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COMMENT: In FTR#718, we not­ed the intel­li­gence and fas­cist under­pin­nings of the gen­e­sis of Face­book, includ­ing the cen­tral role of Peter Thiel in the fir­m’s begin­ning.

In numer­ous pro­grams since, we have chron­i­cled the anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic and fas­cist man­i­fes­ta­tions of Face­book, includ­ing the com­pa­ny’s deci­sive role in the Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca gam­bit, in which ele­ments of Peter Thiel’s Palan­tir firm–the Alpha preda­tor of the elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance landscape–helped to “game” the 2016 elec­tion in favor of Trump.

Updat­ing that cov­er­age, we note that an enor­mous Face­book bot farm, decep­tive­ly not­ed as “Russ­ian,” was assem­bled to swing the 2020 elec­tion to Don­ald Trump.

” . . . . Accord­ing to Paul Bischoff of Com­par­itech, a British cyber­se­cu­ri­ty com­pa­ny, the net­work includes 13,775 unique Face­book accounts that each post­ed rough­ly 15 times per month, for an out­put of more than 50,000 posts a week. The accounts appear to have been used for ‘polit­i­cal manip­u­la­tion,’ Bischoff says, with rough­ly half the posts being relat­ed to polit­i­cal top­ics and anoth­er 17 per­cent relat­ed to COVID-19. Each account has a pro­file pho­to and friends list—likely con­sist­ing of oth­er bots, the researchers suggest—and they’ve joined ‘spe­cif­ic Face­book groups where their posts are more like­ly to be seen and dis­cussed by legit­i­mate users.’ . . . .”

Face­book has also imple­ment­ed a low-pro­file, high-dol­lar finan­cial sup­port pro­gram for major news out­lets that have suf­fered because of Face­book’s incur­sion into the infor­ma­tion busi­ness.

” . . . . Less well known, and poten­tial­ly far more dan­ger­ous, is a secre­tive, mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar-a-year pay­out scheme aimed at the most influ­en­tial news out­lets in Amer­i­ca. Under the cov­er of launch­ing a fea­ture called Face­book News, Face­book has been fun­nel­ing mon­ey to The New York Times, The Wash­ing­ton Post, The Wall Street Jour­nal, ABC News, Bloomberg, and oth­er select paid part­ners since late 2019. . . 

“Par­tic­i­pat­ing in Face­book News doesn’t appear to deliv­er many new read­ers to out­lets; the fea­ture is very dif­fi­cult to find, and it is not inte­grat­ed into indi­vid­u­als’ news­feeds. What Face­book News does deliver—though to only a hand­ful of high-pro­file news orga­ni­za­tions of its choosing—is seri­ous amounts of cash. The exact terms of these deals remain secret, because Face­book insist­ed on nondis­clo­sure and the news orga­ni­za­tions agreed. The Wall Street Jour­nal report­ed that the agree­ments were worth as much as $3 mil­lion a year, and a Face­book spokesper­son told me that num­ber is “not too far off at all.” But in at least one instance, the num­bers are evi­dent­ly much larg­er. . . .”

1.  “Researchers Say They’ve Uncov­ered a Mas­sive Face­book Bot Farm From the 2020 Elec­tion” by AJ Vicens; Moth­er Jones; 5/10/2021.

The 14,000-account “polit­i­cal manip­u­la­tion” net­work sent posts on Trump, Biden, and COVID.
A group of secu­ri­ty researchers say they’ve unmasked a mas­sive bot farm that aimed to shape pub­lic opin­ion on Face­book dur­ing the heat of the 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Accord­ing to Paul Bischoff of Com­par­itech, a British cyber­se­cu­ri­ty com­pa­ny, the net­work includes 13,775 unique Face­book accounts that each post­ed rough­ly 15 times per month, for an out­put of more than 50,000 posts a week. The accounts appear to have been used for “polit­i­cal manip­u­la­tion,” Bischoff says, with rough­ly half the posts being relat­ed to polit­i­cal top­ics and anoth­er 17 per­cent relat­ed to COVID-19. Each account has a pro­file pho­to and friends list—likely con­sist­ing of oth­er bots, the researchers suggest—and they’ve joined “spe­cif­ic Face­book groups where their posts are more like­ly to be seen and dis­cussed by legit­i­mate users.”
Com­par­itech screen­shot

The most-used key­word in the posts was “Trump,” the researchers found, fol­lowed by “Biden.” The accounts date back at least as far as Octo­ber 2020, and, in addi­tion to posts dis­cussing spe­cif­ic events in the 2020 US pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, were also active around the Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires, protests in Belarus, and US bor­der issues. The researchers were able to deter­mine that the fake accounts were cre­at­ed and con­trolled using Sele­ni­um, soft­ware designed to auto­mate web appli­ca­tion test­ing, but that can also be used to mim­ic human behav­ior in ways that could be dif­fi­cult for auto­mat­ed bot detec­tion soft­ware to spot.
Accord­ing to a Com­par­itech spokesper­son, Face­book did not respond to Bob Diachenko, an inde­pen­dent cyber­se­cu­ri­ty expert who helped lead the research, when he attempt­ed to bring the teams’s find­ings to the platform’s atten­tion. A Face­book rep­re­sen­ta­tive said the com­pa­ny would look into a sam­ple of the accounts iden­ti­fied by Com­par­itech, but declined fur­ther com­ment.

Face­book has become much more active and aggres­sive at pub­licly iden­ti­fy­ing and tak­ing down what it calls “coor­di­nat­ed inau­then­tic behav­ior” oper­at­ing on the plat­form since the 2016 Russ­ian elec­tion inter­fer­ence oper­a­tion. Such inau­then­tic activ­i­ty, which the com­pa­ny defines as when posters seek “to mis­lead peo­ple about who they are and what they are doing while rely­ing on fake accounts,” can include gov­ern­ment-backed or pri­vate efforts. Just last month, the com­pa­ny claims it had removed 1,565 sus­pect Face­book accounts, along with 141 Insta­gram accounts, 724 pages, and 63 groups.
The Com­par­itech researchers were able to see the email address­es that pur­port­ed­ly reg­is­tered the pho­ny Face­book accounts. While many used “mail[.]ru” accounts seem­ing­ly orig­i­nat­ing in Rus­sia, the researchers did not allege who was behind the bot farm, or who con­trolled the unse­cured serv­er.

That arti­cle ref­er­enced anoth­er arti­cle by PAUL BISCHOFF TECH WRITER, PRIVACY ADVOCATE AND VPN EXPERT @pabischoff  May 10, 2021 com­par­itech:
The arti­cle poten­tial­ly rais­es the fol­low­ing issues:

  1. Face­book has been inef­fec­tive at stop­ping bots. As a result they are try­ing to nor­mal­ize the idea that bots are just a part of life on the inter­net. They only blocked 10% of the sam­ple iden­ti­fied.
    2. Over 200,000 posts per month occur (that they have iden­ti­fied from this one bot farm).
    3. These bots appear to be used for polit­i­cal manip­u­la­tion.
    4. the attack­ers accu­mu­late the con­tent from a pri­vate source to cre­ate their user con­tents and images.
    5. Bots play a huge role in influ­ence cam­paigns. Which can spread dis­in­for­ma­tion.
    6. Bots can be used to arti­fi­cial­ly inflate the public’s per­ceived enthu­si­asm for a cer­tain cause, per­son, prod­uct, or view­point. The true orig­i­na­tor of a mes­sage or ide­ol­o­gy is hid­den but it is is made to appear as though it orig­i­nates from and is sup­port­ed by a large num­ber grass­roots par­tic­i­pants
    7. Bots might be con­fig­ured to post benign con­tent until the bot farm manip­u­la­tor iden­ti­fies a crit­i­cal time to weaponizes them in an attack which serves these dark forces polit­i­cal objec­tives.

(Note: The link below includes numer­ous screen shots which could not be down­loaded to this web­site)

https://www.comparitech.com/blog/information-security/inside-facebook-bot-farm/

Inside a Face­book bot farm that pumps out 200k+ polit­i­cal posts per month
Com­par­itech researchers accessed an unse­cured Face­book bot farm used to con­trol near­ly 14,000 fake accounts. Here’s what we found.

Inside a Face­book bot farm that pumps out 200k+ polit­i­cal posts per month
By: PAUL BISCHOFF TECH WRITER, PRIVACY ADVOCATE AND VPN EXPERT @pabischoff May 10, 2021

What’s in this arti­cle?
The bot prob­lem
Inside the bot farm
Sele­ni­um used to imi­tate human input
Why bots?

The bot prob­lem

Face­book, along with most oth­er social net­works, has a bot prob­lem.

