Category Archives: Social media

Who Will Fix Facebook?

facebook-fakebook4By Matt Taibbi (Rolling Stone)

James Reader tried to do everything right. No fake news, no sloppiness, no spam. The 54-year-old teamster and San Diego resident with a progressive bent had a history of activism, but itched to get more involved. So a few years ago he tinkered with a blog called the Everlasting GOP Stoppers, and it did well enough to persuade some friends and investors to take a bigger step.

In its effort to clamp down on fake news, Russian trolls and Nazis, the social media giant has also started banning innocent people, proving again it can’t be trusted to regulate itself

“We got together and became Reverb Press,” he recalls. “I didn’t start it for the money. I did it because I care about my country.”

In 2014, he launched Reverb, a site that shared news from a pro-Democratic stance but also, Reader says, took great care to be correct and factual. The independent watchdog site mediabiasfactcheck.com would declare it strongly slanted left but rated it “high for factual reporting, as all news is sourced to credible media outlets.”

The site took off, especially during the 2015-16 election season. “We had 30 writers contributing, four full-time editors and an IT worker,” Reader says. “At our peak, we had 4 million to 5 million unique visitors a month.”

Through Facebook and social media, Reader estimates, as many as 13 million people a week were seeing Reverb stories. Much of the content was aggregated or had titles like “36 Scariest Quotes From the 2015 GOP Presidential Debates.”But Reverb also did original reporting, like a first-person account of Catholic Church abuse in New Jersey that was picked up by mainstream outlets.

Like most independent publishers, he relied heavily on a Facebook page to drive traffic and used Facebook tools to help boost his readership. “We were pouring between $2,000 and $6,000 a month into Facebook, to grow the page,” Reader says. “We tried to do everything they suggested.”

Publishers like Reader jumped to it every time Facebook sent hints about changes to its algorithm. When it emphasized video, he moved to develop video content. Reader viewed Facebook as an essential tool for independent media. “Small blogs cannot exist without Facebook,” he says. “At the same time, it was really small blogs that helped Facebook explode in the first place.”

But Reader began noticing a problem. Starting with the 2016 election, he would post articles that would end up in right-wing Facebook groups, whose followers would pelt his material with negative comments. He also suspected they were mass-reporting his stories to Facebook as spam.

Ironically, Reader, whose site regularly covered Russia-gate stories, suspected his business was being impacted by everyone from Republican operatives to MAGA-hat wearers and Russian trolls anxious to dent his pro-Democratic content. “It could have been Russians,” he says. “It could have been domestic groups. But it really seemed to be some kind of manipulation.”

Reader saw drops in traffic. Soon, ad sales declined and he couldn’t afford to invest in Facebook’s boosting tools anymore, and even when he did, they weren’t working in the same way. “It was like crack-dealing,” he says. “The first hits are free, but pretty soon you have to spend more and more just to keep from losing ground.”

 He went to Facebook to complain, but Reader had a difficult time finding a human being at the company to discuss his problems. Many sources contacted for this story describe a similar Kafka’s Castle-type experience of dealing with Facebook. After months of no response, Reader finally reached an acquaintance at Facebook and was told the best he could do was fill out another form. “The guy says to me,‘It’s about scale, bro,’ ” he recalls. In other words, in a Facebook ecosystem with more than 2 billion users, if you’re too small, you don’t matter enough for individual attention.

After all this, on October 11th this year, Reader was hit with a shock. “I was driving home in San Diego when people started to call with bad news,” he says. They said Reverb had been taken offline. He got home and clicked on his computer:

“Facebook Purged Over 800 Accounts and Pages for Pushing Political Spam,” a Washington Post headline read.

The story described an ongoing effort against “coordinated inauthentic behavior” and specifically named just a few sites, including Reverb, that were being removed.The Facebook announcement mentioned “timing ahead of the U.S. midterm elections,” implying that the deletions had been undertaken to preserve the integrity of American democracy — from people like James Reader.

Reader wasn’t alone. He was one of hundreds of small publishers to get the ax in Facebook’s October 11th sweep, which quickly became known as “the Purge” in alternative-media circles. After more minor sweeps of ostensibly fake foreign accounts over the summer, the October 11th deletions represented something new:the removal of demonstrably real American media figures with significant followings. Another round of such sites would be removed in the days before the midterms, this time without an announcement. Many of these sites would also be removed from other platforms like Twitter virtually simultaneously.

“All this happens on the same day?” Reader asks. “There’s no way it’s not connected.”

The sites were all over the map politically. Some, like the Trump-supporting Nation in Distress, had claimed Obama would declare martial law if Trump won in 2016. Others, like Reverb and Blue State Daily, were straight-up, Democrat-talking-point sites that ripped Trump and cheered the blues.

Many others, like the L.A.-based Free Thought Project and Anti-Media, were anti-war, focused on police brutality or drug laws, and dismissive of establishment politics in general. Targeting the latter sites to prevent election meddling seemed odd, since they were openly disinterested in elections. “If anything, we try to get people to think beyond the two parties,” says Jason Bassler, a 37-year-old activist who runs the Free Thought Project.

James Reader sits at his home in San Diego, CA on Friday, November 2, 2018. Reader, the publisher of online news site Reverb Press, found his page unpublished by Facebook in October, but he’s never been told why. Photograph by Sandy Huffaker for Rolling Stone

Reader tried to access his sites. The Facebook page for Reverb had been unpublished. Same for his old Everlasting GOP Stoppers blog. Even a newer page of his called America Against Trump, with 225,000 followers, was unpublished. “Everything I’d worked for all those years was dead,” he says.

Reader seethed about being lumped in with Russian election meddlers. But somehow worse was Facebook’s public description of his site as being among “largely domestic actors using click bait headlines and other spam tactics to drive users to websites where they could target them with ads.”

This grated, since he felt that Facebook’s programs were themselves designed to make sure that news audiences stayed in-house to consume Facebook advertising.

“This is all about money,” Reader says. “It’s a giant company trying to monopolize all behavior on the Internet. Anything that can happen, they only want it to happen on Facebook.”

AFTER DONALD TRUMP was elected in 2016, Facebook — and Silicon Valley in general — faced a lot of heat. There was understandable panic that fake news — be it the work of Russian ad farms, or false stories spread about Barack Obama by Macedonian trolls, or insane conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton and “Pizzagate” — was having a destructive impact, responsible for everything from Brexit to the election of our Mad Hatter president.

Everyone from journalism professors to sociologists to former Facebook employees blamed the social network for rises in conspiracism, Russian meddling and hate speech.“News feed optimizes engagement,” said former Facebook designer Bobby Goodlatte. “ Bullshit is highly engaging.”

Politicians began calling for increased regulation, but Facebook scoffed at the idea that it was responsible for Trump, or anything else. Moreover, at least publicly,the firm had always been resistant to sifting out more than porn, threats and beheading videos. Its leaders insisted they were about “bringing people together,” not editing content. “We are a tech company, not a media company,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in 2016, after visiting with the pope.

Facebook’s touchy-feely vibing about togetherness and “friends” was probably part true,part thin veil for a voracious business plan: get as many humans herded in-site as possible, so they can have truckloads of ads shoved through their eyeballs. Restricting speech was a problem because it meant restricting speakers, which meant restricting cash flow.

To keep regulatory wolves at bay, Facebook had one thing to bargain with: its own unused political might. By 2017, 45 percent of Americans were getting news from Facebook, making it by far the largest social media news source in the country. A handful of executives could now offer governments (including our own) a devil’s bargain: increased control over information flow in exchange for free rein to do their booming eyeball-selling business.

We could have responded to the fake-news problem in a hundred different ways. We could have used European-style laws to go after Silicon Valley’s rapacious data-collection schemes that incentivize click bait and hyper-partisanship. We could have used anti-trust laws to tackle monopolistic companies that wield too much electoral influence. We could have recognized de facto mega-distributors as public utilities, making algorithms for things like Google searches and Facebook news feeds transparent, allowing legitimate media outlets to know how they’re being regulated, and why.

Instead, this story may be turning into one of the oldest narratives in politics: the misuse of a public emergency to suspend civil rights and concentrate power. One recurring theme of the fake-news controversy has been a willingness of those in power to use the influence of platforms like Facebook, rather than curtail or correct them. Accused of being an irresponsible steward of information, Facebook is now being asked to exercise potentially vast and opaque new powers.

The accumulation of all these scandals has taken a toll on the company. A recent Pew survey found that 44 percent of users between ages 18 and 29 deleted Facebook from their phones in the past year.

Now there’s this. You thought you didn’t like Facebook before? Wait until you see it in its new role as Big Brother.

THE IRONY IS, Facebook’s business model once rested on partisanship, divisiveness and clickbait. One of the many reasons Trump won, as former Facebook product manager Antonio García Martínez described in Wired, was the campaign’s expert use of Facebook’s ads auction, which rewarded ad developers for efficiently stoking lizard-brain responses. The company, García Martínez wrote, “uses a complex model that considers both the dollar value of each bid as well as how good apiece of clickbait . . . the corresponding ad is.”

A canny marketer, García Martínez wrote, could “goose” purchasing power if Facebook’s estimation of its “clickbaitness” was high. The Trump campaign’s superior grip on this dynamic allowed it to buy choice ad space at bargain prices, while the reverse was true for Clinton.

In other words, the same company that rewarded the red-meatiest content and hyperpartisan drivel that political lunatics like alleged MAGA Bomber Cesar Sayoc devoured was now publicly denouncing sites like Reverb News for . . . clickbait.

Reader wondered why his site had been chosen. He admits to using multiple backup profiles, which is a technical violation, but he insists this would have previously earned a slap on the wrist. Several of the other deleted sites were right-wing or libertarian (although Facebook hasn’t released a full list of the purged sites). Reader wondered if Facebook — as it reportedly did after a Gizmodo piece in 2016 claimed Facebook suppressed conservatives — was attempting to over compensate by targeting a blue-leaning operation.

Tiffany Willis Clark, whose page for her site Liberal America was taken down on November 2nd, is similarly baffled as to why. A self-described “Christian left” publisher from Texas who pushes a Democratic line, she says Liberal America, with its 750,000 followers, is a“lifestyle site” about “raising conscious kids who are aware of the suffering of others.” She insists she’s never engaged in any banned Facebook behaviors and is careful to source everything to reputable news organizations. An example of her content is a listicle, “87 Things Only Poor Kids Know and ConservativesCouldn’t Care Less About,” that contains lines like “We go to the doctor when we’re sick, but mom doesn’t.”

