Despite years of scrutiny now yielding a whole slew of lawsuits — such as those announced in the United States, Australia, and Germany in late 2020 — Facebook is continuing to pursue partnerships with news organizations, despite major concerns from experts who fear it could continue to further the spread of disinformation through technology.
In September 2020, for example, the beleaguered social media platform struck a major deal with the New York Times involving augmented reality (“AR”) technology in order to “help users access and contextualize” the newspaper’s journalism, a role that has traditionally been handled by reporters and editors.
“Facebook as it exists today has already managed to cause significant harm to the information ecosystem through allowing hateful content and misinformation to be weaponized to reach millions of Americans,” Fadi Quran, campaign director for the non-profit group Avaaz, said.
“As Facebook moves more into this AR reality, it’s going to have more power to define the information ecosystem we all live in. Normalizing that without any real accountability mechanism when we’ve already seen the harm done by this company is terrifying, to be honest.”
A spokesperson for Facebook told us that the company is already monitoring for disinformation in that arena on its multiple platforms:
Spark AR technology is an open platform, but all effects published across Facebook and Instagram must adhere to our community guidelines and content standards, just like other Facebook formats. We’re always continuously reviewing and updating policies to ensure AR is a safe and welcoming experience for our community. For example, earlier this year when Facebook took action to limit misinformation related to COVID-19, we removed and rejected certain AR effects that claimed to predict, diagnose, treat, or cure coronavirus. We also changed search parameters to allow people to search for COVID-19 related AR effects on Instagram only if were developed in partnership with a recognized health organization.
But while the experts we talked to are raising flags, journalism groups — many of whom fund scholarship or training programs by working with the platform — have shown no sign of breaking off their relationships with the company.
‘An Ongoing Saga of Faustian Bargains’
As Axios reported in September 2020, the newspaper’s partnership with the social media platform “will include visual interactive pieces tied to the centennial of women’s suffrage, coverage of the California wildfires and air quality during the COVID-19 lockdown,” with Facebook bankrolling the project and providing technical support. The newspaper, however, would reportedly retain editorial control over the content produced via an in-house “AR Lab” running the project.
A month later, the New York Times’ graphic editor for special projects, Karthik Patanjali, promoted the partnership in a story.
“You won’t be consuming information like this forever,” Patanjali said at the time. “It’s not going to be on a sliver of glass forever. It’s going to be around you. These are all steps toward that future we’re preparing ourselves for. The world is 3-D. Why shouldn’t the information we present also be?”
A spokesperson for the New York Times told us that reporters were not consulted prior to the newspaper entering the partnership, but argued that it would not jeopardize its reporting on Facebook’s practices.
“The Times is independent in how we cover the world and has full control over each published effect,” they said. “Arrangements like this one strengthen our independence as they help fund a company whose newsroom holds Facebook, among other technology companies, institutions and individuals to account.”
When asked if coverage of Facebook in the future would be accompanied by a disclosure to readers concerning its partnership with the newspaper, the spokesperson told us that disclosures of that nature are included in stories “when it is relevant to that coverage.”
Fadi Quran — whose group brought to light a cluster of disinformation pages on Facebook linked to white nationalist Steve Bannon in November 2020 — told us he felt the newspaper should have briefed its reporters before entering the partnership.
“I have confidence in journalists at the Times and their integrity to prevent such influence,” he said. “At the same time, it’s important that a better understanding of these dynamics is reached, and oftentimes the impact of these deals is not the suppression of what people write, but systematic changes are made in terms of what types of topics are prioritized at large. So far I haven’t seen any changes in the Times’ coverage of Facebook, but it’s something we need to keep an eye on.”
A former engineer for Facebook speaking on condition of anonymity was less optimistic; they cast doubts on whether the claims of editorial independence would, or could, hold up.
“Facebook has never been shy to lean on people it pays to do allegedly independent things,” the engineer said, citing criticism of the platform’s treatment of its fact-checking partners as well as its actions against the independent group of researchers and activists calling itself the Real Facebook Oversight Board.
