise to that responsibility.

However, it’s a problem they’ve made for themselves and one which is producing rivers of gold that make the old income streams form classified ads in newspapers look like constipated trickles. It’s pretty hard to feel sorry for them for having a problem that is making them richer than imagination. Their problem, their benefit, their responsibility.

It’s pretty hard to feel sorry for them for having a problem that is making them richer than imagination. Their problem, their benefit, their responsibility.

I can’t say I can see an easy answer for them beyond not confusing the roles: Perhaps you simply cannot be publisher and infrastructure provider all rolled up in one. In any case dodging responsibility is increasingly not an option: If you are the one who let the genie out of the bottle and got to cast your three wishes for fabulous riches and a long life, you’d better be sure the last wish you ask for is for the genie to get back in its bottle. You are responsible; and saying “but it’s hard” is not something we let our kids get away with, let alone the biggest companies in the world.

It really isn’t good enough for Facebook to deny it has a responsibility. Sure this is a fast-changing landscape where laws and ethics are struggling to come up with easy fits within old definitions. But these companies have more than enough money and more than enough access to smart people to think through the implications of what they are doing and own up to the consequences of their actions. But perhaps they’ve already done that, and didn’t like the answer enough to let the rest of us know about it.

Image: Disney Fantasia

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