Clark created the site for political and spiritual reasons, and believes she has helped reach people with her down-to-earth approach. “I’ve had people tell me they’ve switched parties because of us,” Clark says. “We didn’t do this for the money. That was a happy accident.”

She was surprised to see traffic take off after launching in 2013, and began investing in the site as a business. Clark estimates that she has spent $150,000 on Facebook boosting tools since 2014. “I basically put my life savings into this, and it’s gone,” she says. Like many of the people contacted for this story, she regrets having built a business around an Internet platform with a constantly shifting set of standards.

“Facebook seems to be redefining its mission minute to minute,” she says. “They started with fake news, moved to Alex Jones, and now it seems to be anything that’s not mainstream media.”

The belief that the recent deletions represent the start of a campaign against alternative media in general have been stoked by the fact that in its efforts to police fake news, Facebook recently began working with a comical cross section of shadowy officialdom: meeting with the Foreign Influence Task Force at the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security; partnering with the Atlantic Council, a NATO-connected organization featuring at least six former CIA heads on its board; and working with a pair of nonprofits associated with the major political parties, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.

“It’s a blatant attack on independent media in advance of the election,” says Sean Conners of Blue State Daily.

 Professional Journalists and an admin to more than a hundred social media accounts for independent media and charity sites. “Lots of people I know have been affected. And not enough reporters are paying attention.”

 NEWSFLASH: There’s always been weird shit on the Internet. Not long ago,that’s even what a lot of us liked about the medium. Everything was on the Net, from goat sex to “Thirteen Bizarre Stipulations in Wills” to all the evidence you needed if you wanted to prove Sasquatch is real. None of this was ever regulated in any serious way, in keeping with a historically very permissive attitude toward speech.

We’ve traditionally tolerated fakes (the 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds reportedly scared one in 12 listeners into believing Earth had been invaded by Mars) and conspiracy kooks like the LaRouchians. In modern history,we’ve mostly relied upon libel laws, market forces and occasional interventions from the Federal Communications Commission to regulate speech.

Obviously, no one has a constitutional right to a Facebook page or a Twitter account. As ACLU lawyer Ben Wizner points out, there’s no First Amendment issue here. “To the extent First Amendment rights figure in at all, they’re enjoyed by the companies, who get to decide what does and does not go on their platforms,” he says. But the fact that removals are probably legal does not mean they’re not worrisome. If a handful of companies are making coordinated decisions about content, especially in conjunction with official or quasi-official bodies, this has far-reaching implications for the press.

Eric Goldman of the Santa Clara University School of Law calls the problem “soft censorship,” adding, “We’re seeing removal of content that isn’t illegal but the government doesn’t like. It’s a backdoor form of censorship.”

Mark Zuckerberg before Congress in April. “We are a tech company, not a media company,” he has insisted, and denied Facebook’s role in the 2016 presidential election. Photograph by Stephen Voss/Redux

Once viewed as a revolutionary tool for democratization and personal empowerment,the Internet always had awesome potential as a lever for social control, as we’ve already seen overseas.

When it comes to Internet companies working with governments, there are two main dangers.

In the first, a repressive government uses an Internet platform to accelerate human-rights abuses. The worst example of this is in Myanmar, where the U.N. recently concluded Facebook may have been key in helping incite government-sponsored genocide against that nation’s Rohingya Muslim minority.

The campaign against the Rohingya led to mass murder, arson and rape, and caused 700,000 to flee abroad and left thousands dead. The attackers were egged on by Myanmar officials and descended upon Rohingya settlements in a murderous rage.

A series of posts on Facebook in the Buddhist-majority country called Muslim minorities maggots, dogs and rapists, and said things like, “We must fight them the way Hitler did the Jews.” Facebook at the time had only a handful of Burmese speakers on staff reviewing this content, and the U.N. concluded that the platform had “turned into a beast.”

Facebook has since deleted accounts of Myanmar military figures accused of inciting violence, citing the same offense it applied to the likes of James Reader: “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

The flip side of being too little engaged is to have intimate relationships between foreign governments and companies involved in speech regulation.

In March this year, for instance, after the company had unknowingly helped spread a campaign of murder, rape and arson in Myanmar, Facebook unpublished the popular Palestinian news site SAFA, which had 1.3 million followers.

SAFA had something like official status, an online answer to the Palestine Authority’s WAFA news agency. (SAFA has been reported to be sympathetic to Hamas, which the publication denies.) Its operators say they also weren’t given any reason for the removal. “They didn’t even send us a message,” says Anas Malek, SAFA’s social media coordinator. “We were shocked.”

The yanking of SAFA took place just ahead of a much-publicized protest in the region: the March 30th March of the Great Return, in which Gaza Strip residents were to try to return to their home villages in Israel; it resulted in six months of violent conflict. Malek and his colleagues felt certain SAFA’s removal from Facebook was timed to the march. “This is a direct targeting of an effective Palestinian social media voice at a very critical time,” he says.

Israel has one of the most openly cooperative relationships with Facebook: The Justice Ministry in 2016 boasted that Facebook had fulfilled “95 percent” of its requests to delete content. The ministry even proposed a “Facebook bill” that would give the government power to remove content from Internet platforms under the broad umbrella of “incitement.” Although it ultimately failed, an informal arrangement already exists, as became clear this October.

That month, Israel’s National Cyber Directorate announced that Facebook was removing “thousands” of accounts ahead of municipal elections. Jordana Cutler, Facebook’s head of policy in Israel— and a former adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — said the company was merely following suggestions. “We receive requests from the government but are not committed to them,” Cutler said.

This template should worry Americans. The First Amendment prevents the government from ordering platforms to take down content. But as is clear in places like Israel,sometimes a suggestion is more than just a suggestion. “If they say they’re ‘not obligated,’ that should come with an asterisk,” says Goldman.

The most troubling example of private-public cooperation is probably the relationship between Google and China.The company whose motto was once “Don’t Be Evil” is reportedly going ahead with plans for a censor-friendly “Dragonfly” search engine. The site could eliminate search terms like “human rights” and “Nobel prize” for more than a billion people.

The lack of press interest here is remarkable. Had an American company on the scale of Google helped the Soviets develop a censorship tool, the story would have dominated the press, but it has barely made headlines in the States.

Somewhere between the Myanmar and Israel models is the experience of Germany, which last year passed a broad Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) requiring deletion of illegal content that violates German law against incitement to crime, hatred or the use of banned political symbols. Facebook tried to keep up with the NetzDG by hiring thousands to work in “deletion centers” in Essen and Berlin.But this year a German court ruled Facebook cannot take down content that is not illegal, which some believe may force the company to allow things like nude pictures. “This will get really interesting,” is how one European tech-policy researcher put it.

If content removal is messy in Germany,which has clear and coherent laws against certain kinds of speech, how would such an effort play out in America, which has a far more permissive legal tradition?

We would soon find out.

Just more than a year ago, on October 31st, a subcommittee of U.S. senators held a hearing to question representatives of Google, Facebook and Twitter. The subject was“Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online: Working With Tech to Find Solutions.” The grilling took place during the peak of public outrage about fake news. Facebook had just announced it would be turning over about 3,000 ads created by a Russian “Internet Research Agency.”

For the hearing, the tech firms sent lawyers to take abuse. The two chief counsels present — Colin Stretch of Facebook and Sean Edgett of Twitter, plus Richard Salgado, law enforcement director at Google — looked pained throughout, as though awaiting colonoscopies.

Although the ostensible purpose of the event was to ask the platforms to help prevent foreign interference in elections, it soon became clear that Senate partisans were bent on pushing pet concerns.

Republican Chuck Grassley, for instance, pointed to ads targeting Baltimore,Cleveland and Ferguson, Missouri,which he said “spread stories about abuse of black Americans by law enforcement. These ads are clearly intended to worsen racial tensions.”

Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono insisted that the Russian ads had affected the election and asked the Silicon Valley reps to come up with a “mission statement” to “prevent the fomenting of discord.”

When Stretch tried to offer a hedging answer about Facebook’s mission being the promotion of community (translation: “We already have a good enough mission”), Hirono cut him off and reminded him of a word he had used earlier.“Authenticity,” she said. “I kind of like that as a mission statement.”

Even if one stipulates every concern about foreign meddling is true, Hirono was playing with fire. Tightening oversight to clamp down on illegal foreign propaganda is one thing. Asking the world’s most powerful media companies to create vague new missions in search of “authenticity” and the prevention of “discord” is something else.

So how would the Senate make Facebook bend the knee? We got a clue in July, when Sen.Mark Warner released a white paper waving a regulatory leash at Silicon Valley. Warner proposed legislation requiring “first-party consent for data collection,” which would cut back on the unwanted use of personal data. This was a gun to the head of the industry, given that most of the platforms depend on the insatiable collection of such data for advertising sales.

The companies by then had already made dramatic changes. Google made tweaks to its normal, non-Chinese search engine in April 2017. Dubbed “Project Owl,” the changes were designed to prevent fake news — Holocaust-denial sites were cited as an example — from scoring too high in search results.

Although the campaign against fake news has often been described as necessary to combat far-right disinformation, hate speech and, often, Trump’s own false statements, some of the first sites to feel the sting of the new search environment seemed to be of the opposite persuasion. And this is where it becomes easy to wonder about the good faith of American efforts to rein in the Internet.

After Google revised its search tool in 2017, a range of alternative news operations— from the Intercept to Common Dreams to Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! — began experiencing precipitous drops in traffic.

One of the first was the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS). According to reporter Andre Damon, the agency performed tests to see how the site fared under the new Google search. It found that in the old search, WSWS stories popped up very high. A few months later, they were nowhere to be found. “If you entered‘social inequality,’ we were the number-two story in April 2017,” says Damon.“By August, we were out of the top 100 for the same search.”

Damon and other sat WSWS, using data from the marketing analytic company SEMRush and Google Webmaster, ran tests on a dozen other anti-war, progressive-leaning sites. They found their own search traffic had dropped 67 percent, and estimated Alternet was down 63 percent, Wikileaks down 30 percent. Every site they measured was down at least 19 percent. “Google pioneered this,” says Damon. (Google stressed that rankings shift with any algorithmic update, and the company says it does not single out sites by name.)

