Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has appeared before Congress in the past, to talk about the giant social network’s role in misinformation and election-meddling, but the number of times he has appeared before a government committee is vastly outweighed by the number of times he has declined to do so. The Facebook co-founder continued that streak by failing to appear in Canada this week before an international committee that is looking into Facebook’s status as a conduit for misinformation. His second-in-command, Sheryl Sandberg, also refused to attend. As a result, the Canadian government issued an open-ended summons that requires both Zuckerberg and Sandberg to appear before Parliament should they enter Canada for any reason. If they fail to do so, they could be held in contempt.
Even if this did come to pass, however (which would require a vote in the House of Commons), a citation for contempt doesn’t really bring with it any kind of practical sanctions. Parliament can theoretically jail someone if they are found in contempt, but this is extremely rare, which makes it mostly a formality. This week also isn’t the first time Zuckerberg has been hit with a summons: he was given one by both the UK government and the Canadian government last year, when the two started investigating the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. The Facebook co-founder didn’t appear in either country (no contempt citations were issued). In essence, the summons and the threat of contempt are a way for the Canadian and UK governments to show how important they believe it is for the CEO of the company to appear before them, but there’s no real practical way for them to force him to do so.
The joint summons last year came as the UK, Canada, and a number of other nations were forming what they are calling an “international grand committee” to investigate the responsibility not just of Facebook but also other tech platforms such as Google, Twitter, and Amazon to address privacy and misinformation. The hearing Zuckerberg and Sandberg refused to appear at in Ottawa, the Canadian capital, was the second meeting of this grand committee. Instead of the two senior executives, the members of the committee heard from Facebook’s policy head for Canada, Kevin Chan, as well as Neil Potts, global policy director. The appearance of the latter seemed to upset committee co-chair Bob Zimmer, a Canadian MP, who grumbled that Potts doesn’t even appear in a list of the top 100 most important Facebook executives.
In addition to representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google, the committee also heard testimony from a number of experts in technology and social networking, including former Research In Motion CEO Jim Balsillie, as well as Roger McNamee, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist who was an early mentor to Zuckerberg and made billions of dollars by investing before Facebook went public. McNamee has since changed his mind about the company, which he refers to as “the biggest problem we have for democracy,” and has written a book about how he believes the company is changing society and human behavior for the worse (Facebook has responded to McNamee’s criticisms by saying it has “fundamentally changed how we operate” to protect the safety of users, and that McNamee “hasn’t been involved with Facebook for a decade”). Balsillie, meanwhile, told the committee that “data is not the new oil, it’s the new plutonium: amazingly powerful, dangerous when it spreads, difficult to clean up and with serious consequences when improperly used.”
Facebook and Google both signed a declaration in advance of the Ottawa hearings, saying that they would do their best to protect the integrity of the upcoming Canadian elections (Twitter didn’t sign). But Facebook has also stuck to its guns on the way it currently handles misinformation: for example, the company said that it won’t commit to removing false reports or “fake news” about the elections or the various campaigns. That’s similar to the approach the social network took with doctored videos of US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, which were modified to make it appear that she was drunk or senile. It didn’t take the videos down, but said it would prevent them from showing up as highly in the News Feed and added a note that they were “the subject of further reporting,” a decision that was widely criticized.
Here’s more on Facebook and misinformation:
The Liar’s Dividend: Mollie Bryant of the fact-checking site Big If True writes about what some researchers have called “The Liar’s Dividend.” That’s the principle that says even if a fake news report is debunked, doing so helps bring an air of legitimacy to it, and also suggests to readers that the facts about an issue are up for debate, even when they aren’t. The tobacco industry and the oil industry have both made use of this tactic in the past, Bryant notes.
Facebook was right: Some experts in misinformation argue that Facebook was right not to remove the doctored Nancy Pelosi videos, according to a report by MIT’s Technology Review. Alexios Mantzarlis, a misinformation researcher at TED who previously ran the International Fact-Checking Network, said removing the video — which was not fake, just manipulated — could create a dangerous precedent and give governments ammunition to argue for broader takedowns.