“Of course they will use this partnership to lean on the Times,” said the ex-Facebook engineer, who was with the company as recently as early 2020.
Facebook told us that it has no plans to enter similar partnerships with other news outlets;,but the company’s spokesperson denied that it would give priority to outlets that use augmented reality technology.
“Use of AR has no bearing on an outlet’s distribution, and we have no plans to integrate AR technology into our news ranking process,” they said.
David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at the Parsons School of Design, called the alliance the latest in “an ongoing saga of Faustian bargains” between the news business and digital tech companies. He noted that the Times had previously worked with Google on a separate project, the “NYT VR” app. The newspaper confirmed that the app had been discontinued as of March 2019. Content produced through the Facebook AR partnership will be available through the New York Times’ Instagram account.
“Consumers have yet to adopt VR and AR technologies and so far, I think all attempts have been failures at reaching critical mass adoption,” said Carroll, who is part of the Oversight Board group. “Until a mixed reality headset is a must-have holiday gift, it’s just not taking off enough into the mainstream to be anything but a fetish of technophiles.”
That the newspaper would continue delving into that technology, Carroll said, showed a desire to be seen as innovative.
“They’d rather dance with the devil and lose bets than feel like they missed the boat,” he said.
‘Our Members Are Using It’
Just as the AR partnership is a continuation of the New York Times‘ attempts to produce content through that medium, it is also the latest of Facebook’s financial incursions into journalism: the platform provides funding for a training program administered by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) that the latter group claims helps reporters “leverage Facebook and Instagram for news gathering, storytelling and connecting with their followers” by teaching them to use tools like Facebook Live and CrowdTangle.
Facebook promised in January 2019 that it would spend $300 million by 2022 on “news partnerships and programming,” including grants to groups specializing in boosting local-level journalism organizations.
The platform also provides scholarships through a separate project to journalism groups that, like the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), advocate on behalf of populations that are underrepresented in newsroom workforces. Besides NAJA, the program provides scholarships to members of the Association of LGBTQ Journalists (NLGJA) National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ); the National Association of Hispanic Journalists; and the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA).
We contacted each of these groups asking for comment in light of antitrust lawsuits filed by the Federal Trade Commission and 48 attorneys general accusing Facebook of engaging in “predatory” behavior in December 2020. Only NAJA executive director Rebecca Landsberry-Baker responded.
“Our board of directors will certainly consider today’s news,” Landsberry-Baker told us. “However, we currently don’t have any plans to to end our partnership with Facebook in the near future. We still plan to distribute $50,000 in scholarships to Indigenous students through the NAJA-Facebook Journalism Project Scholarship in 2021.”
The platform has long faced questions regarding its influence as a distribution platform for news outlets: the Wall Street Journal reported in October 2020 that Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg approved a change to its algorithm that reduced distribution for “left-leaning” sites like Mother Jones. While Facebook has denied that the 2017 algorithm change targeted specific publishers, Mother Jones chief executive officer Monika Bauerlein criticized the platform in a series of tweets following the Wall Street Journal story, saying that her site had lost around $400,000 in annual revenue because of it.
Facebook’s push toward allegedly helping local news organizations, however, came after it encouraged outlets in 2016 to “pivot to video,” citing data that was later revealed to have been dramatically inflated. In October 2019, Facebook agreed to pay $40 million to settle a lawsuit from advertisers who accused the company of withholding knowledge about the “error” for more than a year before its public apology. But by then the video “pivot” had also caused massive further damage within the journalism industry.
When asked whether the story or the fallout from the effects of journalism outlets “pivoting to video” based on Facebook’s mistake had caused SPJ to question its partnership with the platform, the organization’s president, Matthew T. Hall, said that while his group is watching the news, their work with Facebook made sense because journalists made use of the medium.
“It’s a partnership, and that partnership can be evaluated at that time,” said Hall, who is the opinion and editorial page director for the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Right now, SPJ finds value in it because our members are using it and are wanting to know how to use it better. Those trainings have gone on for years and will continue.”