Facebook had also already made dramatic changes to its algorithm, and it wasn’t just left-wing sites that were seeing the crunch. Kevin Roose of The New York Times recently featured a Pennsylvania-based right-wing site called Mad World News that, like Reader, had spent enormous sums on Facebook tools tobuild an audience — a staggering half-million dollars, the site’s founders claimed. But starting in 2017, the site’s traffic dropped from 20 million views a month to almost nothing, especially after Facebook implemented its “Trusted Sources” algorithm, which de-emphasized commercial sites in favor of more-familiar “local” content.

“Have some integrity, give the money back” is what the Mad World founders told Roose.

But soon, mere algorithmic changes wouldn’t be enough, and the age of outright bans began. On May 17th, Facebook announced it would be working with the Atlantic Council.

Often described by critics as the unofficial lobby group of NATO, the council is a bipartisan rogues’ gallery of senior military leaders, neocons and ex-spies. Former heads of the CIA on its board include Michael Hayden, R. James Woolsey, Leon Panetta and Michael Morell, who was in line to be Hillary Clinton’s CIAchief.

The council is backed financially by weapons-makers like Raytheon, energy titans like Exxon-Mobil and banks like JP Morgan Chase. It also accepts funds from multiple foreign countries, some of them with less-than-sterling reputations for human rights and — notably — press freedoms.

One of its biggest foreign donors is the United Arab Emirates, which this year fell nine spots down, from 119th to 128th place, out of 180 countries listed in the World Press Freedom Index.

When Rolling Stone asked the Atlantic Council about the apparent contradiction of advising Facebook on press practices when it is funded by numerous speech-squelching foreign governments,it replied that donors must submit in writing to strict terms. The statement reads:

“[The] Atlantic Council is accepting the contribution on condition that the Atlantic Council retains intellectual independence and control over any content funded in whole or in part by the contribution.”

Around the same time the partnership was announced, Facebook made a donation to the Atlantic Council between $500,000 and $999,000, placing it among the biggest donors to the think tank.

The social media behemoth could easily have funded its own team of ex-spooks and media experts for the fake-news project. But Facebook employees have whispered to reporters that the council was brought in so that Facebook could “outsource many of the most sensitive political decisions.” In other words, Facebook wanted someone else to take the political hit for removing pages.

(Facebook did not respond to a question about having outsourced sensitive political decisions, but it said it chose the Atlantic Council because the council has “uniquely qualified experts on the issue of foreign interference.”)

Facebook announced its first round of deletions on July 31st, a day after Warner’s whitepaper was made public. In this first incident, Facebook unpublished 32 sites for “inauthentic behavior.” The accounts looked like someone’s idea of a parody of agitprop. One, Black Elevation, shows the famous photo of Huey Newton in a chair, holding a spear. Significantly, one event page — announcing a counterprotest to an upcoming Unite the Right 2 neo-Nazi march — turned out to be run by areal grassroots protest group called the Shut It Down DC Coalition. These people were peeved to be described as “inauthentic” in the news.

“This is a real protest in Washington, D.C.,” said spokeswoman Michelle Styczynski. “It is not George Soros. It is not Russia. It is just us.”

But the news headlines did not read “Facebook Removes Some Clearly Bogus Memes and One Real Domestic Protest Page.” Instead, the headlines were all gravitas: “Facebook Pulls Fake Accounts That Mimicked Russian Tactics,” wrote The Wall Street Journal; “Facebook Grapples With a Maturing Adversary in Election Meddling” was the unironic New York Times headline.

About a week later, on August 6th, one of the biggest jackasses in American public life was quieted. Four major tech firms — Apple, YouTube, Facebook and Spotify —decided to either completely or partially remove Infowars conspiracy lunatic Alex Jones. Twitter would soon follow suit.

Jones was infamous for, among other things, claiming the child victims of the Sandy Hook shooting were fakes, and his ongoing trolling of grieving Sandy Hook parents is one of the most revolting episodes in modern media. Jones is a favorite of Trump, who once gave Infowars a White House press pass.

The axing of Jones by the tech platforms was cheered by almost everyone in the mainstream press in “Ding-dong! The witch is dead” fashion.

“Finally,”exhaled Slate. “It’s about time,” said Media Matters. Even the right-wing Weekly Standard saluted the move, saying, “There’s no reason for conservatives to be defending this guy.”

Few observers raised an eyebrow at the implications of the Jones episode. The objections were more about the “how?” — not the “who?”

“Nobody complains about Alex Jones [being removed], which you can understand,” says David Chavern of the News Media Alliance. “But what rule did he violate? How does what he did compare to what other people saying similar things did? Nobody really knows.”

“I hate Alex Jones, I hate Infowars,” says the Georgia-based alternative journalist Rodrigo. “But we all saw what was coming.”

Reverb’s James Reader was one of the voices cheering the demise of Jones. Now conservatives are gloating over Reader’s removal from Facebook. “I have to take my lumps on that,” he says. “I still contend we don’t make incitements to violence or any of the bad things Jones does. But I should have been paying attention to the larger story. We all should have.”

AFTER THE REMOVAL of Jones, media and tech-industry types alike wondered about the“what next?” question. What about people who didn’t incite hate or commit libel but were merely someone’s idea of “misleading” or “divisive”?

The Atlantic Council in September put out a paper insisting media producers had a“duty of care” to not “carry the virus” of misinformation. Noting bitterly “the democratization of technology has given individuals capabilities on par with corporations,” the council warned that even domestic content that lacked“context” or “undermines beliefs” could threaten “sovereignty.”

Healing could accelerate, the council argued, by pressuring the market “gatekeepers” to better “filter the quality” of content. “This does not need to be government driven,” it wrote. “Indeed it is better if it is not.”

What does it look like when corporate “gatekeepers” try to “filter” social malcontents? Bassler of the Free Thought Project already had a pretty good idea. Bassler is controversial. On the one hand, he’s one of the most extensive recorders of law-enforcement misbehavior in America.His sites are essentially a giant archive of police-brutality videos. But he has a clear fringe streak. Sift through Free Thought headlines and you’ll find stories about everything from chemtrails to studies that question the efficacy of vaccines.

Overall, the Free Thought Project is a bit like a more politicized, Internet-era version of In Search Of: a mix of real news and the conspiratorial. It aims to fill clear gaps in mainstream-media coverage but also dabbles in themes that would make the Columbia Journalism Review cringe.

Like Reader, Bassler, he says, tried to comply with every Facebook request over the years,because his business depended on it. “I’m not interested in just building a circle jerk of people who agree with me,” says Bassler. “I’m trying to make a difference,so I need Facebook. That’s where the normies are, you know? That’s where you reach people.”

After 2016, Facebook made reaching the “normies” harder for smaller producers. Long before it brought in partners like the Atlantic Council and the International Republican Institute, Facebook invited mainstream-media partners to help fact-check sites. Those included the Associated Press, PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, Snopes and even The Weekly Standard.

Jason Bassler’s more radical page was also shut down with no explanation.
Photo credit: Birch Studio Photography


Bassler did not do well in this process. Four Free Thought Project stories came up factually wanting under reviews. This caused traffic to plummet in the past two years, under a new Facebook policy algorithmically demoting “false news.” The Free Thought Project may not be ProPublica, but Bassler is no Alex Jones. In two cases, his “false” ratings were later overturned by PolitiFact and AP. But his business still took the hit.

The panel-review system poses serious issues. There’s the obvious problem of established media possibly being offered money from Facebook (reportedly as much as $100,000 annually) to directly reduce the business of smaller competitors.

A story by the Columbia Journalism Review about this process quoted unnamed checkers who professed to be unsure of how Facebook was picking sites for review. Some wondered why mainstream-media stories, like from Fox or MSNBC, were being filtered out. Others wondered why Facebook wasn’t fact-checking paid content.

Conspiracy theories aren’t always wrong, and people who have a conspiratorial bent are for this reason often the first to see real problems. Some important early reporting about the 2008 financial crisis, for instance, came from Zero Hedge,a site now routinely dismissed as conspiratorial.

If the question of whether reporting of this type is or is not legit is left up to panels of corporate media — who are often the targets of criticism from such sites — then even legitimate journalism that “undermines beliefs” will soon become rare. Especially when one considers that “reputable” media is often itself an actor in larger political deceptions (the Iraq-WMD episode being the most recent famous example of how terrible and lasting the consequences of disinformation can be), there’s tremendous danger in removing sites willing to play that challenging role.

Bassler’s Free Thought Project was eventually removed on October 11th. We can’t make any assumptions about why. But the opacity of the sifting process makes it hard not to wonder if such sites were chosen for something other than legitimate reasons.

“Unless they make their methodology transparent, we can’t give them the benefit of the doubt,” says Chavern. “Eventually, ‘Trust us’ isn’t going to be good enough.”

THE NEW ERA of “content regulation” has been a mixed bag. Along with bans of neo-Nazi Daily Stormer content from sites like Google, we’ve seen removals of content like a picture of two women kissing or the banning of Arab-language atheist pages in Muslim countries. Venezuela-based left-wing sites like TeleSUR and VenezuelaAnalysis.com have been suspended or deleted from Facebook, feminist cartoonists have seen content removed in India, and videos of self-immolating Tibetan monks have been found to have violated Facebook“community standards.”

Meanwhile,in smaller incidents, libertarians like Daniel Mac Adams of the Ron Paul Institute, progressive organizations like Occupy London and controversial writers such as Australian Caitlin Johnstone — among numerous others — have all been suspended from Twitter and other platforms.

Many of these cases involved suspensions triggered by user complaints, another potential problem area. Since the scale of Internet operations is so vast —billions of pieces of content a day are introduced on platforms like Facebook —companies will always be forced to rely on users to flag problems. As the motives for bans expand, we’ll see more and more people trying to mass-report their online foes into suspensions or bans. Rolling Stone found examples on both the left and the right. For Wizner of the ACLU, this feels key. “If you’re going to have billions of users,” he says, “it’s always going to be Whac-A-Mole. You can’t do it to scale.”

Whatever the democratic cure for what ails us, what we’re doing now is surely the opposite of it. We’ve empowered a small cadre of ex-spooks, tech executives, Senate advisers, autocratic foreign donors and mainstream-media panels to create an unaccountable system of star-chamber content reviews — which unsurprisingly seem so far to have mostly targeted their harshest critics.

“What government doesn’t want to control what news you see?” says Goldman, the law professor.

This is power that would tempt the best and most honest politicians. We’ve already proved that we’re capable of electing the worst and least-honest politicians imaginable. Is this a tool we want such people to have?

On his run to the White House, Donald Trump mined public anxiety and defamed our democracy, but that was just a prelude to selling authoritarianism. On some level, he understood that people make bad decisions when they’re afraid. And he’s succeeded in his short reign in bringing everyone down to his level of nonthinking.

