From Facebook to Factbook: It is tough to determine what values drive new information

Somewhere along the timeline between its inception and now, Facebook determined that the mundane answers to the question, “What’s on your mind?” were too mundane to hold the attention of its users so it allowed information vendors to post or promote news items into our news feeds. Concerns about user privacy, the sale of personal information to third-party vendors, and alleged manipulation of voter opinion by Russia-backed social media trolls now has Facebook asking itself the “tough” questions about how to mitigate the problem of false news.

Facebook has an 11-minute documentary, “Facing Facts”, out there where a bunch of its privacy staff (who, I opined on Twitter, look like they are all from Cowlick, Indiana) waxing philosophical about how they have to make the best efforts to discern false news from legitimate news for the protection of the platform’s users. It is up to the few to protect the members of the collective. These intrepid people are trust with the task of applying their value judgment to discern whether the expressions of the 2.1 billion value judgments from around the globe are appropriate.

I am no apostle of “diversity” and “inclusion.” Those concepts have not paid any political or social dividends for black people, but the irony cannot be overlooked here: mostly white people with a few Asians sprinkled in will determine whether rants on race by Dr Boyce Watkins or Dr Claud Anderson have any place in a person’s timeline. That would make me suspect as a user; that a bunch of white boys are telling me what is appropriate and of value socially and culturally.

I have not gotten from Facebook any indication that they understand the importance of values when crafting and disseminating political information. Benjamin Ginsberg, Theodore J. Lowi, and Margaret Weir in their text, We the People, define values as basic principles that shape a person’s opinions about political issues and events.  Basic principles that shape opinions flow from a number of sources including family, friends, civic organizations, the media, and simple personal observation. Values are personal to each Facebook user. Does Facebook want to be in the position of discriminating against each user’s perception of the world based on whether a user’s published or shared information that promotes the individual’s values is done at the cost of disparaging another point of view?

This is what political media is all about. In the ideal world debaters would give equal acknowledgment to the other side’s view, but in political theater where resources and time are tight, debaters do not have that luxury. Once you understand politics, you realize that you can’t put a third-party value judgment on information exchanged by opposing parties. Facebook has to start assuming that all political information exchanged by users is designed to move opinion, sometimes into places you don’t think opinion should go.

If Facebook is afraid to play the pure information exchange platform game, then it has two options. First, it can go from Facebook to Factbook, providing its 2.2 billion users a platform where they come and find objective, unbiased data.

The second option is that Facebook can choose a political side. It can become the Fox News or the MSNBC of social networks, being a platform for partisan dribble.

The individualist, of course, should mind remain neutral on the political question and avoid feeding the State which thrives on factious debate.

Morgan Freeman finds out that the internet has turned millions of Americans into lawyers, prosecutors, and jurors

The only thing missing from today’s internet charge, trial, and conviction of actor Morgan Freeman on allegations of sexual harassment at a workplace are the digital eyewitnesses like the ones that caught Al Franken play-fondling Lauren Tweeden’s breasts.  In Mr Freeman’s case, the eyewitnesses were human. The prosecutors, lawyers, and jurors, however, are mostly digitized and charges and convictions merge and rapidly go viral in a globe that is increasingly connected.

My title implies that the number of arm chair attorneys and jurors has increased. Check your Twitter and Facebook timelines and observe your followers and friends opining on allegations by eyewitnesses (allegations not yet entered into any legal record) and an apology issued by Mr Freeman (questionable as to whether it is admissible as evidence and probably meaningless since he admitted to nothing). As to whether the number of commenters contributed significantly to the degree of virility, I would answer that while there was some contribution, the number of commenters was not the significant contributor. The main contributor is the number of online editors or gatekeepers.  There are more people today that are giving a “thumbs up” to posting a story.

If you lived in Charlotte Amalie, U.S. Virgin Islands in the 1970s, you had one newspaper and two television stations providing you news. That meant three editors deciding what local news got broadcasted and back then local TV news coverage was sparse, in my opinion.  Today the internet has changed that.  Alternative online news sites and blogs mean that a non-story to one editor is a scoop to another. It is not that the same level of information is spreading faster. Viral means to increase the amount of available information that gets to more consumers via digital means.

The increase in the amount of information reported is compounded by an enlarged forum within which the public is exchanging ideas. Some net neutrality advocates would call an enlarged forum an example of the openness of the internet where more media consumers can be heard. Hence the millions of armchair lawyers and jurors.

How valuable are these opinions? In a court they don’t mean much. Judges and attorneys would not want juror assessment tainted by uninformed opinion, meaning these days they would have to look under a rock to find people outside an earshot of a podcast on the matter.  To a social scientist the public exchanges online provide some data on attitudes toward the tawdry behavior Mr Freeman is accused of, but as an experiment, as a measure of opinion the public exchanges don’t provide the best data because the collection is not subject to the best controls.

