Last updated 5 days ago
Industry News

What Social Media Needs to Learn From Traditional Media

ON OCTOBER 10, 1999, The Los Angeles Times published a special issue of its Sunday magazine devoted entirely to the opening of the Staples Center arena in downtown LA. Apparently unbeknownst to the Times editorial staff, including the writers and editors who put the magazine together, the paper had struck a deal with the owners of the Staples Center to split the profits from the ads sold in the issue.

When the staff found out about the arrangement, they rebelled. More than 300 reporters and editors signed a petition demanding that the publisher apologize, which she did. In a sweeping, 12-part post mortem, the paper’s media critic, David Shaw, noted that “many in The Times newsroom see the Staples affair as the very visible and ugly tip of an ethical iceberg of ominous proportions—a boost-the-profits, drive-the-stock-price imperative that threatens to undermine the paper’s journalistic quality, integrity and reputation.” The deal had violated one of the most sacrosanct principles in serious journalism, sometimes referred to as the “firewall” or separation of church and state: the business department should have no influence on editorial decisions.

Things have changed a great deal in the decades since the Staples Center incident. Social media has become a dominant forum for discourse and news distribution. The leaders of social media companies insist that they are not publishers but merely technological conduits for user-generated content. And yet at the same time they proudly advertise the critical role they play in modern communication and access to information. The decisions they make about what material should be seen by whom have a greater impact than anything The Los Angeles Times could ever have dreamed of.

But the social media industry has yet to articulate a philosophy of how the pursuit of advertising revenue should be balanced against other social values. Facebook, in particular, does not appear to have anything like a separation of church and state. An explosive investigative series in The Wall Street Journal last week provided fresh evidence of what happens when there’s nothing preventing the business side from overriding the people working on quality control. In one case, the Journal reported, researchers inside the company studied certain changes to the News Feed ranking algorithm that had been designed to increase “meaningful social interactions.” When the changes were introduced, CEO Mark Zuckerberg had publicly declared they were the “right thing” to do, even if they sacrificed user engagement and time spent on the app. The researchers, however, found that the features, which included amplifying posts deemed most likely to be reshared, inadvertently ended up boosting “misinformation, toxicity, and violent content.” According to documents reviewed by the Journal, when a leader from Facebook’s integrity department proposed a solution to the company’s business department—that is, to Zuckerberg—he declined to implement it. He didn’t want to sacrifice user engagement.

Read More