This secretive campaign against fake news may not be Trump’s idea. But it’s a Trump-like idea, something we would never contemplate in a less-frenzied era.We’re scared. We’re not thinking. And this could go wrong in so many ways. For some, it has already.

“It’s Reverb Press today,” says Reader.  “It could be you tomorrow.”

©2018 Penske Media Corporation

Companies pay for campaign against Worker’s Party through WhatsApp

bolsonaro_whatsappContracts worth US$ 3 million break the law on undeclared political donations

Patrícia Campos Mello

FOLHA DE SÃO PAULO

Companies have bought packages of mass dispersal of messages against the Worker’s Party (PT) using WhatsApp and are preparing a big operation in the week before the final round.

The practice is illegal, as it consists of campaign donation by companies, which is forbidden under the electoral legislation, and was undeclared.

The Folha newspaper found that each contract is worth up to US$ 3 million, and that among the companies buying are Havan. The contracts are for the dispersal of hundreds of millions of messages.

The companies supporting the candidacy of Jair Bolsonaro (PSL) bought a service called “mass dispersal”, using the user database of the candidate or databases sold by digital strategy agencies. This is also illegal, as the electoral legislation forbids buying the database from third parties, only allowing the use of lists of supporters of the candidate themselves (numbers given voluntarily).

When they use a third party database, these agencies offer segmentation by geographical region, and sometimes by income. The client is then sent delivery reports containing the date, time and content sent.

Among the agencies providing this type of services are Quickmobile, a Yacows, Croc Services and SMS Market.

Prices vary from R$ 0.08 to R$ 0.12 for dispersal of a message to the database of the candidate and from R$ 0.30 to R$ 0.40 when the database is supplied by the agency.

The user databases are often supplied illegally by credit companies or by staff from telephone companies.

Companies investigated by the report said they were unable to accept requests before 28th October, the date of the final round of the election, saying their services were booked for huge dispersal through WhatsApp in the week before bought by private companies.

Questioned whether he used mass dispersal, Luciano Hang, owner of Havan, said he “did not know what it was”, and that “We have no need. I did a ‘live’ broadcast here now. It was not boosted and already achieved 1.3 million people. What is the need to boost? Let’s say I have 2,000 friends. I send it to my friends and it goes viral.”

Asked for comment, the partner in QuickMobile, Peterson Rosa, said the company is not working in the political arena this year and that the focus is only on corporate media. He denied having signed a contract with political content dispersal companies.

Richard Papadimitriou, of Yacows said he would make no comment. SMS Market did not respond to requests for an interview.

The accounts for the candidate Jair Bolsonaro (PSL) show only that the company AM4 Brasil Inteligencia Digital as having received US$ 310,000  for digital media.

According to Marcos Aurelio Carvalho, one of the owners of the company, AM4 only has 20 people working on the campaign. “Those working on the campaign are the thousands of volunteer supporters throughout Brazil. The groups are set up and fed organically”, he said.

He said that AM4 only maintains groups on WhatsApp to denounce fake news, transmission lists and state groups called content committees.

However, the Folha newspaper found out from ex-members of staff and clients that the AM4 service is not restricted to that.

One of the tools used by the Bolsonaro campaign is the generation of overseas numbers automatically by sites such as TextNow.

Staff and volunteers have dozens of such numbers, which they use to administer groups or to take part in them. With area codes from other countries, these administrators escape the spam filters and the limitations imposed by WhatsApp — the maximum of 256 participants in each group and the automatic forwarding of a single message to up to 20 people or groups.

These administrators also use algorithms that segment the members of groups between supporters, detractors and neutral, and are thus able to customize the most efficient type of content sent.

Most of the content is not produced by the campaign but rather from supporters.

The administrators of Bolsonaro support groups also identify “influencers”: very active supporters who they contact to set up more groups and do other actions in favour of the candidate. This practice is not illegal.

There is no indication that AM4 signed contracts for mass dispersal; Carvalho denied that his company do user segmentation or manipulation of content.

Estimates of the number of people working in the sector on the number of WhatsApp anti-PT groups are very vague — between 20,000 and 300,000 — as it is impossible to calculate the closed groups.

Diogo Rais, Professor of electoral Law at the Mackenzie University, said the buying of WhatsApp dispersal services by companies to favour a candidate would be considered an undeclared campaign donation, which is forbidden.

He did not comment in specific cases, but reminds that this form could be qualified as a crime of abuse of economic power, and of judged to have influenced the election, lead to disqualification of the ticket.

IN MINAS GERAIS, ROMEU ZEMA HIRED A BOOSTER COMPANY

The candidate for governor of the Minas Gerais state of the Partido Novo, Romeu Zema, declared to the Superior Electoral  Court, payment of US$ 54,000 to Croc Services for diffusion of content. The state directorate of the party in Minas spent US$ 45,000 with the company.

The Folha newspaper had Access to the proposals and e-mail exchanges from the company with various campaigns offering mass dispersal using the database of third parties, which is illegal.

Questioned by Folha, Pedro Freitas, partner-director of Croc Services said: “The one who has to know the electoral legislation is the candidate, not me.”

Later, he back-pedalled and said he did not knowf his company provided services to Zema. Afterwards, he sent a message saying he had checked their records and that they had sold packages for mass dispersal over WhatsApp, but only to databases of the candidate himself, party members and Zema supporters —which is legal.

Asked for comment, the campaign said that they had “contracted the message service only for WhatsApp for the sending to party members, people registered to the web site and supporter mobilization events”.

The Folha newspaper found that voters in Minas received WhatsApp messages linking the vote for Zema to the vote for Jair Bolsonaro days before the first round. Zema, who was in third place in the polls, finished in first place.

Collaborators: Joana Cunha and Walter Nunes

The Brazilian marketer who imported the Trump’s campaign method to use in 2018

Andre Torretta

Andre Torretta, at his office in São Paulo. Luís Simione

Andre Torretta associated himself to Cambridge Analytica, the controversial agency who worked for the Republican

“Am I fooling you? No, I am just giving you what you want to see”, he says about the strategy
El País, São Paulo 15 Oct 2017

“I bought a beach and I don’t want others to go there. What is the best sign to put in the sand?”, marketer Andre Torretta asked as he showed two photos in a PowerPoint presentation on his MacBook. “This one, saying the beach is private, or this one, warning of sharks? The one about sharks works better”, he said smiling, at his office, at a colourful coworking and ostensibly friendly building in a prime area in São Paulo. And if there’s no shark on the beach it would be a lie, right? “If there were no shark, then it’s fake news”, he conceded. “I won’t do that, but it exists, it’s possible and can be done, at the limit of ethics”.

The metaphor of the shark ” at the limit of ethics” is part of the material the 52 year old from Bahia state takes to introduce his new company, Cambridge Analytica Ponte, in the competitive Brazilian political marketing market. The agency is a mixture of his old consultancy specialized in class C Brazilians, Ponte Estrategia, with the British multinational Cambridge Analytica, a company that had promised to change, using psychology and big data, the behaviour of voters and consumers. In its portfolio, Cambridge Analytica has nothing less than the successful – and controversial – campaign of Donald Trump in the United States. The strategy used is to track the personality of the individuals on the basis of classic precepts of psychology and on the digital breadcrumbs we leave every day, such as social network profiles, GPS locations of places visited, data from the use of public services and online purchases. From there, they say they can produce messages moulded practically to the individual level, and they work to ensure they are delivered. To the target.

Ever since Trump won, Cambridge Analytica, which boasts of having read the minds of 210 million Americans, has not left the centre of controversy. It’s principal shareholder is the billionaire Robert Mercer, known for having changed Wall Street using big data and for being an important financier of conservative and far-right activists. There are academics in the USA and in the United Kingdom saying there are terrified about the company, a precisely targeting propaganda machine, and which if used without scruples, could be damaging. Others say a lot of it is self-marketing and are sceptical if whether, in fact, their method can deliver. “Cambridge did an ad in which it seems there is a monster behind it, but there isn’t. It is about making it more efficient”, says Torretta, who says he has adapted the strategy of the company because of the legal and technological differences between the two countries. “I tropicalized the methodology.”

If in the USA the fame of Cambridge is associated with CEO Alexander James Ashburner Nix, a 41 year old  Englishman who only appears wearing well-cut suits, branded glasses and well-combed hair, Andre Torretta is definitively more tropical. On the Friday he received EL PAIS, the marketer who has worked for 20 years in the field and on campaigns such as those for the Jose and Roseana Sarney from Maranhão and that of ex-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, did not wear a suit and wore a bright lilac coloured shirts. The thick lens glasses were not of any definable brand. He didn’t stop making jokes, many of them about himself. “My jokes are off the record, for the Love of God.” He said he couldn’t speak English and is far from the technological genius type. Even so, he guaranteed, it was the British sensation from the world of political marketing who sought him out, not the other way round.

According to Torreta, when they were working for the Trump campaign, Cambridge were also looking to the Brazilian 2018 elections. He says he was sought out a year and a half ago by a Spanish executive from SCL (Strategic Communication Laboratories), the mother company behind Cambridge Analytica. The envoy was looking for a partnership. That was when he heard for the first time of the Ocean methodology. “The guys were saying Ocean, Ocean. And I said, well, but tell me how and what it is. How do you get the egg to stand up?”, he said. The method (read further below) classifies people into five profiles in accordance the initial letters of the word – Openness (measures how open people are to new experiences), conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (emotional instability or how neurotic the person may be) – to then customize the campaigns for each profile. “So I saw they had a methodology able to make the egg stand up”.

In the United States, the ‘egg’ is ‘standing up’ thanks to around 7,000 data points that Cambridge, according to Torretta, is able to use on each individual. “The United States legislation is obscenely open. Thank God ours is not like that. It doesn’t allow me to go to Mastercard and buy all your data. It is forbidden both here and in England, in Germany it’s impossible. In the United States they even sell your soul”. In Brazil, Torretta calculates that this number of data points on everyone reaches 750 and that is where the tropicalization starts that he says he has done on the method. “The databases for Brazil are being built now. We have good well-stocked public databases. The government must have at least 500 to 700 data points on us, IBGE must have about 250 points, not personal, but of the micro-region where you live”, he explained. “So we already have 700 data points on each Brazilian. The credit rating agency, Serasa, must have another 40 data points”, he enthuses. He is convinced that, even if out data situation does not compare to the USA, his new company will work with much more information than any of his competitors. Not even private enterprise uses the potential of the data already available in Brazil, the marketer said.

