Facebook Papers due to launch on Monday

According to the Associated Press on Monday, US time, (Tuesday AEDT), will begin the roll out of the stories from 17 US media outlets based on the papers obtained by Facebook book whistleblower Frances Haugen.

“From the AP: Journalists from a variety of newsrooms, large and small, worked together to gain access to thousands of pages of internal company documents obtained by Frances Haugen, the former Facebook product manager-turned-whistleblower.”

To set aside the core issue of what exactly Facebook is or isn’t doing, it is interesting how a level of coordination is needed to get past the endless noise and confusion generated online.

The effort brings to mind the recent Pandora Papers, the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers  – or going back further, the Pentagon Papers, all represent a coordinated journalistic effort to tackle sprawling international stories: global corruption, Vietnam War.

The distribution and combined reporting also brings to mind the Cablegate releases of Wikileaks and the Snowden leaks.

As important as the investigative reporting on Facebook is, any revelations it produces will struggle to make a difference if no one hears them. The day-to-day flow of news and information is simply too chaotic and contradictory.

For this reason, in 2018 the editorial boards of 350 American newspapers published opinion pieces defending free media during the presidency of Donald Trump. This was in a time when Trump had mastered the art of playing the media to continually hijack and divert the public’s attention.

In this regard, part of the story of the Facebook Papers can’t just be the disclosures about the powerful platform but the mechanics of getting the message out in a time of noisy and endless information overload.

The fact that newsrooms will do this today again on the complex issue of Facebook should tell us something about the circumstances democracy must learn to live in today. From there, maybe we should consider what other important requirements of democracy need to be amplified over the distraction machine of modern communication.

If patterned communication to get the public talking about Facebook works, maybe a thought could be given to how to get the public talking coherently about issues of core importance to a liberal and democratic society.

Clearly, the extremists and authoritarians know how to game this environment. When do the forces of democracy learn the same thing?

Related:

Regulate Facebook? Sure, but good luck in ridding the internet of bad content

This is a big week for the prospect of meaningful regulation of social media in the US. The testimony of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has raised hopes of legislative reform for Facebook. But in the drive for government action, are reformers forgetting how much personalisation has change political communication? We’re in a different world now.

The tone of caution on this podcast should not be misread as the techno-libertarian argument against regulation (something like: “free speech!” therefore all regulation is pointless).

Rather, it’s a reminder that even if large tech platforms are brought to heel, some issues won’t magically go away. In fact, those new issues around how we experience information are the new environment we confront today.

Disinformation research: a critique 

This short podcast is not so much a criticism of disinformation research but rather a critique of the expectations around it  – or possibly the unexamined expectations around it.

I refer to these three articles.

1) https://www.npr.org/2021/08/04/1024791053/facebook-boots-nyu-disinformation-researchers-off-its-platform-and-critics-cry-f

2) https://harpers.org/archive/2021/09/bad-news-selling-the-story-of-disinformation/

3) https://www.niemanlab.org/reading/facebook-sent-flawed-data-to-misinformation-researchers/

Music by Lesfm from Pixabay/ Image

The Big Disinfo thesis

The main problem with Joseph Bernstein’s “Big Disinfo” argument in Harper’s is that it assembles a manufactured boogie man to help stand up his broader case.

Bernstein, a Buzzfeed tech reporter, is absolutely right to say that the best minds of the vague and all-inclusive disinfo research business “however well-intentioned…don’t have special access to the fabric of reality.”

And so when the reporters and researchers write about “disinfo” there’s no certainty about what exactly is normal or standard in the world of information and knowledge.

But Bernstein’s bigger argument doesn’t really account for how the formlessness of the digital world extends to the elite liberal institutions, as well. Neither bad information nor good information is created and shared in a centralized fashion. So even being an elite organisation with Katie Couric co-chairing won’t necessarily make it powerful. 

Bernstein’s oblique argument that fighting disinfo somehow talks up the advertising pitch of social media strikes me as – well, almost conspiratorial.

If Facebook isn’t the boogie man (as disinfo researchers claim), then it must be the elite institutions of yesterday that have been dethroned by Facebook that are the problem. It just couldn’t be that powerful social media companies, caught out by an unforeseen situation, are responding in a way that they think best- and least damaging to their brand. But the notion that disinfo research represents some kind of 5D psych-op from the Facebook marketing department is a bit hard to believe.

A more troubling aspect of Facebook, Twitter and social media platforms is the monopoly hold they have, not just in markets and among businesses, but also over disinformation researchers themselves. In Facebook’s case, the company has recently restricted access to tools used by researchers. Twitter shares it with trusted organisations. Both companies convert (instrumentalize?) the disinfo research community into yet another network of content generation, and worse, it may be one with little real effect in reforming the platforms.

But Bernstein eyes a faded hierarchy, the establishment so to speak, and places it at the top of the pyramid of concern in the issue of disinformation.

“That the most prestigious liberal institutions of the pre-digital age are the most invested in fighting disinformation reveals a lot about what they stand to lose, or hope to regain,” he writes.

If what they hope to gain isn’t status but a measure of political normality that would seem to be a good thing. As an editor once said to me “there’s room for everyone on the internet.”

I’m not sure you can argue that because the US has a race problem, for example, the Council on Foreign Relations has no role is supporting a reasoned information eco-system.

What these institutions are simply responding to online today are the events as they occur around them. What if neither these establishment institutions, nor the social media companies, are fully in control and calling the shots? The prospect of that is harder to reckon with when looking to assign blame.