Probably the only benefit that matters is that people can claim that while they are not a lawyer, they slept at a Holiday Inn and the ability to vent support, denial, anger, or frustration en mass is benefit enough.

Happy anniversary, World Wide Web. Now, let’s go back to 1988

On 12 March 1989, Tim Berners-Lee publishes a proposal to link hypertext with transmission control protocol, the basis for the world wide web. On 6 August 1991, he launches the first web page. Prior to his proposal, the internet was pretty much a niche hideout for academics and military researchers. Berners-Lee’s proposal helped introduce ‘democracy’ to the original dark web of interconnected computers.

Democratizing digital information via open network architectures unleashed the digital demons that Mr Berners-Lee would like to see regulated today. We went from a relatively simpler system where Dr James Haywood Rolling Jr could send Dr Marshall Shepherd samples of research that could add artistic flavor to the otherwise drab depiction of weather patterns, to the current system where an 18-year old dressed in psychedelic garb can do the booty clap in front of a smartphone and send the images live from Accra. Using this information, the Digital Daemons, i.e. #Facebook#Google, and #Twitter, can create profiles based on every ‘like’ the booty clapper receives and market services and products to consumers.

Closer inspection of the history of the world wide web and Mr Berners-Lee’s criticism of today’s social media/social network companies exposes a downside of the premise that the Digital Daemons are negatively impacting global connectivity via the internet. Mr Berners-Lee is concerned that the one-half of the planet currently not connected to the internet may be at a disadvantage culturally and economically and that connecting to the Flying Spaghetti Monster that is the world wide web may be the developing world’s salvation.

Ironically, it is that arrogant premise that the world needs to be connected to a single standard that drove European colonial expansion across the globe and spawned a global financial system anchored by the Bank of International Settlements, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund to replace the colonizer when Europe entered its post-World War II decline. Whether he realizes it or not, Mr Berners-Lee’s liberal position on digital connectivity is steeped in the European DNA for conquest.

If Mr Berners-Lee and other progressives are so bloody concerned about the negative impact the Digital Daemons are having on access to and distribution of information, they should push for an internet that existed pre-1989 where communities of value-based information exchangers created their own databases, and protocols and criteria for membership in these groups. Ironically, under that type of scenario, application of net neutrality rules based on Title II of the Communications Act would be valid because the administrators and owners of the databases could more easily be defined as consumers of telecommunications in some type of corporate form.

Sometimes you have to go back to your past to find a solution to a current dilemma. Happy Anniversary, World Wide Web.

Free Press and Public Knowledge are getting a taste of big tent progressive politics

Brian Fung of The Washington Post put out a great piece this morning describing a growing rift between two factions on the progressive side of the net neutrality debate. Grass roots groups such as Free Press and Public Knowledge believe that supporters of the Federal Communications Commission’s 2015 Open Internet Order should aggressively push the Congress to overturn the Commission’s 2017 repeal of the Order.

Corporate supporters of the Commission’s Open Internet Order such as Facebook and Google are taking a more centrist approach. While they apparently still support applying net neutrality rules based in Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, they are now signaling that a bi-partisan Congressional approach via a new law would help resolve the net neutrality dispute once and for all.

Based on Mr Fung’s writing, the big tent has a few holes in the tarp, as meetings hosted by the Internet Alliance and attended by both net neutrality factions are growing in the number of attendees and an increasingly diverse level of issues are sprouting. Free Press and Public Knowledge are finding the hard way a couple important lessons about any corporations true mission and that diversity is an empty narrative.

First, the corporate mission. I hesitate to say that the good people at Free Press and Public Knowledge are naive (but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that their 4 million pro net  neutrality followers are), but both groups seem to have fallen for Google’s and Facebook’s silly mission statements about doing no evil and connecting the world for connection sake.

Google and Facebook created and maintained dominant positions in internet search and social networking by first optimizing their business models to maximize shareholder value, a lesson the lawyers at Free Press and Public Knowledge failed to remember from the business associations classes in the second year of law school. “Russiagate” has raised the ire of Congress and Google, Facebook, and other social networking and internet portal companies are gathering their wagons around their revenue streams and profit centers from potential government attacks. They cannot afford any regulatory volatility that will arise from the uncertainty of how net neutrality principles will be applied to broadband access providers. They are realizing that compromise legislation passed in the immediate term is good for long term growth.

While Google and Facebook play in the “attention economy”, Free Press and Public Knowledge play in the “agitation economy.” To stay relevant as a grass roots advocate leader, they must tear up the astro turf regularly. Settling the net neutrality tennis match via a bi-partisan bill means 4 million pairs of eye balls not looking their way because the show will be over. Nothing else to see here. Problem solved.