The key, he argues, is going beyond the traditional stratifications of social class, place and sex to something much more specific. The campaigns in Brazil are already using some micro-targeting, but the bet has been made that the entry of big data and the consolidation of social networks changes the outlook profoundly. “Those going after Ivete Sangalo are the same as those going after Claudia Leite? No.” In other words, two women aged 35 from a prime area of Jardins, in São Paulo, may have completely different inclinations on the question of global warming and this can be decisive when buying a car or voting. In the calculations of the marketer,  if each presidential candidate, for example, has more or less 50 speeches on the programme for government, you only have to choose which is the most suitable for each one. Torretta goes back to the PowerPoint presentation to point out a slide with five photos of President Michel Temer in different circumstances. “I can tell you which photo is better, in accordance with the neighbourhood or social class or the psychographic trace [of the person]”, he said. “Am I fooling you? No, I am just giving you what you want to see.”

Ethical dilemmas and MBL

But can the production of speeches on demand not deepen ethical dilemmas already known in national political marketing? Up to what point can the technique go without manipulating or stealing elections? Torretta rejects the idea. “I am a professional of argument. I don’t need to lie. We talk about change of behaviour, behavioural communication”. He admits, however, that the example of the sign warning of supposed sharks at the beginning of the report, provoking or exacerbating the feeling of fear to induce the behaviour of not going to the beach, is already being used in Brazil. “There you have to have a change in the game that, for me, is more violent than technological. This type of communication, that MBL knows how to do very well, was used in war. It’s more deep-seated. Someone taught them this.”

Torretta said he would reject a proposal to work with the right-wing activists Movimento Brasil Livre, but praises the digital militancy expertise of the group, who he says have an excellent database. “I always highlighted their skill.” And with the candidate the group has supported up until now, the mayor of São Paulo, João Doria, Would he work with them? “I have already done lots of talks for Doria, for Lide [organization of companions set up by Doria]. That’s one conversation I cannot deny”.

With a lean “and well-paid” group of 12 people, the marketer says he has not yet closed a deal with any presidential campaign, but says he was sounded out by two of them in recent weeks. “And we are in two state pre-campaigns”, he adds, without revealing where or for whom. “The problem is that Cambridge is perhaps very sophisticated for the Brazilian regional market, because we don’t do any digital campaign well”, he said. “Now a breach has opened up for politicians to do boosting [to pay for publications to reach more people on Facebook).” Thus he believes that “Cambridge will be sexy” for the Brazilian market.

The change that allows paid political advertising on Facebook, approved in the Brazilian political reform, is at the centre of a scandal in the USA, with two revelations: that it was staff of the social network itself that had worked as consultants on the Trump campaign, which invested heavily in performance tests of different ads on the platform, and that Russia paid to broaden the sending of messages on the network to stimulate the political division in the USA. The centrality this discussion took on in the USA showed that this authorization of use in Facebook in Brazil could be crucial in 2018 both for companies such as Cambridge as well as the monitoring of social networks, which have been active in Brazilian campaigns since 2014. On one point, the tools of big data can mine the information of each voter. On another, the Facebook advertising machine which holds a much more complex map of the user inclinations will deliver the political campaign with precision.

Whatever the case, for Torretta, any strategy that only considers Facebook in Brazil will not be complete. “The big social network in Brazil is WhatsApp”, he says. And that is where the tropicalization of the method to which he referred will be complete, his preferred workaround. He intends to use all the databases within reach – the first one being that of the party for which he is working – to transform the WhatsApp users into digital activists. He says he merely wants to systematize what people are already doing on their own. “People are interested in politics, but the parties are not taking part in the discussion.” Torretta tells how he created an app similar to WhatsApp, which has to be downloaded by sympathizers to work as a channel with the campaign. With the app, one can Interact with voters and ask them to share the candidate’s content on all the social networks, and especially on WhatsApp itself. Even if the adherence is only 10%, the impact will be considerable, he believes.

To set up this distribution network the marketer plans to leave big data and the new tools and return to his experience as a consultant specialized in class C, accustomed to qualitative surveys and to explain to companies regional differences, especially in the north-east. The mine of his original company, Ponte, he argues, are the dozens of contacts that he calls antenna, which he gathered during years of trying to understand the level of consumption in poorer communities: a community leader, a rapper, a young person who has the most visited page on the extreme east zone in São Paulo, all could have been his antennas in some consultancy for private brands in the past.

It all sounds very ambitious, but the marketer says the workaround has been tested and is working. The laboratory was a image positioning campaign carried out for the state deputy at the beginning of the year in Amapa – he doesn’t reveal the name. His team went to the state in the north, mapped the antennas, distributed the application and started to send out material. “Brazil is like the jabuticaba fruit. No marketer from abroad has been successful here. Quite the contrary, we export marketers”, he says. “Something that works in New York may very well not work in Amapa. But something that works in Amapa works anywhere”, he laughs.

Besides the pilot in Amapa, the preparation for the 2018 campaigns also involved a classic research study, to monitor Brazilian humour and the principal matters of interest. One of the basic but essential discoveries, he says, is that the population wants to see empathy in politicians. Another, more surprising for him, is that the discomfort with the very high interest rates for consumers has come on to the agenda for once and for all, as a result of the majority of the electorate with at least secondary education. “I can elect a federal deputy Just talking about interest rates”, he says. Another of his conclusions is that the preaching for “smaller State” hasn’t yet got through to the class C population.

What are the chances of a radical candidate, from the left or the right? At this question, Torretta becomes serious. He says he doesn’t believe that radicals – without mentioning names – can win. “The intelligent radical is one who can fool the people and pretends to be in the centre. People do not like radical things”, he says. “And, thank God, our radicals are not very intelligent and society has not embraced their agendas. This is why they have only found an echo in their own groups “, he says, but adds with more humour than analysis: “I have faith. I go to church on Sunday, on Monday I go to umbanda and on Tuesday I go to the spirit centre”. And where are the white clothes of the candomble devotees if we on a Friday? Torretta turns in his chair and raises his leg up high, showing his white trousers. “Marketer and from Bahia. This is a profession with a very heavy karma.”

The Ocean method

Ocean is the initial of each word: Openness (measures how open people are to new experiences), Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism (emotional instability or how neurotic the person may be) – to then customize the campaigns for each profile

To apply this technique, the person has to respond to a questionnaire consisting of about 20 statements, whose responses are made into scales of how much they agree or disagree with a given statement. The phrases are simple and direct, for example such as, “I have a vivid imagination”, or “I believe in the importance of art”, and “I tend to vote for liberal politicians” or “I don’t like myself”, “I insult people”, or “I run away from my responsibilities”.

Before seeing the result, you have to leave your e-mail or log in to a Facebook account, obliging the user to leave another data point to fatten the agency database.

Torretta explains it is possible to construct an Ocean scale, as it would be impossible to have a questionnaire responded to by 100% of the population. “Of course Cambridge dreams of having 7 billion people in the whole world answer the questionnaire”.

Can We Be Saved From Facebook?

Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg. (photo: B&T)

By Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone

03 April 18

The social media giant has swallowed up the free press, become an unstoppable private spying operation and undermined democracy. Is it too late to stop it?

e shouldn’t be asking Facebook to fix the problem. We should be fixing Facebook. It’s our collective misfortune that this perhaps silliest-in-history supercorporation – a tossed-off hookup site turned international cat-video vault turned Orwellian surveillance megavillain – has dragged us all to the very cliff edge of modern technological capitalism.

We’ve reached a moment in history where many companies are more powerful than even major industrialized nations, and in some cases have essentially replaced governments as de facto regulators and overseers. But some of those companies suck just a little too badly at the governing part, leaving us staring into a paradox.

The Russians call this situation a sobaka na sene, a dog on the hay. Asleep in the manger, the dog itself won’t eat the hay. But it won’t let you eat it either.

We’ve got to get the dog off the hay.

For much of the past year and a half, the Social Network has been everywhere in the news. It’s ubiquitous in a bad way for the first time in its existence. The blithely addictive social media site bathed in unthreatening baby-blue graphics that one tech columnist derided as “the place where you check to see who married Jill the cheerleader” has found itself at the center of an exploding international controversy.

A recent Wired cover story is a typical press treatment. Legions of current and former employees whispered to the mag about Facebook’s toxic culture. The firm was said to have overreacted to conservative criticism some years back and gone too far the other way in an ill-fated search for “balance,” inadvertently handing Trump the White House in the process.

Facebook was also rocked by recent revelations that Cambridge Analytica, a firm partly owned by the same conservative Mercer family that became a primary sponsor of Donald Trump’s foundering campaign in the summer of 2016, may have used personal information from 50 million Facebook users to deliver targeted ads to likely Trump voters.

Cambridge Analytica has since been revealed to be a con’s con – in 2015, it was selling Ted Cruz on “secret sauce” intelligence services it hadn’t even finished designing yet. The story created instant worldwide panic, despite the fact that manipulating private information is the sort of service Facebook has long provided as a matter of routine. Any third-party app built on the site, not just those created by arch-conservatives, would be able to perform the same data-sucking trick. As former Facebook adviser Dipayan Ghosh puts it, “The problem goes far beyond the scope of the current controversies. The story here is about sheer market power.”

The headlines are scary, but the pathology behind them is actually the most alarming and unreported aspect of the Facebook story. The world seems simultaneously to be denouncing the company for having meddled with an election, and demanding that it meddle more responsibly in the future. From senators to members of the media to security officials, the solution to the problem of “fake news” and foreign intervention in our elections has been absurdly simplistic: Just have Facebook fix it.

All this outside pressure is hitting home. After years of resistance, Facebook’s polarizing supergeek CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is suddenly accepting the challenge of reforming an industry he knows nothing about, i.e., the press. Ominously, he recently vowed to spend 2018 working on “these important issues.”

It’s a seismic change. As recently as November 2016, Zuckerberg, who exudes all the warmth of a talking parking meter, could be heard lashing out at people who “insist we call ourselves a news or media company.” He later scoffed at the idea his firm played a significant role in the election, and refused to discuss the possibility that Facebook had responsibility for reversing the declining quality of news reporting.

But by the beginning of 2018, Facebook began a sharp – and subtly frightening – turnaround. No longer denying its outsize media role, the company announced one initiative designed to create a trustworthiness measurement for news, and another to increase the content you get from close friends and family, presumably as opposed to evil (and possibly foreign) strangers.

