Facebook vs the news

The bland leading the bland. Facebook offers a distorted view of the news—and of the world. Photo credit: Stratechery

I reported an image to Facebook for review the other day. It had nothing to do with what’s happening here in Vanuatu. It depicted the blood-soaked, headless body of a child.

It distresses me even to write these words. To see the photo on Facebook was vastly worse. My little girl regularly traipses unannounced into my office at home, and the prospect of her catching even a glimpse of it is deeply upsetting.

So I reported the image. Facebook has a process where you can click that tiny marker on the top right of any post, and submit it for review. The support page you’re taken to has a big heart symbol on it, and some cushy, feel-good language about how much Facebook cares.

In about 48 hours, I got a response:

“Thanks for letting us know about this. We looked over the post, and though it doesn’t go against one of our specific Community Standards, you did the right thing by letting us know about it. We understand that it may still be offensive or distasteful to you, so we want to help you see less of things like it in the future.”

From a journalistic perspective, there is so much wrong with this, it’s hard to know where to begin.

First, there is no reference to which particular standard(s) it was measured against, nor was there any detail concerning why it passed muster, nor any option to appeal the decision. All of these things are fundamental to any public editor’s role.

In short, there is an utter lack of transparency to the entire process.

Second is the issue of Facebook’s so-called ‘community standards’—a term so incorrect I think we can call it a lie. What standards? Whose community? Which of the two billion-with-a-B users were consulted in deriving these? Where were they born? Which languages do they speak? What lives have they lived?

Facebook’s very essence is agglomeration. Its entire reason for being is profiting in tiny amounts per individual eyeball, over a population of eyeballs that encompasses the globe.

Their approach to demographics is to decipher people’s affiliations and associations, and to mine these relationships for opportunities to sell their attention to advertisers. They make no distinction between these uniting forces. If it’s the Kardashians, great. If it’s nuclear tensions in Asia, equally great. If it’s false and defamatory accusations of Chinese meat canners selling human meat? Still works.

If it’s a rabidly racist and xenophobic rag stirring up hatred against Muslims by spreading unspeakably horrid images of mutilated child corpses… well Jews News, the site that propagated this vitriolic filth, has about 1.5 million Likes on its page.

You can guess which side Facebook’s bean counters are going to take on this story.

And here, right here, is the fundamental difference between Facebook and reputable journalism. It’s possible to find real-world examples—like the one above—of vile, hateful, dishonest and downright despicable news publications. It’s also possible to vote with your pocketbook and deny them access to your attention.

Facebook doesn’t distinguish. It simply slops your timeline full of its algorithmical stew of honey and hate, peppers it with ads… and calls it supper. It should come as no surprise that some local Facebook group admins have taken a page from the same book.

But a reputable newspaper maintains a clear separation between was is half-jokingly called Church and State. The people who sell advertising space have no influence whatsoever over the people they choose who to report on, and what they say about them. And vice versa.

The directors of the Vanuatu Daily Post have always strictly maintained this division, and it remains today. I can say with pride that I have successfully defended that division from outside influence. Even my closest friends know that when we meet professionally, they can’t even buy my coffee, let alone me.

We care about what we print, and we take a great deal of care in choosing it.

Our ‘community standards’ are these: We print without fear or favour about people and events that are noteworthy and in the public interest. We are fair. We do our best to report all relevant information about each story. We make every reasonable effort to reduce harm to individuals, and we never, ever take pleasure in other people’s misfortune.

We sometimes print incorrect information. It’s statistically impossible not to. When we do, we print a correction or a clarification, depending on the circumstances. We don’t bury these; we print them in the same location and with the same prominence as the original story. We do it as promptly as we reasonably can. We say what we printed, what part of it was wrong, and if necessary, we say sorry.

Facebook does none of these. Their support tickets are personalised, and their progress can only be tracked by individual users. It’s not possible to see how many times something has been reported or by whom.

Aside from being unaccountable and indiscriminate—things that people pay dearly for, in more than one sense—Facebook is also utterly unreliable. It simply doesn’t care if headless corpses are being recruited to elicit visceral hatred for entire societies. Its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the realisation that his company had any media role whatsoever. The only thing that made him flinch at all was a collective eyeroll that spanned the entire tech industry.

A recent post in a local group about the relative merits of Facebook and the local media was quite revealing. The poster asked if others shared his perception that the platform had effectively replaced newspapers and radio in terms of providing timely and useful information.

A few people echoed these sentiments. One person said that they no longer purchased the newspaper. But the broad consensus was the Facebook was unreliable, incomplete and often deceptive. It lets wrong things in, and leaves right things out.

It was seen as often petty and venal, and—as we’ve seen over the last week or so—capable of actual harm.

The Daily Post? Rather more reputable. We have editorial staff who select and define everything that gets published. We have accountability. We have transparency. We also have family. We live here, and so do our loved ones. We’re invested in Vanuatu, more than Facebook can ever be.

We don’t just give you what you want. We tell you what you need to know. Even if it angers others. Even if it angers you. Including, if necessary, tough images such as Nick Ut’s famous Napalm Girl. If it serves the public interest, we’ll print it.

But we will never play with people’s emotions just to sell papers.

And just to lay any questions to rest: We’re not the Indy. Our business is doing better than ever. Our staff are working harder than ever. And we’re out there on social media, too, trying to provide a small oasis of useful local content in a barren and sometimes toxic environment.

That’s what your 100 vatu is paying for. Thanks for your vote of faith.

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