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MediaApril 5, 2019

Facebook’s three seismic weeks grappling with Christchurch

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CEO Mark Zuckerberg was silent for weeks following the attacks, yet the world has refused to let this story go. Here is a summary of three extraordinary weeks for Facebook.

It’s now three weeks since Christchurch, and those directly impacted are preparing to face the accused in court this morning, still incredibly raw. Haji Daoud Nabi died in the attacks, and his son Yama told RNZ he remained stricken. “How can you forgive someone if your father’s not calling you, talking to you on the phone, putting a smile on your face from morning to night?”

Yet while those who lost remain captive to their grief, others are moving on. Following a long, quiet period of contemplation following the publication of a terror attack on his platform, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg conducted an interview with ABC which screened overnight, and he told George Stephanopoulos that “most people are livestreaming, you know, a birthday party or hanging out with friends when they can’t be together.”

He seems to have decided that there will be no changes to Facebook Live, saying major changes would “fundamentally break what livestreaming is for”. This on the face of it contradicts COO Sheryl Sandberg’s statement that “we are exploring restrictions on who can go Live” from last week.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg speaks during a Facebook event on December 18, 2018 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Still, this is now normal for Facebook. On March 14 Kara Swisher, the journalist who has emerged as the conscience of big tech, wrote a column describing “biblically awful week” for Facebook, highlighting a new criminal investigation, a major report from the UK government and 2020 presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren’s call for a breakup of its platforms. Then Christchurch happened, and things clearly got much, much worse.

It seems an apt moment, then, to timeline what has happened to Facebook, and what public statements it has made, in the 21 days since the terrorist tore through the Al Noor and Linwood mosques, changing New Zealand forever. This list will necessarily be incomplete, as a company at Facebook’s scale generates a huge volume of news. Quite apart from Christchurch, the company has been investigated for faciltating housing discrimination in a case which goes to the heart of its targeting model, and once again been implicated in yet another massive data breach.

Yet even by Facebook standards, this event has crystallised unprecedented anger, and empowered political and corporate classes which had often seemed incapable of reckoning with the company. These are the five major stories which have hit the company after the attacks.

The advertiser boycotts

On the day of the attacks New Zealand’s largest internet providers proactively blocked access to sites like 4chan, 8chan and Kiwi Farms which had provided haven for the attacker and helped spread the video in the aftermath. Over the weekend executives at those firms and other large corporates came to reflect on their relationship with the platform. By Monday, they figured out their response.

“This is a moral question,” said Lindsay Mouat, whose ANZA represents major corporate advertisers, “because we essentially fund Facebook.” Their call for all advertisers to consider ways they could influence the platform to make it safer was picked up by international counterparts, and while it remains a fairly low visibility campaign, earnings are one metric Facebook values very highly. Given the corporate sector already had significant issues with big tech over its cursory contribution to tax revenues, the chance of a major swing away from the platform remains high.

A protester wearing a model head of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg outside the UK inquiry in November 2018. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Facebook wants regulation – on its terms

Facebook has long hewed to the internet’s information-wants-to-be-free doctrine, which takes any attempt to curb or control technology as anathema to its nature. So it was a similarly arresting move to see Zuckerberg airing ‘Four ideas to regulate the internet’ over the weekend. In it he advocated for regulation to “preserve what’s best about it — the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things — while also protecting society from broader harms.”

While a push for regulation could be framed as a capitulation to at least some of what politicians have been advocating for, it also could be seen as a way of avoiding a Warren-style breakup.

The appearance of regulation at this point in the big tech lifecycle is also not necessarily a negative for the platforms. I emailed freemarket proponent Dr Eric Crampton of the New Zealand Initiative, who pointed out that “these kinds of regulations can create substantial entry barriers protecting incumbents. Putting in regulatory regimes that can only really be complied with by the likes of Google and Facebook can ensure we never get another one like Google or Facebook.”

Politicians have other ideas

Jacinda Ardern’s compassionate response to the attacks has drawn praise around the world, as has the pace of the push to reform gun laws. Yet while social media is a far more complex area, it’s clearly on the agenda too. When she first addressed parliament following the attacks, Ardern decreed that Facebook “are the publisher” of the video. This is itself a radical statement, as so-called ‘safe harbour’ laws have traditionally shielded platforms from responsibilities of traditional publishers.

Zuckerberg’s desire to proactively frame the regulation has another advantage: if politicians do it, it might look a lot more frightening. The law Australia is mooting is the most aggressive and devastating to date. It would criminalise the spread of ‘abhorrent violent material’ with penalties which might include jail time for executives or an astonishing 10% of global turnover. More worryingly for Facebook, this approach appears to be gaining traction: as we publish, a leaked white paper shows the UK moving in a similar direction.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg leaving The Merrion Hotel in Dublin after a meeting with politicians to discuss regulation of social media and harmful content on April 2, 2019 (Photo by Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images)

The end of white supremacy on social media?

While the internet’s cesspit forums have long been known safe spaces for Nazis, Facebook has always leaned toward the ‘freedom of speech’ argument, with Zuckerberg writing in the aftermath of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks that he was “committed to building a service where you can speak freely without fear of violence”.

The lack of equivocation in that statement now seems cloyingly naive, given the extent to which white nationalist ideologies informed the Christchurch gunman. This has led to the company’s most direct statement and move subsequent to the attacks, when Sheryl Sandberg wrote that “we have strengthened our policies by banning praise, support and representation of white nationalism and separatism” – a movement which the New York Times reports has grown significantly in recent years. This would finally put it in line with other extremist ideologies which Facebook has worked harder to quash – but only if it’s effectively deployed. The early signs aren’t promising.

Could fixing news help?

Early on the day of the shootings, journalism researchers Nieman Lab published a piece assessing the most-commented-on stories of the year so far. Number one by a mile, with over 1.1m comments, was a story about New York’s move to allow full-term abortions up to a minute before birth. The story is not true, along with more than a third of the top 15 most-commented on stories of the year. (The algorithm prizes engagement over mere reading, so if you simply clicked this and moved on you are having a much lesser impact than someone who does an angry reaction and writes ‘fake news’ without reading it)

There is a clear connection between conspiracy theories, fear-mongering and a feeling of marginalisation propelling this rising tide of white nationalism. Along with better policing and suppressing of fake and hoax news, Facebook claims to be investigating ways to better support the reality-based news ecosystem.

“There is a real opportunity in a separate news service to have better monetisation for publishers than we have in news feed,” Zuckerberg said earlier this week. “Facebook could potentially have a direct relationship with publishers to make sure their content is available.”

He estimates the potential audience for rigorous, fact-based news at no more than 10%-15% of Facebook’s total global reach, which is bleak, but still a huge number. This is the first major hint at a revenue share with publishers, which can be read as either an acknowledgement of his platforms failings, or an attempt to broker peace with money.

In the meantime, they’re running this more conventional campaign – a branded content series with the Telegraph in the UK about all the good it’s doing. The sudden interest in combating misinformation and funding the good work seems deeply cynical. After years of acting as if news were an annoying interloper on its family-friendly platform, it’s only after becoming the biggest story in the world that it has finally been spurred into action.

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