The best thing the NYT can do concerning its AR work with Facebook, Hall said, is to be transparent.
“I guess I would say that the Times should let its readers, listeners, and viewers know about the partnership and that it exists,” he said. “Then those consumers can judge it on its own merits.”
‘A Flashy Brand Distinguisher’
Digital activist and counter-disinformation researcher Joohn Choe called it “undisciplined” on the part of Facebook to devote resources to the partnership, arguing that there isn’t enough consumer demand for augmented reality technology.
“The most optimistic estimate for widespread adoption of VR is years [away],” he said. “The only people who can afford to do this kind of boondoggle experiment right now is billion-dollar companies like Facebook who can afford to throw good money after bad in order to justify this kind of technology that basically nobody wants right now.”
Choe also argued that the joint venture would establish what he called a “quality delineator” between Facebook’s version of that technology and anyone else’s.
Only publishers with as many resources as the NYT, Choe said, and right-wing outlets like the Daily Caller (which has a fact-checking subsidiary that already partners with Facebook) and Breitbart (which was included in the Facebook News service despite a history of links to white supremacists) would be able to produce what he called “Facebook-native” AR-based journalism.
“We’re talking about Facebook [as] a flashy brand distinguisher that you can put on your company’s page. This is fundamentally a way for some companies to make themselves look different from others,” Choe said. “At that level, when you’re injecting that kind of quality gradient into an already-overloading informational setting it’s going to have a lot of unpredictable effects.”
Besides the antitrust lawsuits in the U.S., the company was also placed under investigation by federal authorities in Germany in early December 2020 over requiring anyone who purchases its “Oculus” virtual reality products to open a Facebook account in order to use them.
“With its social network Facebook holds a dominant position in Germany and is also already an important player in the emerging but growing VR market,” said Andreas Mundt, president of the German Federal Cartel Office. “We intend to examine whether and to what extent this tying arrangement will affect competition in both areas of activity.”
That AR tech is also in the nascent stages with no market leader presents its own danger, said Priyanjana Bengani, a senior research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.
“Facebook wasn’t able to get into the phone business (can you imagine if there was a Facebook competitor to iOS/Android?), and they don’t want to miss the next big thing,” Bengani told us. “I think trying to capture the market right now by getting newsroom buy-in early — especially an organization like the New York Times — can prove vital to Facebook. But, right now, with the phone-form factor, there’s limited potential for AR.”
Smaller newsrooms, she said, might find it hard to resist a similar type of partnership if they see the Times working with Facebook. But in exploring the use of new tech, Bengani added, these types of outlets should “think about what happens when Facebook loses interest and moves on to the next big thing and they lose funding or first-line support.”
The former Facebook engineer told us they felt that for the company, the AR partnership’s end goal is the same as its acquisition of Oculus: “Create more thought-free ways — that’s what accessible and flashy stands for — to suck people’s time and attention into their platforms. And in this case, use vanity and greed to help polish and legitimize and beta test this new gimmick and turn it into a temporary USP [‘unique selling proposition’] to drive more growth and engagement.”
One benefit for Facebook, they said, was that pushing AR technology would aid Facebook’s ability to hook users into spending more time using its products.
“That’s why Zuck invested in VR in the first place,” they said. “He wants everyone on Earth to spend more waking hours on Facebook than anywhere else.”
Even as Facebook has claimed it will enforce guidelines against disinformation in AR publishing, the former engineer argued that it would become saturated with questionable content.
“If this takes off — not a given — they will be crowded out of AR by smaller lower-quality producers and eventually by individuals, same as it happened with video,” the engineer said. “On even ground, it will always be harder for [the Times] to compete with producers of higher quantity of lower-quality content.”
Bengani, however, noted that the new platform could have a built-in ceiling; while researchers have noted that older adults are more likely to share disinformation online, she said, those same adults are less likely to invest heavily in new tech.
“Perhaps disinformation peddlers can afford it, but they’re unlike to invest heavily in something where there isn’t a large audience,” she said.