The goal, said Facebook News Feed chief Adam Mosseri, was to “make sure the news people see, while less overall, is high-quality.” Mosseri, who’s been with the company since its earlier days, tells Rolling Stone that Facebook’s original developers never imagined being in the position the firm is in now. “I don’t think anyone foresaw the scale that we got to,” Mosseri admits.

Now, he claims, Facebook is just trying to do the right thing. “We take our responsibilities seriously,” he says, explaining the thinking behind the new initiatives. “In a world where the Internet exists, how can we make the world better?”

Facebook’s decision to accept “responsibilities” in the news realm, even in this rudimentary and characteristically disingenuous way, has mind-blowing implications for a country that has functioned without a true media regulator for most of its history.

That’s because all of these horror-movie headlines about fake news and “meddling” gloss over the giant preceding catastrophe implicit in all of these tales. For Facebook to be both the cause of and the solution to so many informational ills, the design mechanism built into our democracy to prevent such problems – a free press – had to have been severely disabled well before we got here.

And it was. Long before 2016 had a chance to happen, the news media in the United States was effectively destroyed. For those of us in the business, the manner of conquest has been the most galling part. The CliffsNotes version? Facebook ate us.

Internet platforms like Zuck’s broke the back of the working press first by gutting our distribution networks, and then by using advanced data-mining techniques to create hypertargeted advertising with which no honest media outlet could compete. This wipeout of the press left Facebook in possession of power it neither wanted nor understood.

It was all an insane accident. Facebook never wanted to be editor-in-chief of the universe, and the relatively vibrant free press that toppled the likes of McCarthy and Nixon never imagined it could be swallowed by a pet-meme distributor.

But it happened. As a result, we’re now facing a problem potentially worse than either a Trump election or a Russian cyber-incursion: a world in which the informational landscape for billions of people is controlled more or less entirely by a pair of advanced private spying operations, Google and Facebook – and Facebook especially.

The Facebook mess is really the final chapter in a decades-long collision of the news media with the Internet. Many smart people expected this tale to end well. It hasn’t. The creators of the Internet sold their invention as inherently democratizing. Instead, information is now so concentrated that a 1984 scenario is just a few clicks away.

***

This may sound obvious, but since even Facebook appears not to have understood this issue, here’s a brief reminder: The media business has always been first and foremost about distribution.

News consumers once had direct and powerful relationships with publishers, before the technological changes that made Facebook possible. “People identified with the fact that they read the local newspaper,” says Jim Moroney, former publisher of The Dallas Morning News. “They connected with being readers of The Dallas Morning News, The Boston Globe, The New York Times and so on.” Newspapers developed those relationships over long periods of time via the hardcore brick-and-mortar process of building distribution networks.

“Your major advantage as a media business rested in your distribution system,” says David Chavern, director of the News Media Alliance. “Everything from your printing press, to the people loading papers into trucks, to the trucks themselves, to the stores, to the kids delivering papers to subscribers’ doorsteps.”

The physicality of the distribution system lent credibility to both news and ads. Moreover, the difficulty and expense in building those systems meant that few people could do it, and newspapers earned for themselves built-in revenue streams from services like employment and real-estate ads, where they were usually the only game in town.

This model allowed newspapers to be remarkably free of government regulation. The same wasn’t exactly true of radio and TV stations, which had to answer to the Federal Communications Commission. But TV and radio also once enjoyed enormous advantages that no longer exist.

“TV and radio, those were scarcity businesses,” says Moroney. “There were only so many licenses in a market, which meant only so many stations in a market. And beyond that, there were only so many 30-second ad spots you could sell. You couldn’t have a whole hour be ads. If you were good at managing your scarce inventory, you could make a lot of money.”

In the early part of the 20th Century, it wasn’t considered necessary for the government to meddle in news licensing. But in an ancient preview of the Internet, there was by the 1920s an explosion of new radio stations, resulting in a “cacophony of signal interference” that, much like today, made a mush of the news-following experience.

This led then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover and others to explore the question of how to weigh “spectrum scarcity” with the needs of a democratic society. The result was a pair of landmark federal laws, the Radio Act of 1927 and the Communications Act of 1934. It was a trade-off. Companies that licensed airwaves had to agree to operate in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.”

Of course, the federal government, with its high-minded “public interest” standard that supposedly pushed broadcasters to serve “all substantial groups,” somehow managed to keep in place a brutal system of racial apartheid, among other huge misses. It also denied the viewpoints of anti-war activists, capitalist critics and a host of others. But the core idea, that a news media in the broad public interest must exist, has been in place almost from the start. Even the likes of Washington and Jefferson helped institute the practice of giving cheap or even free postage rates to newspapers.

“Abolitionist newspapers were sent to the South thanks to these policies,” notes University of Illinois professor Robert McChesney. “Even back then there was this idea of subsidizing reporting.”

With each new expansion of communications technology, Americans almost always came up with guidelines for how to sync up the citizenry’s informational needs to the new invention.

Then the Internet came along.

***

In many ways, the Facebook controversy is a canard. It’s less a real crisis about Russians, the Trump election or scamsters like Cambridge Analytica than a long-overdue reckoning. Americans who for decades have been clinging to reassuring myths about the origins and purpose of the Internet are finally beginning to ask important questions about this awesome Pentagon-designed surveillance tool they’ve enthusiastically welcomed into their homes, bedrooms, purses and pockets.

Conventional wisdom sees the Internet as an invention that, yes, was designed for narrow military uses, but unexpectedly blossomed into a powerful democratizer. “The Internet was viewed as a force for good, supporting inclusion and democracy,” says Dr. Lawrence Landweber, a member of the Internet Hall of Fame and former president of the Internet Society. “This view was widely held in the industry as well as among political leaders,” he says. “Remember Google’s motto around 2000 was ‘Don’t be evil.’ ”

There are, however, less-flattering histories of the Internet, which began as a defense project in the Sixties. Some critics, like Surveillance Valley author Yasha Levine, will tell you that keeping tabs on domestic and foreign resistance movements was one of the net’s original design goals, which is one reason it’s no surprise most of the big Internet-based firms today – Facebook, Google, Amazon – also contract with the military and/or security services.

In his book, Levine points to the fact that from the very start, the proto-Web banked info collected by the likes of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. “Surveillance was baked into the original mission of the Internet,” Levine says.

No matter what the intent behind the invention, it seems that little thought was given to how the Internet would impact the existing commercial news business. Landweber, for instance, says Internet developers never conceived of a world where Internet platforms would acquire hegemonic power in this sphere. “Getting most of one’s news via the Internet, as well as the notion that social media companies would manipulate one’s personal data for commercial or political benefit, was not anticipated,” he says. He adds, “The current situation would have shocked early Internet developers.”

Which brings us back to Facebook, which to this day seems at best to dimly understand how the news business works, as is evident in its longstanding insistence that it’s not a media company. Wired was even inspired to publish a sarcastic self-help quiz for Facebook execs on “How to tell if you’re a media company.” It included such questions as “Are you the country’s largest source of news?”

The answer is a resounding yes. An astonishing 45 percent of Americans get their news from this single source. Add Google, and above 70 percent of Americans get their news from a pair of outlets. The two firms also ate up about 89 percent of the digital-advertising growth last year, underscoring their monopolistic power in this industry.

Facebook’s cluelessness on this front makes the ease with which it took over the press that much more bizarre to contemplate. Of course, the entire history of Facebook is pretty weird, even by Silicon Valley standards, beginning with the fact that the firm thinks of itself as a movement and not a giant money-sucking machine.

This is how Zuckerberg described Facebook in Initial Public Offering (IPO) documents from 2012:

Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission – to make the world more open and connected.

“The great myth” about the company, says former Facebook ad manager Antonio García Martínez, “is that Zuck gives a shit about money.”

Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission – to make the world more open and connected.

“The great myth” about the company, says former Facebook ad manager Antonio García Martínez, “is that Zuck gives a shit about money.”

García Martínez, whose absurdist memoir about his time at Facebook, called Chaos Monkeys, may be the funniest business book since Liar’s Poker, laughs as he recalls his time at the firm.”It’s more like a messianic cult,” he says. García Martínez is the most interesting and damaging defector to have ever left the ranks of Facebook. An iconoclastic combination of Travis McGee and Michael Lewis, he is a former physics Ph.D. candidate from Berkeley who worked at Goldman Sachs before his two years at Facebook, and now spends much of his time writing and sailing. He has lifted the curtain on ruthless profit-hoovering practices he helped design. His main gripe with Facebook seems to be its total lack of self-awareness about its own ambition.

García Martínez continually describes the company’s corporate atmosphere as an oddball religion where Zuckerberg is worshipped as an infallible deity – sort of like Scientology, but without Tom Cruise or space invaders.

“You can tell your value in the company by where you’re seated in relation to Zuck,” he says.

The Facebook religion doesn’t involve a virgin birth. It does, however, feature an asexual creation myth, glamorized by fictionalized accounts like The Social Network, in which Zuckerberg is shown one-upping God by creating the future in fewer than seven days of nerdly transcendence.

From there, Zuckerberg legendarily grew the company to fantastic dimensions. To this end, he had the help of Silicon Valley hotshots like Napster’s Sean Parker and early investment from the likes of PayPal founder, libertarian icon, future Trump supporter and Gawker-smashing press critic Peter Thiel.

Facebook ballooned in size at a spectacular rate – it’s gone from 100 million users in 2008 to more than 2.1 billion today, consistently adding 50 to 100 million users per quarter, steadily making itself into the town square of the world. And it boasts awesome revenues: a staggering $40.7 billion in 2017 alone.

That Facebook saw meteoric rises without ever experiencing a big dip in users might have something to do with the fact that the site was consciously designed to be addictive, as early founder Parker recently noted at a conference in Philadelphia.

Facebook is full of features such as “likes” that dot your surfing experience with neuro-rushes of micro-approval – a “little dopamine hit,” as Parker put it. The hits might come with getting a like when you post a picture of yourself thumbs-upping the world’s third-largest cheese wheel, or flashing the “Live Long and Prosper” sign on International Star Trek day, or whatever the hell it is you do in your cyber-time. “It’s a social-validation feedback loop,” Parker explained. “Exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

This echoes what García Martínez says about Facebook. “It isn’t a media company internally,” he says. “It’s a hacker company internally.”

Viewing Facebook through the hacker lens makes it a lot easier to understand. The firm’s overwhelming dependence on free or found content is one thing. Another is its casual rerouting of taxpaying responsibility through supposed “headquarters” in tax havens like Ireland. The company, like most of the modern tech giants, seems to pay almost nothing in taxes in the countries where it is most popular, for example paying just £4,327 in British taxes in 2014.

All of this smacks of a particular brand of piracy unique to the new generation of tech firms, whose leaders tend to celebrate the “move fast and break things” libertarian ethos. The Thiels and Zuckerbergs represent a new class of CEO who, like the wealthy self-financed superheroes in comic-book movies, could get the job done by themselves if only the pesky government toe-draggers would get the fuck out of the way. Rules, like paywalls and taxes, are for suckers: We reward people who can get past them.

Zuckerberg, on his profile in the days of “thefacebook.com,” even listed himself as “Enemy of the State.”

In his book, García Martínez describes a scene in which a college kid named Chris Putnam developed a virus that made your Facebook profile look like MySpace, and deleted user content to boot. Instead of taking legal action, Facebook hired him. “The hacker ethos prevailed above all,” García Martínez noted.

It’s a misconception that Facebook sells the personal data of its users. What it sells is its hackerish expertise in snatching and analyzing your personal info from everywhere – on the site and outside it. Facebook keeps tabs on who has an anniversary coming up, who’s in a long-distance relationship, who uses credit cards, who likes baseball and who likes cricket, who observes Ramadan, who’s participated in a time-share, and countless other things.

That such data is collected mainly to more efficiently shove ads in your face is widely understood today. What’s less well-understood is that monetizing user info was a key element of Facebook’s business model going back to its first days.

“We were always using the data,” says Mosseri, who runs the News Feed. “We did it to improve the user experience.”

Mosseri’s take – which whitewashes out the role data-powered ads played in the company’s early growth – is typical of Facebook defenders. Ironically, not unlike traditional media companies, whose editorial chiefs have always pissed on their own sales reps as lower life-forms and refused to admit their influence on news-coverage decisions, Facebook from its first years had a schizoid, embarrassed attitude toward its own ad department.

In the beginning, the company featured no ads. Zuckerberg, when he talked publicly about ads back then, said only that he might offer them in the “future” for purely utilitarian reasons, i.e., to “offset the cost of the servers.”

Not $40 billion or anything, just a few pennies here and there.

Facebook quickly established a pattern within the firm in which surrogates and partners developed the powerful money-making technology, while the Christ-complexing Zuckerberg focused on expanding the cloud of flatulent self-congratulation that began to hover over Facebook’s ballooning global presence.

Time after time, Facebook would make a move that publicly highlighted its “social mission,” while really it was just growing its economic footprint and increasingly monopolistic market share.

One of Facebook’s early problems, for instance, was that the novelty of people sharing pictures of their kids’ soccer trophies soon started to wear off. Without content with a little more heft, Facebook was what one snickering industry writer called “a stupid site, AOL for adults.”

That changed with the introduction of the News Feed in September 2006. This move revolutionized both social networking and the news business. Back then, the feed was clearly designed to be more in tune with the site’s toxic never-ending-high-school vibe than an actual news source.

“News Feed highlights what’s happening in your social circles on Facebook,” then-product manager Ruchi Sangvi wrote. “So you’ll know when Mark adds Britney Spears to his Favorites or when your crush is single again.”

In between finding out that Zuck likes Britney Spears or a prior stalking target had changed his or her relationship status, you might now also receive links to – news! Such simultaneously ridiculous and horrifying milestones litter the road to the Great Media Disaster of 2016.

***

Although it seemed frivolous on its face, the Facebook News Feed made a consumer mockery of the 24-hour cable-news channel, which was really just a repeating loop of a handful of daily reports. Facebook made it possible for users to see more than 1,000 news stories per day, and on average a user actually did see, in between all that other stuff, about 200. This was hacker culture writ large again, in that the feed was built around content grabbed for free out of the Internet ether.

“Media brands are diluted when people say things like, ‘I read this on Facebook,’ ” says Chavern.

This was more than a branding problem for media firms. It was a profound issue that spoke to how the decision-making processes of modern news consumers were being warped.

Once upon a time, a person had to make a conscious decision to pick up a newspaper, turn on the evening news or buy a magazine. Now, news came to you – was even offered to you, suggested in the way a magician offers a card – as part of an artificial entertainment experience that skewed consumer expectations in a highly specific way.

“I read this on Facebook” soon came to mean something like “I read this in a highly individualized intellectual masturbation session.” News became a thing that only made it through if it fit into those constant, round-the-clock sorties Facebook was flying straight to your personal pleasure center. Simultaneously, the news stopped being a broadcast program designed to be digested, for good or ill, by a group, as families had once done over their nightly meatloaf.

Most problematic of all, however, was the combination of algorithmic data analysis and free news content, which accelerated junk news trends that had already begun to poison the media business. TV stations like Fox had long ago ditched what you might call “eat your vegetables” media, i.e., news, often investigative, that either requires significant mental effort to understand, some willingness to question one’s own beliefs, or both.

To hear old newshounds tell it, there was allegedly a time when we media vermin didn’t sling junk out of pure shame. Old-timers even tell tales, probably apocryphal, of days when ad executives weren’t even allowed on the same floor as editorial staff.

But by the Eighties and Nineties, everyone in media was realizing that audiences cared more about seeing graphics, panda births and newscasters withstanding hurricane winds than they cared about news. The innovation of stations like Fox was to sell xenophobia and racism in addition to the sensationalist crap.

But even Fox couldn’t compete with future titans like Facebook when it came to delivering news tailored strictly for the laziest, meanest, least intellectually tolerant version of you. Facebook knew more about you personally, what you might like and also what might tickle your hate center, than any TV, radio station or newspaper ever had.

Ben Scott, who with Ghosh co-wrote a paper on Facebook called “Digital Deceit” for the New America Foundation, says the power of Internet platforms to match people to mental junk was unprecedented.

“Forget about ever seeing eat-your-vegetables media again,” says Scott. “In the new world, not only will you only see sugar media, but you’ll only see your favorite brand of sugar media. Other information, you won’t even know it exists.”

Dr. Ofir Turel of California State University-Fullerton, who’s written extensively about Facebook, says use of the site has a lot of the features of an addictive activity, like ease of use, variable rewards and feelings of anxiety when we’re not engaged with it.

“All addictions operate on the variable-reward system,” says Turel, who estimates that about five to 10 percent of the population could now meet the criteria of being at risk for social media addiction. Chronic users spend hours staring glassy-eyed at screens in search of the tiny rushes that come with likes or with the reading of articles validating their views. Mental horizons are narrowed. A study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (yes, the acronym is PNAS) concluded, “Facebook users were more likely to interact with a limited number of news sources.”

Additionally, they posited, “The main driver of misinformation diffusion is the polarization of users on specific narratives rather than the lack of fact-checked certifications.” Translation: Lazy thinking and sheltered mental environs lead to more misinformation than fake news does.

Facebook’s News Feed was a big part of the reward system designed to keep people coming back. “The interest is not to inform you,” Turel says. “The interest is to get you to stay on the site.”

Peter Eckersley, chief computer scientist of the Electronic- Frontier Foundation, describes the News Feed in even starker terms. “It’s designed to match people to information that will reinforce their existing prejudices, whatever those are,” he says.

Facebook advocates justify basically all of their practices on the premise that connecting people is inherently a net plus for the world. A recent memo leaked to Buzzfeed showed one company exec conceding that terrorists may eventually use the site to successfully coordinate attacks, but so what because “we connect people. Period. That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified.”

Moreover, company officers say using data collection to make both the ads you see and the news you’re exposed to more tailored to you personally is actually a good thing. Mosseri points out that Facebook is not a news program but an online community in which people talk about everything under the sun with their friends. And most people have so many friends that living in a bubble of endlessly automated stupidity, he says, is impossible.

“It’s hard to have hundreds of like-minded friends,” he says. “Broadly, it balances things out.”

Another thing that balances out? Age. There’s some evidence that the very young, as they often do, are rejecting a bad habit from their parents’ generation. About 100 million Facebook users in America are age 25-44 in 2018, but it gets dicey after that, with just 6.8 million users between the ages of 13 and 17.

Tech billionaire and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who has been a heavy critic of Facebook, says time may reckon with the firm. “I think they are losing impact domestically, with zero influence on millennials and younger,” he says. “But [they have] overwhelming influence on boomers and Gen X’ers.”

***

As late as 2013, just before Facebook went public, executives tried to convince Zuckerberg to own his company’s basic nature and push the firm past a crucial ethical and financial Rubicon. The debate was over changing Facebook’s terms of service so that users would have to agree to allow data gleaned from the famed “like” button to be used for commercial purposes.

The company had at least superficially resisted this idea, and even with the IPO approaching, Zuckerberg balked. “Don’t use the like button,” he reportedly told García Martínez and others in early 2012.

A lot of Facebook’s value was in the like button. When users liked something, particularly in voluntary product reviews and surveys, it generated intelligence about how to effectively target those people with advertising. Moreover, users who see their friends liking a product are more likely to try that product themselves.

In any case, on May 18th, 2013, the company held its IPO, and launched with a market capitalization of $104 billion. But the IPO was considered a fiasco on Wall Street. It also caused a mild stir when the company’s first 10-K report was released, showing that the firm took advantage of stock-option loopholes to make more than a billion in profits without paying a dime in state or federal taxes – in fact, Facebook in 2013 received a $429 million tax rebate.

The big public rollout was also marred by lawsuits, and the stock price began declining in the wake of disappointing revenues. The shares originally sold at $38, and dropped to a low of $17.55 later that year.

As it had done consistently in its history, the firm, when faced with financial pressure, moved ever further in the direction of monetizing users’ personal data. In this case, it finally went after the like button.

A little over a year after the IPO, on June 12th, 2014, Facebook quietly announced a change to its terms of service. “Starting soon in the U.S., we will also include information from some of the websites and apps you use,” the company wrote. “This is a type of interest-based advertising, and many companies already do this.”

Facebook didn’t just use its data to help advertisers place targeted ads. It also used AI-enhanced technology and tools like GPS to track users’ information in order to learn more and more about them, all while constantly improving the reach and power of the company’s advertising capabilities. In perhaps the creepiest example, Facebook applied for (and received, last year) a patent for a tool called Techniques, for emotion detection and content delivery. It would use the camera in your phone to take pictures of you as you scroll through content. Facebook would then use facial analysis to measure how much you did or did not like the content in question, so as to determine what kind of stuff to send your way. Ideas like this are what make Facebook, at times, feel like a giant blood-engorged tick hanging off your frontal lobe.