Works as intended: New York Times writer Charlie Warzel says the Pelosi video was just the latest example of a viral social-media “fake” that hijacked all the attention in the media sphere for a certain period. This is exactly what the creators of such videos and memes are looking for, Warzel says, and what platforms like Facebook were designed to do. “The swift spread of agitation propaganda and the creep of hyper-partisanship across social media isn’t a bug, it is a feature.”
Inauthentic behavior: As if to show that it is still on the job fighting disinformation on its platform, Facebook announced this week that it has removed 51 Facebook accounts, 36 Pages, seven Groups and three Instagram accounts that it says were involved in “coordinated inauthentic behavior that originated in Iran.” In some cases, the pages and accounts impersonated legitimate news organizations in the Middle East, Facebook said, and represented themselves as journalists.
Other notable stories:
Robert Mueller, the special investigator who has been looking into Russian involvement in the 2016 election and has not spoken publicly since he began that process, took the unusual step of holding a press conference Wednesday. He noted that “if we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” which many — including presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris — took to mean that Mueller was recommending impeachment proceedings.
The Intercept on Wednesday released another batch of articles from SIDToday, the internal newsletter for the National Security Agency’s Signals Intelligence Directorate, part of a trove of documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden. It says the latest release reveals that US officials drew up a new intelligence-sharing framework in response to pressure from Israel, and that Norway knew about the sinking of the Russian Kursk submarine much sooner it previously admitted. The Intercept’s owner, First Look Media, recently decided to shut down the Snowden Archive, a decision that led to criticism from First Look co-founder Laura Poitras.
After four years of funding journalism outside North America through its Digital News Innovation Fund, Google is going to start funding projects in the US and Canada. The search giant announced the new initiative on Tuesday, asking for submissions that demonstrate innovation in local news and audience engagement. Successful projects will get up to $300,000 in financing for up to 70 percent of the total project cost. Some media observers believe that taking funding from the tech giants is problematic.
The BBC spoke to a woman in northern Macedonia who says she worked for a fake news site, aggregating and rewriting stories from other publications in order to make them as viral as possible, something Macedonia has become known for. In most cases, Tamara says, she didn’t actually invent news, but created misinformation based on real events, written in such a way as to provoke fear and/or anger among readers about Muslims and other groups. “It was propaganda and brainwashing in the way of telling the story,” she said.
As the Trump 2020 campaign continues to pour money into Facebook advertising in preparation for the election, researchers say that the social network has weakened or disabled certain tools they use to track election advertising, according to a report from Vice News. “The reality is that Facebook has bent over backward to make it hard to study how the platform works,” Gennie Gebhart, associate director of research at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Vice’s David Uberti.
Antitrust scholar Dina Srinivasan writes in The New York Times that Facebook’s mis-handling of privacy and user data could provide ammunition for antitrust authorities to go after the company. Srinivasan says there is some evidence that Facebook is using its monopoly power to degrade the quality of its service. Companies like Facebook lock in users with promises to protect their data and privacy, he argues, only to break those promises “once competitors in the marketplace have been eliminated.”
Daniel Kretinsky, a Czechoslovakian-born billionaire who made his fortune in the oil and gas industry, recently acquired a stake in Le Monde, a leading newspaper based in Paris. Kretinsky bought 45 percent of a holding company that owns the paper and several other assets, giving him a 13 percent stake in Le Monde. He also bought an alternative French newsweekly called Marianne last year. Latinsky said he fell in love with France when he was growing up in Czechoslovakia.
Becca Schuh writes for CJR about whether the term “viral book” should be an oxymoron. Leigh Stein, whose 2014 BuzzFeed article “Piecing Together My Abusive Ex-Boyfriend’s Final Summer” was the basis for her book “The Land of Enchantment,” says that just because a book is based on a viral hit, that doesn’t mean the book itself will also be a big seller. “It’s definitely a launchpad and not something you can translate into book sales,” Stein told Schuh.
The Twitter account for the Associated Press Stylebook clarified in a series of tweets how the newswire thinks about using the term “racism.” Deciding whether to use the term “is not clear-cut” and should include discussion with colleagues from diverse backgrounds, AP said, but using the term is preferable to euphemisms such as “racially charged,” which the newswire said should not be used.