Having been manipulated by Russian internet trolls and the pervasive spread of fake news, Facebook has effectively admitted it can’t cope with news as CEO Mark Zuckerberg has vowed to fix the world’s largest social network.
Facebook will deprioritise news and bump up personal updates from family and friends, and start “focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions” Zuckerberg announced to the 101,735,995 people who follow him online.
A week later he updated his own update to add Facebook aims “to make sure the news you see, while less overall, is high quality”.
Unable to do it before the great Brexit and Trump heists of 2016, Zuckerberg says it will “prioritize news that is trustworthy, informative, and local… [and] from trusted sources”.
In essence Facebook – which has resisted being classified as a media organisation despite fulfilling that very role for its 2bn users – is admitting it has failed at news.
Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook’s product manager for civic engagement, admitted this week that social media “at its worst… allows people to spread misinformation and corrode democracy”.
After “Russian actors [who] created 80,000 posts … reached around 126m people in the US over a two-year period,” he said a “nation-state used our platform to wage a cyberwar intended to divide society”.
But the solution so far, which has been trialled in six smaller countries, has proved a disaster for legitimate news organisations but not for fake news and other untrue memes. Facebook began testing its new Explore feature in Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Bolivia, Guatemala and Serbia with disastrous effects for independent media who rely on social media traffic, often in repressive regimes when free speech is already under threat.
Chakrabarti says Facebook is “hiring over 10,000 more people this year to work on safety and security” because “it is hard for machines to understand the cultural nuances of political intimidation”.
Last week Apple CEO Tim Cook became the latest high-profile tech industry figure to express reservations about social media. “I don’t have a kid, but I have a nephew that I put some boundaries on. There are some things that I won’t allow; I don’t want them on a social network,” he said.
This from the man whose company gave us the iPhone and iPad, the two gadgets that have enabled our social media lives more than any other.
Like South Africa’s own belated attempts to throttle state capture which saw the Asset Forfeiture Unit’s seizing of Gupta-owned houses for the R220m Estina Free State dairy farm rip-off – despite an estimated R1tn in other stolen state money – in essence, it’s too little too late. The damage has been done to society and to Facebook’s credibility.
Ultimately it may not matter as fickle consumers manage to forget infractions by big brands – as they ultimately will over Apple’s battery debacle and H&M’s racist hoodie photographs – when they want a new phone or cheap, stylish clothes.
But as Chakrabarti admitted: “This was a new kind of threat that we couldn’t easily predict, but we should have done better”.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail