Commentary

It's Time To Regulate Facebook

“If the Russians have figured out a way to influence the CBS News with Walter Cronkite..."  began MSNBC “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough during a segment this morning, using Cronkite as an analogy for the reach of news Americans get via Facebook.

But he went on to note that it “actually has a greater reach than Cronkite had — over 50% of Americans get their news from Facebook.”

Scarborough's next point was the reason I’m using the “R” word in the headline of this column: “Tell me, at what point does the federal government step in and say, ‘You start handling yourself responsibly or we will step in'?”

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If you ask me, I think that point probably should have been in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, when Russian active measures, including the distribution of fake news, bots, paid trolls -- and, yes, even paid ads on Facebook -- played a material role in influencing how Americans think, feel and behave.

And also, how they voted.

The most remarkable thing about Facebook’s reluctance to disclose what it knows is that Russia’s active measures are still active, according to counterintelligence experts, including the country's use of Facebook, Twitter and a wide variety of other digital media platforms.

Facebook’s tepid disclosure last week that Russian operatives placed thousands of paid ads on the social network doesn’t go far enough, if you buy Scarborough’s point that it’s not longer just a “social network,” but now a news broadcaster on the scale of CBS News in its heyday. Bigger even. Then it should fall under the same regulatory oversight.

One reason why digital media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google and others have not been regulated as tightly as broadcast media is they have historically been defined by the same standards as telecommunications services intended to convey peer-to-peer information. That's not the kind of massive reach broadcasters have historically had.

The irony, as Scarborough points out, is the roles have been flipped. But regulations have not.

The other irony is that broadcasters still hold themselves to higher standards of public accountability than digital media platforms that are magnitudes of reach bigger than they are now.

“The really scary thing is that if I want to do a commercial for laundry detergent on ABC, what I have to go through vs. anything on Facebook, which has a multiple -- 100 times -- reach, and there is none of that,” ad man and MSNBC contributor Donny Deutsch said.

He alluded to the so-called “standards and practices” broadcast networks and stations still maintain in regards to vetting advertising and other content that go across their airwaves.

As Facebook’s disclosure last week reveals, the social network maintains nothing like that. Further, in an equally embarrassing disclosure broken in a subsequent expose by an investigative journalism team at ProPublica, unbeknownst to Facebook itself, its ad targeting algorithms had created a means of targeting people who were “Jew haters.”

It’s not just Facebook that needs to be regulated, but any digital media of scale that are responsible for disseminating the news that Americans consume to keep themselves informed. That means Twitter, Google/YouTube, Reddit, etc.

A study released last week by the Pew Research Center found two-thirds of Americans now get at least some of their news from these digital media platforms.

In other words, it is now as important -- if not more important -- that digital sources of news are held to the same standards as broadcasters, because as the past year has demonstrated, it’s not just about being “fair and balanced,” it’s the fact that unsavory sources could be using them to manipulate what informs how Americans think, feel and behave.

It’s time we wake up and take control of that threat.

When we realized how terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda could use our own tools of transportation and commerce -- the commercial airline industry -- as weapons of mass destruction against us, we took action. Some might feel too much so. But why aren’t we taking action now?

Counterintelligence experts describe Russia’s use of social media and the dissemination of disinformation as a form of “hybrid warfare.”

This morning’s “Morning Joe” panel was in response to New York Times’ media critic Jim Rutenberg’s excellent Sunday magazine feature profiling Russia’s RT “news” network, and in particular, how it utilizes social-media channels like Facebook to amplify its voice.

Asked what he is most interested in reporting on next, Rutenberg said: “I’m still astounded that Facebook has said, ‘We’ve found these Russian ads, but we’re not going to tell you all that much about them.’ Can you imagine? We used to spend so much time on any shadowy ad on television. It would consume our political journalism. I’m shocked about how little information we still have about that campaign.”

10 comments about "It's Time To Regulate Facebook".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 18, 2017 at 1:30 p.m.

    Joe, while I hertily agree with you about FB being regulated like any other news media, it's "reach" for any particular item of news, as opposed to supplying news in general does not dwarf TV's major news sources, let alone the golden oldies like Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley, etc. For example, good old Walter in his heyday, was seen by about 12-14% of all adults on a given evening, but his reach expanded way beyond that as the days and weeks went by. As a guess, "The CBS Evening News" got to something like 35% or more of all adults per month and the same was true for its NBC counterpart. Combined, the two shows most likely reached  over half the nation in a month----just like FB's claimed reach for "news" today. While the current TV rating scene is far more fragmented than in the 1960s or 1970s, a lot of people still get news from one or more of the various TV news sources---probably 70-75% on a weekly basis. Also, in terms of tonnage, a typical adult spends about 5-6 hours per week watching TV news and, if we discount those who dont watch any news show, the figure for news viewers rises to about 7 hours. I wonder how much time the average FB user devotes to its news content per week?

  2. Henry Blaufox from DragonSearch, September 18, 2017 at 2:18 p.m.

    Joe, if you are that adamant about reining in Facebook, should you perhaps remove the FB share function from all MP stories?