From Facebook’s per­spec­tive, bots can be indis­tin­guish­able from legit­i­mate users. These auto­mat­ed pro­grams can be used to scrape users’ per­son­al infor­ma­tion with­out con­sent, fab­ri­cate influ­ence cam­paigns, covert­ly push agen­das, spread dis­in­for­ma­tion, and make scams more con­vinc­ing.
While auto­mat­ed sys­tems can detect more glar­ing bot activ­i­ty, more sophis­ti­cat­ed bots can mim­ic human input so accu­rate­ly that Face­book can strug­gle to tell the dif­fer­ence.

As a result of its fail­ure to stop bots on its plat­form, it appears Face­book is instead try­ing to nor­mal­ize the idea that bots are just a part of life on the inter­net. Bots won’t be stopped any time soon.

Inside the bot farm
Com­par­itech researchers, led by Bob Diachenko, recent­ly stum­bled upon a Face­book bot farm host­ed on an unse­cured serv­er. We found the bot farm as part of our rou­tine scans for vul­ner­a­ble data­bas­es on the inter­net. With­out authen­ti­ca­tion nec­es­sary to access the bot farm, we took a peek under the hood to see how it works.

The bot farm we found was used to cre­ate and man­age 13,775 unique Face­book accounts. They each post­ed 15 times per month on aver­age, for a total of 206,625 posts from this one farm in a giv­en month. Note that new bots are being cre­at­ed by bot farms and being tak­en down by Facebook’s mod­er­a­tion sys­tems all the time, so the total fig­ures could vary quite a bit month-to-month. The ear­li­est post from these accounts was cre­at­ed in Octo­ber 2020.

Researchers say Face­book only blocked about one in 10 of the farm’s bot accounts as of time of pub­lish­ing.

The oth­er accounts are active, see below for a screen­shot tak­en May 10th show­ing a post was made 17 hours ago:

These bots appear to be used for polit­i­cal manip­u­la­tion. They post provoca­tive and divi­sive polit­i­cal con­tent to incite legit­i­mate Face­book users. Each account looks like a real per­son at first glance, com­plete with a pro­file pho­to and friends list (like­ly con­sist­ing of oth­er bots). To expand their reach and ensure they’re not just post­ing to each other’s time­lines, the bots join spe­cif­ic Face­book groups where their posts are more like­ly to be seen and dis­cussed by legit­i­mate users.

CHART Top­ics:
Pol­i­tics 50%
Oth­er 22%
Covid 17%
News 11%

“Trump” was the most-used key­word in bot posts, fol­lowed by “Biden”. Some spe­cif­ic events dis­cussed include the 2020 US Pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires, protests in Belarus, US bor­der restric­tions, the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, and a recent shoot­ing in San Anto­nio.

Chart: Key­word Top­ics
Trump 32%
Biden 27%
US/USA 16%
Covid/Coronavirus 16%
Elec­tions 7%
Postal Ser­vice 1%

Most of the bot accounts were reg­is­tered with tem­po­rary phone num­bers and @mail.ru email address­es. Due to lack of autho­riza­tion need­ed to access the bot farm’s back­end, Com­par­itech researchers were able to col­lect user­name and pass­word pairs for each bot account.

Com­par­itech report­ed the bot accounts to Face­book but has not received a response as of time of pub­lish­ing.

Sele­ni­um used to imi­tate human input

A key tool used by the bot farm to imi­tate human behav­ior is called Sele­ni­um.

Tasks of cre­at­ing posts and sub­scrib­ing to groups are put into queries to be exe­cut­ed auto­mat­i­cal­ly by Sele­ni­um.

Sele­ni­um is a mul­ti­func­tion­al toolset that, in this case, sim­u­lates the activ­i­ty of a real user. Bots con­trolled through Sele­ni­um can open and nav­i­gate web pages in a nor­mal web brows­er, click but­tons and links, enter text, and upload images. The bots we uncov­ered made posts with text and images, repost­ed arti­cles from news out­lets, and joined pop­u­lar groups in var­i­ous cat­e­gories (music, TV shows, movies, etc).

Sele­ni­um can be used to con­trol an army of bots, task­ing them with join­ing groups and cre­at­ing posts. Researchers found bot ses­sions can emu­late a range of user agents, from iPhones to Chrome browsers, so the own­er can make traf­fic appear to come from a broad range of devices. Sele­ni­um can be used through prox­ies, fur­ther allow­ing bots to mask their source. Sele­ni­um can even be set up to add a delay between clicks, so it doesn’t appear to nav­i­gate pages faster than a nor­mal human. Researchers say even some of the most advanced bot detec­tion tech­niques can­not dis­tin­guish between a human and Sele­ni­um.

