Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Reporters Describe Their Experiences Covering Facebook

This piece by Jacob Silverman for the Columbia Journalism Review has been making the rounds today in large part because of its apparently inept framing:

[Casey Newton’s] professional arc, from enthusiastic tech beat reporter to skeptical industry investigator, matches the trajectories of a number of journalists in recent years. The 2016 presidential election in particular prompted a change in worldview against Facebook and the power wielded by Big Tech. The media had learned, perhaps belatedly, the cost of taking Facebook at its word. More recent, and adversarial, reporting has produced important stories about Facebook’s refusal to tackle the proliferation of right-wing extremism and conspiracy theories on its platform. In advance of the 2020 election, more journalists are taking a hard look at the Trump campaign’s once-heralded digital operation, which spends heavily on Facebook advertising, and its bombastic overseer, Brad Parscale, who has been promoted to overall campaign manager.

[…]

Kate Losse, an early Facebook employee who would go on to write The Boy Kings, a memoir of her time at the company, told me in an email that journalistic coverage of Facebook in its first years was focused mostly on product updates. A notable story might be about a new feature in the site’s news feed.

Sam Biddle, a reporter at The Intercept who was working at Valleywag and Gizmodo in the early 2010s, told me that Facebook would offer up scoops to journalists that they credulously swallowed. “It was like pigs at a trough,” Biddle says. “We were all trying to get the same drip-drip of product news out of Facebook, no matter what outlet you were at.”

Hands up if access journalism allows unearned credulity is a surprising revelation for you.

These sorts of tactics are not unique to Facebook, and are typical for any large entity in a category or beat. This is something that Silverman and quoted journalists repeatedly point out in this story, to such an extent that I think little would be lost if the first half of this report were condensed into a couple of paragraphs.

But there are examples of intrusive surveillance within this story that run deeper than an aggressive public relations strategy, and which I think have been largely ignored. For example:

With the knowledge that a company that has built a globe-spanning surveillance apparatus might always be watching, reporters and sources take tremendous precautions. Any Facebook-issued device, or even a phone with the Facebook app installed, could be vulnerable to the company’s internal investigators. If a source has friended a reporter on a social network or merely looked up their profile on a company computer, Facebook can find out. It can potentially tap location data to see if a reporter and a source appear to be in the same place at the same time.

The end of this paragraph seems to be entirely speculative, but it appears to be a genuine worry within Facebook. Any corporate I.T. department can examine an employee’s contacts; communications made through company channels are presumed to be property of the organization, not the individual. But Facebook’s ability to intrude goes far beyond that. Charlie Warzel of the New York Times is quoted as saying that his Facebook sources have told him about how worried they are about being monitored on any device they own. Unlike most employers, Facebook is everywhere.

Also, if Facebook staff are concerned about the surveillance capabilities of their employer, why do they help make it a reality?

This part of Silverman’s report is critical:

“Facebook responds best to bad press,” Judd Legum, who publishes the newsletter Popular Information, says.

This dynamic serves no one. Over and over, the press is left chasing down Facebook reps for comment on a single offensive group or account on a platform of billions of people. Until Facebook provides comprehensive solutions for these problems of harassment, content moderation, and user experience, journalists will always be talking about the latest outrage that pops up on the platform. This leaves little media oxygen for reporting on first-order issues about the company and its larger societal machinations. 

Adrian Chen, a former staff writer for The New Yorker and Gawker, says that journalists need to investigate the “internet political economy” as much as the mechanics of the Facebook platform. We need to understand “how they wield their influence politically to create the environment that has allowed them to become what they are.”

It’s not that Facebook’s individual controversies should be allowed to slide; it’s that they should be put into a broader context as both a cause and result if we are to better understand our toxic relationship with a communications, advertising, and surveillance giant.