Honest ads vs fake news, Big Media vs Big Tech… When you're missing the point and all you have is a wordplay

From Russia with love: "home" is where your ads come from…

Keith Perch is a media consultant and a lecturer in Journalism — usually that happens when newsrooms get bored of us, journalists, or when we get bored of newsrooms (which is a lot more fun). Perch’s profile page at University of Derby highlights his professional credentials and his interest “in how traditional media companies cope with the deep disruption caused by the digital revolution”. Since “cope” seems an unaccountably optimistic verb in this scenario, I guess Perch may have lost his mojo. Since I know how most of these profiles are scribbled, I’m just being mean.

Before his teaching days, Perch played his part as a media executive dealing “with the deep disruption caused by the digital revolution”. He was managing director and then director of digital development at Northcliffe Media, a large newspaper publisher in the UK. In 2004, when asked what would be the major threat to his business, he answered: “A guy with a camera attending his son’s football match”.

Perch’s forecast was almost brilliant. He believed that publishing content online had become so simple that soon everybody would have their own website to compete against traditional media. The problem — he added — wasn’t one mom or dad with a camera, but thousands of them. “Not that someone will come along and take it all, but that someone will come along and take a little bit, and someone else will come along and take another little bit”.

I said “almost brilliant”. In February 2004, a couple of months before Perch’s interview, Mark Zuckerberg launched TheFacebook, as it was originally known, from his dorm room at Harvard University and reshaped the (digital) world for good. Yes, someone came along and took it all.

Sandberg, the COO of Facebook: sorry, but "very different than a media company"

As expected, in the last 13 years, Facebook became one of the beloved enemies of traditional media. Excuses vary, the motive never does: they want their ad money back. The most recent approach consists in brandishing that false dichotomy that discusses if Facebook should be identified as a media company or not. “Sheryl Sandberg just dodged a question about whether Facebook is a media company”, stated the title of a Business Insider article last week. The title. Well, if my fellow academic colleagues don’t know what happened to the news, I do.

Sandberg is Facebook’s COO. When asked if the company can be categorized and treated as a media corporation, during an interview (not to Business Insider), she said: “We’re very different than a media company. We’re a new kind of platform. We’re a technology company in our heart, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have responsibility for what people put on our site”. When asked if this answer can be categorized as “dodging a question”, Business Insider said hell yeah.

Two days later BI called another reporter to — I guess — finish the job: “Sheryl Sandberg and her peers in Silicon Valley may not want to admit this, but Big Tech has become Big Media”, claims the article. After a humdrum line of thought that establishes — with no valid argument — that Facebook, Google and "its peers" are media companies, the journalist gets to the point. “Advertising is the lifeblood of media companies. And with ads increasingly shifting away from traditional media such as newspapers and television to digital ones, old media companies have been trying to move in that direction too. But they’re failing, thanks to Big Tech.” Really? Do you expect us to believe you’re failing because of Facebook and Google?

Last month, Zuckerberg posted a video explaining how he plans to "combat" election interference

Sheryl Sandberg had to go on tour because Facebook got itself a bigger problem to deal with than Business Insider’s grumbling. The United States Justice Department is investigating on what extent Russia interfered in the 2016 American election, and now U.S. lawmakers have their attention focused on Facebook, Google and Twitter. Immediately, Mark Zuckerberg ran to say the company had discovered about 500 profiles tied to Russian operatives that purchased approximately 3,000 ads ahead of Election Day. Last Wednesday, a Facebook executive disclosed that these same agents had used the instant messaging service Messenger to interfere in the presidential election. It would be appealing to believe all of it, but ill-advised to say the least. Nobody really knows how long or loud this noise is — real numbers may be unboundedly higher and real players may be much more problematic, and I’m just stating the obvious here.

Meanwhile, news media companies argue this Facebook quandary has become a frequent flyer on their agenda for the sake of ad regulations — it’s curious that nobody cares whether Pinterest or Flipboard is a media company. Sorry, but this is all trickery. First off, because Facebook, Google, Twitter etc. are indeed “very different than a media company, they’re a new platform” (this is me dodging a question). Furthermore the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules in force are way less transparent than you might think and — news flash — far from being 100% effective. “Four years after it began requiring TV stations to upload their records of political ad sales to a central government website, the FCC maintains a recordkeeping system that makes finding out who an ad’s sponsor is feel like a treasure hunt”, OpenSecrets described last month.

How might something like that work on a serious ad sales scale, you’re asking? Well, grab your popcorn because on Thursday, three US senators introduced the Honest Ads Act, legislation that, theoretically, will force tech companies to publicly disclose who is paying for the ads. The concept of treasure hunt has just been updated by the American Congress.

It is not exactly a surprise, but most journalists are just missing the point. During that same interview — for which Business Insider couldn’t find a better title, but the guys from TechCrunch could — Sheryl Sandberg actually said something disturbing. I mean, everybody knew that, but when it comes directly from Facebook’s COO, it gets a little creepier. Here it is: if the so-called Russian-linked ads hadn’t been bought by fraudulent accounts, “most of them would be allowed to run” anyway. And she tried to explain why: “The thing about free expression is when you allow free expression you allow free expression”.

Just to make sure we’re on the same page now, this is Facebook’s COO publicly stating that this Russian-controversy that Facebook itself has been trying to sell is essentially nothing compared to the real issue: anyone, from anywhere, with any motive, can feature a “Russian-ad”. At any scale.

It’s bleaker than it sounds: in the name of “free expression”, Facebook does not check our “Russian” content, and, as TechCrunch pointed out, it does not restrict ad buys promoting content flagged as fake nor does it control ad buys from someone who isn’t the original publisher. As you may suspect, that’s not a Facebook privilege: last Tuesday, The New York Times reported that some fact-checking sites, such as PolitiFact and Snopes, were displaying fake news ads through Google Display Network. But that’s easily the least interesting part of the story, and here’s why: “The revenue those advertisements provide is critical to funding a website like ours”, justified a PolitiFact executive.

At least his words sum up the real issue. Last year, digital ad expenditures surpassed TV for the first time in history and, according to eMarketer, “digital spending will see double-digit growth each year of the forecast until 2021”, when — listen carefully — it will be responsible for half of all ad spending in the US. The rioters are old acquaintances: Google’s ad revenue amounted to $79.3 billion in 2016; Facebook’s last report indicated it earned $9.3 billion during Q2 2017 (98,3% of which resulted from advertisement).

Since traditional news media don’t seem genuinely interested in what she is saying, next time Sheryl Sandberg has to answer whether Facebook is a media company or not, she should “dodge the question” with the truth: “We’re not a media company, we do have responsibility, but we have no intention of fixing it”. And if she really is in that honest(-ad) mood, she might add: “At heart, does anyone have?”

Two decades of hardcore journalism in a past life; now Digital Media PhD candidate @ University of Porto, coffee taster and vinyl aficionado