Sunday, November 04, 2018

Facebook seems determined to stop monetization of independent news; also a misunderstanding of how the First Amendment would protect independent speakers

The concerns over the future of independent media continue.  Facebook, at least, seems to be setting up a Catch-22.

Early this morning, I saw a twitter thread by Ford Fischer from News2Share that his @N2SReports page on Facebook is denied monetization.  The page has 44K likes.

As one can see from the thread, it is impossible to say how News2Share was violating Facebook’s rules for monetization.  But if we go back and consider the recent history, with Facebook’s “Purge 3.0” on Oct. 11, and also with the endless circle that I got caught in when I tried to boost my page on the power grid, it certainly appears that Facebook is concerned with more than just gaming its algorithms (which could be a legitimate issue). It appears that Facebook is concerned with the issue of how potentially polarizing political content, in the context of today’s political climate, could incite further violent incidents.  I admit that many small media outlets will wonder if this development is more about "protectionism" for legacy media, since small outlets have low expenses or are self-funded (will take that up soon) and usually don't need paywalls. 

News2Share often presents in-person filmed video of demonstrations, events, and rallies, and at some of them (including Charlottesville in 2017 – see my cf blog Aug. 25, and Sept 2) violence has occurred.  This is essentially combat and breaking news reporting.  There is no question that combat journalists (Bob Woodruff) in the traditional legacy business have taken risks (“skin in the game”) and paid their dues. And legacy media (whatever the controversy over liberal v. conservative bias) generally has well-established practices as to now controversy and violence should be shown and how sponsors and advertisers pay for it. I worked for NBC myself in the 1970s and have some familiarity with this.

With independent media, things are not so clear. It is true, independent media often witnesses important breaking events that mainstream outlets miss.  Furthermore, columnists and bloggers often add commentary that connect ideas and events in usual ways to provide nuance to the political debate. I have done this for twenty years.

But it is apparent that many in the legacy world, in government (not so much Trump himself – actually, more the Democrat establishment) and now in big tech, are suspicious that independent (“amateur”) content is perceived differently by the public (and easily imitated now by foreign actors and bots, to boot).  Facebook seems to fear that it among most of its “real world” user base it provokes polarizing emotion, not the thought that the filmmakers or commentators want. Users feel that speakers are “showing off” when the speakers could be joining them in some sort of solidarity instead.

There is obviously an ethical question about whether reporting (especially with film or images) violent or graphic content should be rewarded with ad money.  It’s easier for legacy media to rationalize its income than it is for independent media. There is also a fear that some bad actors, if they know that people will come to film them, may feel emboldened to show more public outrage until they finally get arrested by law enforcement.  There really is a “cognitive distance” or “space separation” between many independent media providers and “average” users.  This again reflects the concern over “implicit content” and the concern over the “purpose” that visitors deduce from the content being presented to them by a particular speaker and the speaker’s own life circumstances. That is, the identity and reputation of the speaker matters and is part of the content.

We should remember that the capability of individuals, without formal training or licensure, to become influential speakers and commentators and “citizen journalists” appeared rather suddenly, after Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and included Section 230. AOL suddenly turned loose this capability with Hometown AOL in October 1996, and by 1997 it was pretty easy for anyone to have a domain and FTP-upload political commentary; by 1998 search engines were doing a pretty good job of finding you. For a very long time, this was seen as enhancing debate. Fortunately, the Supreme Court struck down the “Communications Decency” provision in 1997 and courts also eliminated a similar law, COPA, finally by 2007 (I was part of the litigation).  

Other developments, especially P2P, took a lot of heat, such as with copyright infringement (Napster).  On the web, however, copyright infringement downstream liability could be managed with DMCA Safe Harbor (conceptually parallel to Section 230). In fact, some sort of P2P had existed back to 1985, which had given a small minority of activists ways to organize.  P2P will be important now for blockchain (other posts).

Big social media changed the game by aggregating content based on user data, making search engines less important for many people. But during all this time, as a whole generation of young people were raised on the Internet, there was a naïve assumption that the “right” to speak to a global audience without gatekeepers was part of the First Amendment.

I don’t think that is correct.  Until the mid or late 1990s, as desktop publishing and then the Internet (especially Amazon) and later POD would make self-publishing of books another way to reach an audience, trade publishers (with their literary agents), newspapers, corporate-owned magazines, and broadcast and cable media companies controlled what could be disseminated to the world, because until 1992 the technology to put this capability in the hands of “you and I” had not yet been enabled.  Similarly, major studios controlled movies.  In books and movies, small press and indie companies could slowly make inroads.  Most interpretations of the First Amendment have developed in a world where gatekeepers (usually private companies) could limit the content, largely to want could pay for itself with revenue.
That is, the publishing and broadcast industries could control who could be heard as well as what was said.  Today, the big social media companies and now to some extent web hosts and domain registrars (reacting to activist pressures) are in a position to exercise the same kind of control.  Think how the pre-Y2K dot-com  boom and bust settled out to a few large tech companies ruling the world.
No, the First Amendment alone does not protect who can have the floor or even have a megaphone.  It does protect speech (already uttered from someone allowed the megaphone) from content-restrictions outside of what is specifically unlawful (obscenity, child pornography, now trafficking (FOSTA), and direct incitement to violence, but not hate speech as normally understood (as was disproportionately found on Gab).

The Fourteenth Amendment may provide some protection, as would interpretations of federal civil rights laws as to protected classes (from wanton behavior by tech companies),  which, by the way, makes the Trump administration’s “erasure” of trans protections sound particularly chilling.
One way to limit political speech that is more likely to incite violence is to require speech to provide its own financial accounting (rather than being funded by assets earned elsewhere, as in my case).  It has been suggested that low-volume sites (as shown by sitestats or other measures) could expose speakers and others to hidden vulnerabilities (“long tail” as Taleb says) that are not justified by these sites’ traffic or revenues.  But shutting down such sites could simply increase the incentive for clickbait, which Facebook is often mention as a primal sin. Indeed, Facebook (as are many other web-related industries) are much more comfortable working with content providers who actually do have legitimate consumer goods to sell in large transactional volume, and it becomes hard to see news as a legitimately “sellable” consumer product unless it comes from a large legacy source.  I see the same problem in the POD book industry, where authors are constantly quizzed as to why their books as physical copies don’t sell in actual stores – as if authors owe legacy businesses some kind of protectionism.

I don’t think you can reasonably expect to add wording to the First Amendment, and it sounds to me that a president could, by XO, order accounts from certain kinds of users closed for national security (under the Taleb “long tail” theory  - fortunately, Trump seems much more obsessed with legacy media than individual speakers, however).  The idea that it is Trump himself who incites things rather than speakers will be proposed, but the same can be said of the far Left (the baseball practice shooting in 2017); this seems to be more a matter of progressive polarization and the cognitive inability for large numbers of people to grasp the content they see in proper context (propaganda – a favorite word of Putin – matter).
Congress could, however, consider regulating company closure of accounts based on the ideological reputation of users, or even based on their financial size.  If Facebook is limiting the eligibility of controversial small news sites to monetize, it is limiting their ability to “pay their own way”.

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