What remains unclear is where the bots get their infor­ma­tion and images from. Researchers could not find any crawlers that gath­er the images post­ed by bots, so we assume the attack­ers accu­mu­late the con­tent from a pri­vate source.

Although this par­tic­u­lar bot farm wasn’t well-secured, most are much more dif­fi­cult for unau­tho­rized users to find and access.

Why bots?
So what’s the pur­pose of all this bot farm­ing? They could be uti­lized for a vari­ety of pur­pos­es. Whomev­er runs the bot farm can use it for their own pur­pos­es or rent it out to third-par­ties for a fee.

Bots play a huge role in influ­ence cam­paigns. State-spon­sored influ­ence cam­paigns from Rus­sia received a lot of atten­tion dur­ing the last two US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cycles. They like­ly used bot farms like this one to spread dis­in­for­ma­tion and incite Face­book users.

Bots can be used to arti­fi­cial­ly inflate the public’s per­ceived enthu­si­asm for a cer­tain cause, per­son, prod­uct, or view­point. Astro­turf­ing, for exam­ple, masks the real spon­sors of a mes­sage to make it appear as though it orig­i­nates from and is sup­port­ed by grass­roots par­tic­i­pants. If peo­ple think bots are human, they are more like­ly to believe that the mes­sage has pop­u­lar sup­port.

In the same vein, bots can be used to arti­fi­cial­ly boost sub­scriber or fol­low­er num­bers. The bot farm we exam­ined sub­scribed accounts to cer­tain groups. To real users, a page or group with 1,000 mem­bers seems more legit­i­mate than a page with a dozen mem­bers. This can be used to lure in vic­tims for some sort of scam.

Last­ly, though least like­ly, is that Face­book takes advan­tage of bots to inflate its own user num­bers and user activ­i­ty, per­haps to please stake­hold­ers who demand quar­ter-on-quar­ter user growth.
Bear in mind that bots are not nec­es­sar­i­ly mali­cious all of the time. They might be con­fig­ured to post benign con­tent until the bot farm admin­is­tra­tor decides to weaponize them in an attack.

 2.  “Is Face­book Buy­ing Off The New York Times?” By Dan Froomkin; The Wash­ing­ton Month­ly; 4/19/2021.

Over the past two decades, as Big Tech has boomed, news orga­ni­za­tions have been going bust. Between 2004 and 2019, one in every four U.S. news­pa­pers shut down, and almost all the rest cut staff, for a total of 36,000 jobs lost between 2008 and 2019 alone. Local news­pa­pers have been par­tic­u­lar­ly dev­as­tat­ed, mak­ing it ever more dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to know what is hap­pen­ing in their com­mu­ni­ties.

Many fac­tors con­tributed to this eco­nom­ic col­lapse, but none more so than the cor­ner­ing of the dig­i­tal adver­tis­ing mar­ket by the duop­oly of Face­book and Google. Facebook’s threat to a free press—and, by exten­sion, to democracy—is espe­cial­ly per­ni­cious. The social media com­pa­ny is finan­cial­ly asphyx­i­at­ing the news indus­try even as it gives oxy­gen to con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries and lies. As a result of its many roles in degrad­ing our democ­ra­cy, it faces mount­ing scruti­ny by politi­cians and reg­u­la­tors.

Face­book has respond­ed to the neg­a­tive atten­tion by cre­at­ing a high­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed pub­lic rela­tions effort, which includes becom­ing the num­ber one cor­po­rate spender on fed­er­al lob­by­ing and engag­ing in a mas­sive adver­tis­ing blitz aimed at the D.C. pol­i­cy audi­ence. Less well known, and poten­tial­ly far more dan­ger­ous, is a secre­tive, mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar-a-year pay­out scheme aimed at the most influ­en­tial news out­lets in Amer­i­ca. Under the cov­er of launch­ing a fea­ture called Face­book News, Face­book has been fun­nel­ing mon­ey to The New York Times, The Wash­ing­ton Post, The Wall Street Jour­nal, ABC News, Bloomberg, and oth­er select paid part­ners since late 2019.

