About that photo on Facebook… we’re blaming the wrong people

Not long ago there was an eruption of anger and indignation about Facebook’s repeated censorship of Nick Ut’s upsetting and famous picture of a Phan Thi Kim Phuc running from napalm in Vietnam.

The thing that surprised me about it wasn’t what Facebook did, but that news organisations went to the trouble of inviting them to do it. The picture was published, by the publisher, on their Facebook page. It didn’t get there by accident.

The fear that Facebook’s domination of access to news is inevitable becomes a self-fufilling prophecy if news publishers keep acting against their own editorial and commercial interests.

Any editor who thinks the answer is for Facebook to hire more editors and start to do their jobs for them is surely looking in the wrong direction. Instead of asking someone else to do their job surely they should be doing it themselves.

Facebook’s domination isn’t inevitable

Much of the anguished debate about the Nick Ut picture focused on the inevitability of Facebook’s dominance over the media, their policies, the way they apply them and righteous indignation about their lack of editorial judgement in the face of a self-evidently historic and editorially important photograph.

Facebook’s policies (or, as you might call them in a rather old fashioned way, their Style Guide) are algorithmic and might not be to the taste of every editor.

They’re certainly not to my taste. That’s not unusual. Some newspapers in the UK, for instance, are perfectly happy to publish even the very most taboo of swear words, others will avoid them or use asterisks.

There is no universal rulebook of editorial standards and no actual news product is edited by a robot.

The problem with Facebook’s rules is that they apply them, after the fact, to other peoples’ editorial judgements and, in fact, to everything everyone publishes on Facebook.

There’s a simple answer to this: don’t let them.

Publish your work on a platform you control. Your web site, for example. Don’t just give in to the inevitability that Facebook will take over the world, because to do so means giving up not just your editorial control and integrity, but also your business.

But, if you have contractually and morally decided to cede control to Facebook, don’t be surprised when they behave in the way they do.

Why does Facebook do what it does?

Facebook, because of its nature, is never going to be a good editor. Whatever you might think about it, they are trying to oversee all the content posted by everyone by applying a single set of rules. The fact that everyone in the world doesn’t agree with them is not very surprising.

Even when humans are involved, for instance in censoring photos, they are driven by calculations not value judgements and they are not likely to be career journalists with decades of experience in making editorial judgements.

The rules for nakedness seem to be something like this:

Not naked: OK.
Naked: bad – remove (NB male nipples OK, female nipples not OK).
Naked child: ultra-mega-very-bad – remove. No exceptions
Naked child in important news story: still ultra-mega-very-bad – remove.
Naked child in important news story now being re-posted and protested by thousands of people: still ultra-mega-very-bad – remove.
Context: irrelevant – ignore.
Protests by non-Facebookian humans: irrelevant – ignore
Protests by human non-American Prime Ministers: irrelevant – ignore.

This is not surprising. Facebook as a machine is not intelligent, it doesn’t have emotions, experience or judgement, it cannot understand context except in the most simplistic terms. It is programmed for efficiency which means ambiguity is not an option.

That’s why even ‘intelligent’ machines are frequently moronic in their output. We are all aware of this, we all put up with it all the time. It’s also why the work of humans is so much more satisfying.

But they backed down this time…

There was loud and widespread scream from the internet about this one.

Facebook backed down. Of course they did, as soon as a sufficiently senior and sensible human Facebookian got involved. A cathartic yelp of victory has been heard and small celebrations have ensued among those grateful for a rare event worthy of celebrating.

Not worth celebrating at all is the fact that intelligent, experienced editors have allowed the Facebook machine to stand between them and their readers, censoring as it goes.

The madness of Instant Articles

This isn’t an accident. It isn’t just because of users adding links into their news feeds.

Editors and publishers have been actively participating in a Facebook product called Instant Artlcles.

Rather than linking out to the publishers’ sites, instead their content is served by Facebook within the Facebook platform.

As we have learned from this whole episode, there are downsides to this when the Facebook editorial algorithm makes moronic decisions.

There are other downsides too – Facebook’s algorithms also decide when and where to feature the content and they have allegedly been reducing its visibility in peoples newsfeeds. Only a proportion of the content submitted is widely viewable. So another layer of editorial interference is lurking.

Also, obviously, users aren’t looking at the publishers’ products. They’re looking at little slices of them, extracted and shown out of the context of everything else. Perhaps this is inevitable on the internet where sharing of stories is ubiquitous, but is it really a good thing? Should publishers actively hand over control of their users’ experience as well as putting up with its inevitable dilution. Seems odd to me.

Lastly, according to the publishers I have spoken to, there’s absolutely no commercial upside at all. They don’t make any more money. Given that they make precious little money anyway, when someone views a page, it seems odd to give up so much in return for so little.

So what are the upsides?

Well. Instant Articles load faster, especially on mobiles.

As far as I can tell, from what I have been told, that’s kind of it. Well… you stay “visible” and “relevant” and your product “responds to the changing needs of your users” and various other things which I might rudely summarise as “we’re not doing nothing”. But none of it helps the bottom line or the product.

It’s just weird that editors and publishers are colluding with this.

It’s not Facebook’s fault

Blaming Facebook for being what it is, demanding it change in to what news organisations are, does nothing other than offering a comforting distraction from the reality of how this came about. And it isn’t Facebook’s fault.

Publishers need to acknowledge that not-doing-nothing isn’t the same as having a strategy and doing things which have costs but no benefits is not a sensible way of not-doing-nothing.

Running with the herd and trying not to break away is comforting but so far it hasn’t worked out too well.

And we wonder why newspapers are in trouble…

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