Ghosh, who worked on global privacy and public-policy issues at Facebook, says that the company’s technology very quickly became effective beyond anyone’s imagination, and wasn’t limited to the placing of ads.

He points, for instance, to the “audience networks” program, where an advertiser might ask Facebook to not only put ads in front of the users most likely to respond to them, but to go after eyeballs on other sites.

“Maybe the advertiser is Nike and they’re looking to sell the new Air Jordans to men aged 18 to 35 in the D.C. metro area,” says Ghosh. “So they’ll put ads in front of 100,000 Facebook users, then leverage their own audience to place the ad in front of a similarly sized audience on other networks – maybe NBA.com or a sports site or whatever.”

Every time it places an ad in a campaign like this, a platform like Facebook learns more and more about how to most effectively interpret data, not just about its own users but about other sites and the users of other sites.

In Europe and in other parts of the world, these practices sometimes inspired protests and regulatory action. In 2015, Belgium demanded that Facebook stop tracking user data once the user has left the site, which it’s reportedly been doing since at least 2014.

This is what people don’t understand about the “fake news” problem. This isn’t a crack in the system. It is the system. The new age of targeted information distribution is designed to make campaigns of manipulation not just possible but inevitable. It is what the product was designed for.

Moreover, it’s all grounded in wholly legal advertising techniques. Scott, who co-wrote “Digital Deceit,” gives the example of fake-news campaigns deployed by European far-right parties.

“You’d see some fake story on some little blog somewhere, maybe about immigrants rioting in a big city,” he says. “Next thing you know, some tabloid picks it up with a headline: ‘Alleged Riot in Munich!’ Then you’d see someone promote the hell out of that story using target marketing. Because the platforms know exactly which people to target for you, you can pay to get that promoted content to all those people. From there, the users share the story themselves, and it goes viral,” Scott continues. “And every time the platforms do one of these campaigns, they learn more about who’s susceptible to what messaging.”

This is exactly how the “Russian troll farm” ads were supposedly used. The trolls described in the Robert Mueller indictment simply made use of standard tools that Facebook offers to advertisers. They would take a piece of content – for instance, the ludicrous image of Hillary Clinton as Satan, arm-wrestling Jesus under the headline “If I Win, Clinton Wins” – and blast it out to a targeted audience via the News Feed. The only clue that the ad has been commercially pushed to you comes via a tiny faded notation reading “sponsored” under the name of the origin page.

Despite frantic warnings from Senate Democrats about how a few dozen trolls spending a handful of dollars on these ads managed to reach 126 million people, the far more serious issue is that players with far deeper pockets were using the same tactics. “Facebook will sell to anyone if there’s a pot of gold at the end,” is how one political source puts it.

“That’s why the whole Russia story was misunderstood,” says Scott. “People are trying to understand how $100,000 worth of ads could reach 126 million people, when what they should be thinking about is the impact of the Trump campaign spending tens of millions of dollars using the same technology.”

Brad Parscale, Trump’s digital director on the 2016 campaign, thinks the furor over Facebook being responsible for Trump’s election is misguided. They used a lot of Facebook ads, he says, because of the peculiar nature of Trump’s advertising needs.

Though The New York Times reported Parscale was persuaded to “try out the firm,” Parscale himself has scoffed at the role Cambridge Analytica played in the campaign and insisted that Facebook was just the natural choice for his candidate.

“Elections are identical to movies when it comes to advertising,” Parscale explained to me in an earlier interview. He talks about politicians with a kind of bemused detachment, like they’re no different from soaps or cereal brands. “You’ve got Rotten Tomatoes for movies, Real Clear Politics for elections, exact same thing. If it’s a completely new movie with new characters, then you go broad on TV to introduce the unknown new product. With Trump, the market knew him. It was a question of reaching a specific group of people in specific places who we needed to turn out. That happens to be exactly what Facebook is good for.”

But Facebook shouldn’t be blamed for being an effective advertiser. The problem is why it’s effective, beginning with its monopolistic scale.

Simply by growing so large that his firm ended up essentially standing between media publishers and media consumers, constantly creating rules about who saw what, Zuckerberg and Facebook have become a thing America has never had before: an entrenched, de facto media regulator. The universe in which most Americans get their news sifted through a giant filter has multiple major consequences.

“There’s the big economic effect,” says Chavern of the News Media Alliance. “We never had someone in the middle before. Now we do have someone in the middle, collecting all the dollars.”

The economics are the reason most newsrooms today look like post-nuclear wastelands. What sane person would buy ad space to sell cars on localnewspaper.com in the vague hope of catching the right eyeballs, when Facebook can instantly serve up 40,000 men age 18 to 54 who are likely to buy an automobile in the next six months?

Press outlets can only sell chunks of vaguely grouped audiences to advertisers. Facebook can bring merchants right to the individual buyer’s doorstep at almost the exact moment his hand is reaching for his wallet. There’s no comparison, which is why two companies – Google and Facebook – control 63.1 percent of all digital advertising and, as noted previously, nearly all of the growth in that business.

Market share is only one issue. The other problem – the presence of algorithms that effectively determine who gets to see what material – is much more serious.

“They’ve created rules about who gets to see which stuff,” says Chavern. “They also change the rules all the time. And they’re also secret rules.”

Talk to media executives about Facebook, and they’ll complain endlessly about two things: one, that they can never get a straight answer from the company about how the algorithm works (“You’re fucking lucky if you can even get someone on the phone,” hisses one publisher), and two, if they do get advice about how to optimize content, the advice changes constantly.

Media sites routinely shift their entire commercial strategies to try to reach more people through the Facebook News Feed – the latest mania was video content – only to have the algorithm change suddenly.

For a while, some media developers tried to build brands dedicated to gaming Facebook. But sites like Mashable and Upworthy are being sold or laying off workers after initial spikes of success. There’s just no way to build a consistent strategy around a constantly changing, secret system.

Still, Facebook’s recent move to re-weight the News Feed again, this time with unhelpfully euphemistic new values like “trusted sources” and “time well spent,” will likely put an end to the idea that news companies are not dependent upon Facebook to survive.

The latest changes will instead “serve as the final deathblow to almost two decades of delusional thinking,” as VentureBeat writer Chris O’Brien put it.

The arbitrariness of the algorithms has essentially forced media firms to lobby Facebook and Google the way other businesses would lobby government departments. A classic example is the battle over the so-called “first click free” rule.

For years, Google had a rule that gave greater visibility to media companies that offered at least some free content. Outlets complained about the rule, which they claimed shaped the industry early in the online age, forcing firms away from subscription-based models. Under pressure, Google finally scrapped the rule in October 2017, but the damage was already done.

About those subscription-based models: There are people out there who believe the media’s only hope is to organize, as a union would, and collectively enforce a giant paywall, denying Facebook and its hacker ethos the oceans of free content that are its lifeblood.

But one would be hard-pressed to find a media executive who believes such a strategy has a chance of working.

“You don’t call that play under normal circumstances, but it’s 4th and 30 for all of us,” says McChesney. “There is no commercial solution. There is no magical business model that will save the news business. It’s time we all faced reality.”

***

Whether Facebook is just a reflection of modern society or a key driver of it, the picture isn’t pretty. The company’s awesome data-mining tactics wedded to its relentless hyping of the culture of self has helped create a world where billions of people walk with bent heads, literally weighted down with their own bullshit, eyes glued to telescreen-style mobile devices that read us faster than we can read them.

Surveys show audiences trust the media less than ever but consume news more than ever. Those two deeply troubling data points suggest the Fourth Estate, which was designed to inform the public and provide a crucial check on power, is instead morphing into an entertainment product, which succeeds or doesn’t based on how quickly our brains ratify the information offered. This is the opposite of how news is supposed to work.

“Once, a citizen had a right to an opinion,” says García Martínez. “Now, they feel like they have a right to their own reality.”

Awful as that all is, it’s not even the most immediate emergency. Along with Google, Facebook is a clear duopoly, which simply has too much power in the fields of media distribution and digital advertising.

The recent controversies have inspired countless proposals for how to “improve” Facebook. Some have pressed for a tax that would kick Facebook revenues back to public-interest journalism. Others have called for a simple ban on new acquisitions, to prevent the firm from snatching up properties like Instagram and WhatsApp when it clearly can’t manage the ones it already has.

But when a tumor starts growing teeth and hair, you don’t comb the hair. You yank the thing. And it turns out we have a mechanism for just that.

We need to break up Facebook, the same way we broke up Standard Oil, AT&T and countless other less-terrifying overgrown corporate tyrants of the past. The moral if not legal reason is obvious: A functioning free press just can’t coexist with an unaccountable private regulator.

An antitrust action sounds extreme, but given the alternatives – different groups have proposed creating fact-checking star chambers either within government, Facebook or both – it may be the least-intrusive solution, one that moreover doesn’t create a “legitimacy” standard that could threaten alternative or dissenting media.

The question is, can we actually break up Facebook?

“It’s tough,” says former New York governor and attorney general Eliot Spitzer, who policed Wall Street for nearly a decade. “Because market size alone, unless gained through improper means, is not a basis for action.”

According to the stiff test the government must meet to file successful antitrust actions today, the state not only has to demonstrate the existence of monopoly, but that consumers are worse off under it, subject to “supernormal” prices. The case against Facebook is not a legal slam dunk.

But not all market harm is about raw numbers, and some of the more celebrated recent antitrust actions, like the breaking up of Ma Bell, have opened the door for the government to consider factors other than mere price.

“Under the traditional antitrust analysis, the issue is whether the consumer pays more,” says Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, a corporate lawyer by profession. “But courts are beginning to look at other types of economic harm.” Kennedy, a Republican, says the “black box” nature of firms like Facebook, combined with their unprecedented influence, make it urgently necessary for the government to consider all options.

“We’re in a brave new world,” he says. “We’re waking up and realizing some of these companies aren’t companies – they’re countries.”

The real solution to this problem would be to dial back the use of the data-collection technologies that have turned companies like Facebook into modern-day versions of the “propaganda stations” the Federal Radio Commission was so bent on keeping off the airwaves a century ago.

The difference is Facebook doesn’t push Nazism or communism or anarchism, but something far more dangerous: 2 billion individually crafted echo chambers, a kind of precision-targeted mass church of self, of impatience with others, of not giving a shit.

A generation of this kind of messaging is bound to have some pretty weird consequences, of which electing proudly ignorant bubble-thinker Donald Trump is probably just a gentle opener. Given that, we might be too late to fix Facebook – maybe we need to be saved from it instead.