For a few months now, Facebook has been gently testing post voting changes that might substantially change our experience with comments and posts on the dominant social media platform. Today, the feature rolled out more broadly, sparking more and more reaction to the changes and a litany of “why??” questions from frequent Facebook users.
What sparked my reaction, this reaction, was less an observation of the change itself, but rather the “why?” For years now, through my work and role in MediaTech Ventures, we’ve been a party to much of the social, political, and legal discussions of social media, and Facebook in particular, as policy makers (and politicians the world over) wrestle with the implications of social networks and platforms.
Facebook is making token changes
Social media is making changes for the sake of appearances; and before you go presuming I mean that critically, appreciate that I don’t – I’m stating it because it’s the “why?” and it’s important that we all appreciate what’s being done to social media, causing its reactions.
Today Facebook is rolling out more Upvotes and Downvotes, despite having Thumbs Up Likes and Angry Faces. Do we really need that? Will it really change much? Their algorithm is already among the most brilliant and valued in the world, evident in nearly 3,000,000,000 people happily connecting away on Facebook. This is a change that won’t really change anything – and which will probably be removed once that is proven out (and it’s accomplished the other goal of looking like changes are being tried). They’re doing these things for a reason… and that reason isn’t the blatantly obvious feature, they’re playing second level chess; they’re moving pieces in a longer game.
Social Media has been getting skewered by governments over privacy, security, monetization, and the impossible situation of curating or not.
To force the political support of Facebook’s wealth and influence, Australia, the U.S., and other countries are tearing into “Facebook” (it being the primary target). Facebook, it seems, won’t just cave to what countries want so instead they’re fighting back.
The first bit of evidence of that fighting back was in Australia, when, because of Rupert Murdoch’s wealth and influential media network, the government there tried passing requirements that any “news” shared by someone on Facebook, obligated Facebook to pay the News Publisher. Facebook said F that (in not so many words) and implied that they’d just censor any news shared within the country of Australia. Chess. News shared on Facebook results in billions of visits to news articles; without Facebook (and Google), most news sites would be dead. Facebook called a bluff and indeed, the government backed away from the most stringent of policies, made concessions, and Facebook continues driving audiences to Publishers in Australia.
Facebook is “Social Media” – it’s the very definition of being in public, online. And yet, for years now, traditional media and politicians have been criticizing Facebook for using data it creates about people (for *not* being private or secure).
We see the result, people (average people) are increasingly asking if Facebook is private, what they do with “our” data, and expecting that we control how we’re monetized; Facebook is losing the war through hearts and minds.
Thing is, none of those criticisms of Facebook are valid — it’s very known (by those of us who work in this stuff) that it’s NOT private, it’s not secure, and it absolutely makes money off us. That’s why it’s FREE to use.
So what’s Facebook to do??
The first logical and appropriate answer was “we’re a platform not a publisher” and Section 230, U.S. law from the Clinton era, is a legal protection related to that fact. However, while Facebook is in the legal (and ethical, I argue) right, they’re continuing to lose the brand war of hearts and minds because of the impossible situation.
Platform or Publisher. The impossible situation
That’s an impossible situation because these sites have always argued that they are platforms and therefore do not moderate posts. They might remove something, and certainly people need to comply with their T&Cs, but they don’t APPROVE posts coming in; they don’t screen them; they don’t ‘accept’ them. As a result, they aren’t the “publisher” – YOU are, we are. We publish.
Problem with that position is that it causes the criticism, and the political ammunition, that Facebook is “allowing” bad things – hate speech, racism, etc.
That makes Facebook look bad. And while it wasn’t actually (necessarily) “allowing” such posts, because Facebook doesn’t screen and approve what goes up, it’s hard to defend the argument that they aren’t preventing it. Worse, it’s a slippery slope circumstance because what people consider appropriate is a personal and subjective opinion. While we, in the U.S., might all agree that something is never acceptable, or that it is, another country might have completely different standards and expectations.
A platform doesn’t screen, edit, and approve. It responds to.
All social media sites have guidelines and Terms & Conditions about what they allow on the site, and yes, those sites have every right to ban or censor whatever they want (that has nothing to do with “free speech”); but those are guidelines, not guarantees, because these are PUBLIC spaces and shit happens (is swearing acceptable?).
Under attacks that it’s not private, it’s not secure, that it monetizes people, and now too, that it allows hate speech, incites to attack, and worse, Facebook did what first?
They started removing more content. They started censoring. They banned U.S. President Trump.
And that caused the argument that they’re NOT a platform, that they’re on the other side of the coin: A Publisher.
“After all, if they clearly won’t allow Trumps posts, they’re editing aren’t they? They’re making a decision about the content allowed.”
Frack. Being a Publisher means they are responsible for the content. All of it. Responsible for screening it and arguably, paying for it. They can’t let that happen; validly and correctly, they can’t let that happen: they are not a publisher. They’re not a publisher, you are, we are. I am, I wrote and published this.
But now that argument is made, putting more pressure on Facebook and putting them in that impossible situation… “Platform” then stay out of content and deal with the fallout and criticism that they aren’t preventing bad stuff (every conceivable bad thing everywhere in the world) or “Publisher” and moderate everything while also paying for everything, a circumstance unrealistic and impossible to do – because then it technically isn’t social media.
Bringing us to this latest feature.
It’s a token. It’s an impotent feature. We already “Like” a post (or show our Anger); we need another Up or Down vote??
And this particular change isn’t the first, it’s another in a list of recent changes aimed at “doing something” about the attacks and criticism so that Facebook can go back to being a Platform for people to connect and communicate – warts and all.
These changes enable Facebook to evolve the brand from “we’re a platform and don’t moderate anything” through the no-win situation, into “look at all the things we’re trying to do to make this work better.”