Commentary

Content: A Tougher, Even More Crucial, Challenge Than Metrics

So Facebook has agreed to pay $40 million to settle a class-action suit alleging that it inflated video metrics by up to 900% — while insisting that the suit is “meritless,” but “resolving this case is in the best interests of the company and advertisers." 

That sum is, of course, a proverbial drop in the bucket for the massive social platform, which eMarketer estimates to have a 61% share of U.S. digital advertising dollars. 

Assuming that the settlement is approved by the court, Facebook still faces a separate class-action complaint accusing it of inflating the potential reach of ads. 

Still, some may feel the metrics scandal is somewhat old news, given that Facebook first disclosed its miscalculated metrics back in 2016, supposedly just a month after it discovered the two-year-old problem. (An amendment to the lawsuit, however, charged that Facebook not only knew about the problem for a year before its disclosure, but in some cases underestimated its extent.) 

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Also, since then — largely thanks to pressure from Procter & Gamble and other advertisers — Facebook has gotten more serious about advertising transparency. 

It has come a long way toward full accreditation by the Media Ratings Council, which announced last November that Facebook had passed the first hurdle toward fully accredited third-party measurement, by meeting the Minimum Standards for Media Ratings Research for the Facebook-controlled portion of the Council’s assessment. (No specific timetable is required for completing the process.) 

In June, during Cannes Lions, P&G’s Mark Pritchard went so far as to extend limited praise, telling The Drum that P&G’s push to get Facebook and Google to accept MRC-accredited third-party verification on viewability, audience reach and anti-fraud measures (which he calls “Transparency 1.0”), was going “very well… most of the major platforms are well on their way to getting accredited.” 

Obviously, full accreditation would be a major advancement for the advertising industry.

But what about the content issue? 

The industry does care about brand safety, of course. In April, Pritchard declared that he was about out of patience with harmful content (including promotion of illegal drugs, violence and “abhorrent behavior”) on digital media, without using the platforms’ names. 

And at Cannes, he told The Drum that control over content quality and “civility on editorial comments” are his “next frontier.” 

Perhaps P&G and advertising organizations can rally corporations worldwide to use their advertising clout to keep pressuring Facebook (and other platforms, as necessary) on the beyond-the-pale content front. And I suppose we can also hope that intense scrutiny by governmental bodies around the world will continue, perhaps helping to keep Facebook and the other platform giants from going too far off the tracks. 

But it will take extraordinary effort and vigilance, because Facebook is making all kinds of content decisions without even admitting that it is a publisher, with the responsibilities -- as well as freedom of speech -- always  associated with that title. 

Despite hiring thousands of human content moderators, implementing content-monitoring tech, and creating a dedicated internal tribunal for setting and adjusting content policies (and despite its statistics about the huge numbers of illicit accounts and hate posts it’s found and expunged), Facebook simply isn’t doing enough on the content front where it really matters -- meaning protecting democracies around the world from pernicious interference via this powerful platform. 

The indicators include its demurring from further expanding its human moderators, and its recent “quiet” decision to declare that politicians no longer have to follow its own posting guidelines -- as in not spreading malicious, demonstrably false statements -- the exception being if posts actually try to incite violence. 

And whether it's a Republican, Democrat or independent, how can it make sense for Facebook to allow a highly political video proven to be doctored -- and which could easily mislead voters -- to remain on its platform, while removing other types of false/harmful content?

Another example: In just the past few days, there have been reports of closed Facebook groups (on both sides of issues) threatening violence against public figures around Brexit, and of the ostensibly “non-partisan” news site RealClearPolitics “secretly running a Facebook page filled with far-right memes and Islamophobic smears.” (Facebook is of course declaring that it's doing everything possible to identify and expunge these types of groups.)

Even Facebook’s political advertising policies, while a step forward, are vague (including providing limited information about ad-targeting practices), as ProPublica and others pointed out when changes to those policies were first outlined in 2018. 

Freedom of speech and the press is, of course, the foundation of all true democracies, and these are extremely difficult circumstances in which to try to strike a fair, sensible balance.

But using freedom of speech as an excuse not to even try -- to just allow virtually unlimited lies and hate speech by anyone deemed a “politician” (which is vaguely defined) -- seems to be a convenient cop-out, particularly given the current pressures on social media platforms from those most interested in using them for such activities. 

For decades, responsible print and broadcast media have been using common-sense standards of fairness -- and the limits defined by libel laws (even though politicians are generally considered public figures not easily shown to be libeled) -- to allow for airing various sides of issues, without giving free reign to statements that are provably false.

It seems to me that brand safety depends not just on which ads go next to what kind of content, but on the stability of governments that support and encourage robust business markets and the ability to trade and compete across borders. (Think China's state-run television network pulling the plug on NBA game broadcasts over a single tweeted opinion from a league executive.)

Yes, Facebook definitely has made progress on the content front. But Facebook itself admits there’s much more to do (a major understatement).

The more important point is that it’s not just Facebook’s or social media’s responsibility to wrestle with these issues. It would likely take corporations, individuals and governments all being involved in a constructive process -- allowing for disagreement and compromise, to (maybe) hack out acceptable solutions over time.

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