As for diverse voices, that narrative does not work. The bigger your tent, the further off course the original message drifts. Sooner or later the money bags step up and start setting priorities and those priorities will place those with the least coin ahead of the pack. The 4 million three huggers are going to have internet access no matter their personal beef with their broadband access provider. Most have access to two or three providers whether wireless or wireline. Facebook and Google cannot take comfort in any certainty. As big as they are in digital space, the wilderness is huge and there is always a young predator getting ready to spring out with new technology and the hunger and thirst to match.

Facebook and Google’s profit motives and needs are no different than the broadband access providers Free Press and Public Knowledge rail against. Facebook and Google will take control of the circus under the big tent and call for some grown up behavior that protects their revenues and profits.

 

Will Congress regulate.@facebook like a public utility? Given its potential benefit to partisan politics, probably not. #socialmedia

The Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins, Jr. posted an article last Friday about Facebook’s apparent maturity as a business given its focus on regulatory issues such as the potential of Congress to regulate the social media company like a public utility. Mr Jenkins points out that Facebook’s fear of regulation, a fear shared by other “tech” companies, comes from the attention that large companies draw to themselves as the result of centralization of power. In this case, Facebook is perceived as one of the few central nodes of power in the digital space (along with fellow FANGs; Amazon, Netflix, and Google). Issue is, does Facebook have a monopoly status that justifies “public utility” regulation. My answer is no.

The classic argument for regulating a firm as a public utility is that the public has an interest in benefiting from the use of the public’s rights-of-way including the efficiencies that flow from making such uses exclusive to one firm in a given territory. Electric and water utilities quickly come to mind when we discuss public utilities and rights-of-way. Would you rather see your streets and driveways dug up to provide multiple pipes from multiple water or electricity suppliers or would you rather one supplier who is forced to comply with a pricing model that creates a competitive price and rate of return on the assets used by the utility to produce a good? For the most part, society has settled for the latter. We don’t like the idea of having an excess number of utility lines running overhead or into our residences for aesthetic or safety reasons.

Does Facebook fall into this public utility model? No, it does not. According to Facebook, the company makes almost all of its revenue from the sale of advertisement. Facebook uses its algorithms to identify potential viewers of content or purchasers of services for its advertisers and display ads these ads to content viewers and services purchasers in exchange for an advertising fee. Ad services, including the delivery of advertisements to consumers, by Facebook’s admission is a competitive business. Unlike electricity transmission and distribution, ad delivery is not a monopolized industry. As Mr Jenkins points out in his piece, ads are ads, digital or otherwise, and Facebook is no where near dominating a $540 billion advertising industry.

Even if Facebook had a monopoly on the delivery of advertisements or advertisement services, would a regulator risk creating a state action by regulating Facebook’s advertising services? Bearing in mind that the latest buzz around Facebook ads was spawned by the delivery of advertisement messaging produced by Russian nationals allegedly designed to disrupt and defraud the American electorate, would Congress require that Facebook vet the firm generating advertisement content? Would Congress risk the overturn of legislation requiring Facebook vet advertisers if found violating the First Amendment?

I think that even advertisers confident that their messaging does not violate the public interest would think twice about placing advertisements on Facebook’s platform. More important, from the perspective of the regulator, an administrative agency would not to create the risk of creating First Amendment violations and having to defend those violations in court. As the U.S. Supreme Court held in Edenfield v. Fane:

“The commercial market place, like other spheres of our social and cultural life, provides a forum where ideas and information flourish. Some of the ideas and information are vital, some of slight worth. But the general rule is that the speaker and the audience, not the government, assess the value of the information presented. Thus, even a communication that does no more than propose a commercial transaction is entitled to the coverage of the First Amendment.” 113 S.Ct. 1792, 1798 (1993)

Finally, political parties may not want to impede the returns to electioneering that social media has been providing for the past decade. According to the Brookings Institution, since the 2008 national elections, political parties have been determining how best to convert the amplification and engagement created by social media during a campaign season into two-year and four-year governance.  Political parties have been encouraged to use social media in a number of ways including the following:

  • Acknowledging that the electorate is using social media as a “trust filter” of political news and information;
  • Realizing that politicians have decreasing control over debate topics and that control is shifting to social networks;
  • Making continued use of social media platforms to directly engage constituents;
  • Using social media platforms as “virtual surveys” of constituent sentiment and gauging feedback from the surveys; and
  • Leveraging ordinary citizens’ use of social media to persuade the electorate.

It is 2018 and Congress should view social media that has greater benefits as an electioneering tool if it is not regulated. From a regulatory perspective, there is no economic or legal justification for regulating social media as a public utility.