  3. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, September 18, 2017 at 2:31 p.m.

    @Henry: What does MediaPost Facebook sharing have to do with government regulation of media?

  4. Henry Blaufox from DragonSearch replied, September 18, 2017 at 2:45 p.m.

    Simply that on behalf of your firm you can take a stand by not using the platform. Sort of like not watching network news if one objects to content enough.

  5. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, September 18, 2017 at 3:26 p.m.

    @Henry: Don't follow your logic. I -- nor any firm I'm associated with -- is taking a stand against Facebook. I wrote a column advocating it should be regulated. It's one of the things I cover, the regulation of media companies. It has nothing to do with how I use media personally, or any publisher I'm affiliated with?

  6. Tony Wright from WrightIMC, September 18, 2017 at 4:01 p.m.

    I certainly don't disagree with your assertion. I would guess that many agree with you. But the bigger question is how does this regulation work? We're not talking about monitoring one feed from three different networks, or for that matter, a few thousand networks. We're talking billions of feeds. And tens of thousands of advertisers, maybe more. Even with AI and other technologies, we're talking a monumental task. And guess what - if you regulate it too much, you'll kill it. And taking it's place will be networks based in countries where there isn't any regulation. This is a slippery slope argument, but one that merits discussion. 

  7. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, September 18, 2017 at 4:09 p.m.

    @Tony: I didn't say it would be easy, just that it needs to be done. The broadcast industry has done a pretty good job complying with regulation, because they are subject to licensing by the FCC and if they fail to comply with certain regulatory standards, they could lose their licenses. That has a self-regulatory effect. Over time, actual regulations governing broadcasters have evolved. The Fairness Doctrine was susnet, etc. But broadcasters continue to operate in the spirit of a public trust, because they are accountable to the public. Digital media are only accountable to themselves, and to the extent they want, other stakeholders such as actual shareholders, advertisers, users, the general public, etc. Case in point is the tepid manner in which Facebook has investigated and diclosed how Russian operatives have utilized Facebook to spread disinformation, including paid advertising. Facebook has all those records in its servers. 

    Repeating Jim Rutenberg's quote here, because I think it bears repeating:

    “I’m still astounded that Facebook has said, ‘We’ve found these Russian ads, but we’re not going to tell you all that much about them.’ Can you imagine? We used to spend so much time on any shadowy ad on television. It would consume our political journalism. I’m shocked about how little information we still have about that campaign.”

     

  8. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, September 18, 2017 at 7:06 p.m.

    Absolutely correct. Media Post has editors. It should have been done from day one. fbeast is a publisher with an online platform. Flyovers is a publisher with the sky as a platform. (OK, short message, but message none the less and store hours need to be correct: Eat at Joe's 9-5 needs to have correct hours.) 1 = 1 =2.  A hundred billion + a hundred billion = 200 billion. Same formula. Human editors and fact finders needed. All anti social media publishers on the internet platform. Cassandra over and out for now.

  9. c w from SYNDASEIN, September 23, 2017 at 2:03 p.m.

    The analogy is false. Facebook does not use a publicly owned medium "The Airwaves" to distribute its content.
    Everybody is exposed to untruths and manipulation every day, not only from Facebook. The fact that our society has no interest in educating its' members so that they are aware of the untruths and manipulation being perpetuated at all levels is the real problem.
    Regulation is just hiding the problem under the carpet. If people want the right to vote for their government they should also be able to exercise their right to learn the difference between truth, fact and manipulation. Whether people will exercise that right or not is irrelevant so long as they have no access to the knowledge and tools required.

    Most governments have decided that it is not in their interest to have an educated and discerning voting public. It is much easier to regulate (muzzle) the voices that tell any narrative you do not agree with. Certain segment of the populace do learn these things, but the also "learn" that not everybody can be trusted with this information.

    This discernment is probably the most important thing we should teach our children. Trust should always be offered but seldom given.

  10. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, September 23, 2017 at 2:19 p.m.

    @ c w: 

    a) Nobody "owns" the airwaves either. The government regulates broadcast spectrum, issues licenses, auctions bandwidth.

    b) The government creates new regulations when there is a reason to regulate new things that are for the public good (or vice versa).

    c) Americans now get as much -- maybe more, depending on the American -- news from Facebook as they do from regulated broadcasters.

    d) Facebook has failed to maintain standards (of any kind, much less broadcast-level ones) for distributing "news," especially news determined to be fake (even by Facebook itself).

    e) Facebook only released information about Russia operatives distributing disinformation via Facebook after a special prosecutor requested it, and to Congress this week after public pressure. Broadcasters would have shared that immediately.

    f) Want me to go on? The reason Facebook -- and yes, others -- need to be regulated is because they represent disproportionate influence in how people get news and other information, and they've demonstrated irresponsible behavior. If they did a decent job of self-regulating, I never would have written this column. It's interesting that in the days following this posting, Facebook has made two important disclosures: 1) That it has established new protocols weeding out hate targeting; 2) That it is finally sharing information on Russia's influence campaign with Congress. 

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