A scrap with Facebook over a copycat Stuff page reveals how fine the line is between combating fake news and straight up censorship.
This piece was originally published on June 16, 2018
Fans of the meme page NZ Stuffed would have probably noticed over this week that the content had vanished from their Facebook feeds. Why? It had been shut down by Facebook, at the urging of Stuff editor-in-chief Patrick Crewdson, who tweeted about the battle that he had to go through to get it removed.
So was this a local media giant getting an international media giant to engage in heavy handed censorship? Or Facebook abdicating its legal responsibilities?
NZ Stuffed’s apparent reason for existing was to take the piss out of Stuff, New Zealand’s biggest news website, and one of the biggest websites in the country overall. As with any media company of that size, not everything they do is going to be, let’s say, hard news.
Stuff is home to many outstanding journalists, but it’s often the less serious or important articles that get a lot of clicks. And that’s especially the case on social media, where the nature of community engagement means that a lot of things that go out under the Stuff banner would be more accurately described as content, than journalism.
Unfortunately for Stuff, and pretty much every other newsroom that aspires to be mass-market, that means people will conflate the website’s content with their idea of what journalism should be. That’s where the NZ Stuffed page found a niche – sometimes gently, sometimes savagely satirising Stuff’s output. It got quite big, too – at the time of closure, it was up to around 9,000 likes.
Over the weekend, NZ Stuffed’s output included a few reaction polls. They were very similar to reaction polls that Stuff do in fact run regularly. The major cosmetic difference was the lack of a checkmark to indicate a page had been authenticated, and a slight bleed at the bottom of the logo.
Wasn’t this just satire?
No, said Crewdson, it was infringing their intellectual property.
“Initially people we knew were started seeing posts from it, and thought, what the hell is this that I’m seeing from Stuff? It looked like us, but the tone and content was very different.”
It was malicious, because it was a direct copy of the visual style, but the content was objectionable, he said.
“The way it was imitating us, in my opinion, seemed designed to damage our reputation.”
And then he raised the spectre of “fake news”, and Facebook’s commitment to crack down on it.
What the hell is fake news anyway?
Is it, in the words of Donald Trump, TV networks like CNN? Is it something that gets spread around social media platforms by Russian teenagers? Is republishing lies being fed to the media organisation by powerful people fake news, even if the media organisation doesn’t know they’re lies?
Sites such as The Civilian, The Onion and Reductress, all of which satirically mimic the general format of online news – are they fake news? Is republishing a company’s press release verbatim fake news, because of the shabby journalistic standards being used? Is sponsored content – The Spinoff’s model – or advertorial fake news? Is any story that requires a correction in tomorrow’s paper fake news? Is clickbait fake news? (Read next week for “what the hell is clickbait anyway?”)
Nobody really knows, and because of that, nobody really knows whose fault it is. Generally the finger is pointed at the specific platform on which whatever is being described as fake news is spread. In most cases, that means social media sites like Facebook. The way stories can go viral, regardless of whether or not they’re true, makes social media an easy target for blame.
When questions were put to Facebook’s external PR people in New Zealand about the NZ Stuffed incident, one of their responses was to send this video. The video simultaneously involved Facebook accepting some responsibility for – in their words – “misinformation” being spread on their platform. It’s confidently presented and heavy on platitudes, and one gets the impression they really really are trying to address the problem – or at least, really really want to appear to be.
But effectively, Facebook puts the onus for detecting misinformation on “the community”.
That was the problem Patrick Crewdson had, going through the tools that Facebook have available, to get the parody page taken down. Facebook took, Crewdson reckoned, a long, long time, and the tools didn’t really work in any meaningful sense, until he was able to apply pressure through Stuff’s Facebook account manager, who is based in Australia. Facebook’s PR person stressed that they do have a team working 24/7 on takedown requests, but they get a lot of them. And as Crewdson admits, “not everyone has the luxury of an account manager”.
But surely, in this case, it should have been easy to see it was a parody. After all, there was no checkmark to verify the page! Unfortunately, that’s not really how actual people engage with social media newsfeeds. The constant scrolling de-contextualises the source of any given piece of information and it all becomes content. Expecting people to parse the accuracy of information in real time is asking an unrealistic amount of commitment from users.
Can we not just all go to trusted media sources instead of getting our news from Facebook? Trusted by whom, to do what? A recent Poynter survey, which was conducted heavily in the context of the Trump administration, found only 49% of Americans trusted the media, and that was actually up on recent years. But what about in New Zealand? Well, a Colmar Brunton survey in 2016 found 9% of people trusted print and broadcast media. Nine. Faith and trust in media, on those numbers, has largely vanished.
So the Stuffed NZ page is gone, but the fundamental problems exposed by the episode remain. And while all sorts of people and organisations might be making earnest and genuine efforts to address those problems, nobody really has any solutions. The concept of disseminating accurate information is broken. And if you really really think you have a way to solve that, you’re more than welcome to send a pitch to The Spinoff.