Par­tic­i­pat­ing in Face­book News doesn’t appear to deliv­er many new read­ers to out­lets; the fea­ture is very dif­fi­cult to find, and it is not inte­grat­ed into indi­vid­u­als’ news­feeds. What Face­book News does deliver—though to only a hand­ful of high-pro­file news orga­ni­za­tions of its choosing—is seri­ous amounts of cash. The exact terms of these deals remain secret, because Face­book insist­ed on nondis­clo­sure and the news orga­ni­za­tions agreed. The Wall Street Jour­nal report­ed that the agree­ments were worth as much as $3 mil­lion a year, and a Face­book spokesper­son told me that num­ber is “not too far off at all.” But in at least one instance, the num­bers are evi­dent­ly much larg­er. In an inter­view last month, for­mer New York Times CEO Mark Thomp­son said the Times is get­ting “far, far more” than $3 mil­lion a year—“very much so.”

Face­book has respond­ed to neg­a­tive atten­tion by cre­at­ing a high­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed pub­lic rela­tions effort, which includes becom­ing the num­ber one cor­po­rate spender on fed­er­al lob­by­ing and engag­ing in a mas­sive adver­tis­ing blitz aimed at the D.C. pol­i­cy audi­ence.

For The New York Times, whose net income was $100 mil­lion in 2020, get­ting “far, far more” than $3 mil­lion a year with essen­tial­ly no asso­ci­at­ed cost is sig­nif­i­cant. And once news out­lets take any amount of mon­ey from Face­book, it becomes dif­fi­cult for them to let it go, notes Math­ew Ingram, chief dig­i­tal writer for the Colum­bia Jour­nal­ism Review. “It cre­ates a hole in your bal­ance sheet. You’re kind of behold­en to them.” It’s not exact­ly pay­ola, Ingram told me, search­ing for the right metaphor. Nor is it a pro­tec­tion rack­et. “It’s like you’re a kept per­son,” he said. “You’re Facebook’s mis­tress.”

There’s no evi­dence that the deal direct­ly affects cov­er­age in either the news or edi­to­r­i­al depart­ments. Before the Face­book News deal, the Times famous­ly pub­lished an op-ed titled “It’s Time to Break Up Face­book,” by Chris Hugh­es, a cofounder of Face­book turned crit­ic. And since the deal, columns from Tim Wu and Kara Swish­er, among oth­ers, have been sim­i­lar­ly crit­i­cal. In Decem­ber, the edi­to­r­i­al board wel­comed a law­suit call­ing for Face­book to be bro­ken up.

And Face­book and Google mon­ey is, admit­ted­ly, all over jour­nal­ism already. Vir­tu­al­ly every major media non­prof­it receives direct or indi­rect fund­ing from Sil­i­con Val­ley, includ­ing this one. When the Month­ly gets grants from do-good orga­ni­za­tions like News­Match, some of the funds orig­i­nate with Face­book.

But these three points are beyond dis­pute.

First, the deals are a seri­ous breach of tra­di­tion­al ethics. In the pre-inter­net days, inde­pen­dent news­pa­pers wouldn’t have con­sid­ered accept­ing gifts or sweet­heart deals from enti­ties they cov­ered, under any cir­cum­stance. The Wash­ing­ton Post under the edi­tor Leonard Down­ie Jr., for instance, wouldn’t even accept grants from non­prof­its to under­write report­ing projects, for fear of los­ing the appear­ance of inde­pen­dence. Face­book, which took in $86 bil­lion in rev­enue last year, is a huge­ly con­tro­ver­sial behe­moth hav­ing pro­found, high­ly news­wor­thy, and neg­a­tive effects on soci­ety. Accept­ing mon­ey from them cre­ates a con­flict of inter­est.

Even for trust­ed news orga­ni­za­tions whose audi­ences believe they can’t be bought out­right, “it might come across as hypocrisy to heav­i­ly crit­i­cize an indus­try while also col­lab­o­rat­ing with them,” says Ras­mus Kleis Nielsen, the direc­tor of the Reuters Insti­tute for the Study of Jour­nal­ism. Agree­ing to keep the terms of the deal con­fi­den­tial is also a mis­take, Nielsen told me. “This sort of opac­i­ty I don’t think builds trust.”

Sec­ond, these deals help Face­book main­tain the pub­lic appear­ance of legit­i­ma­cy. Jour­nal­ists, crit­ics, and con­gres­sion­al inves­ti­ga­tors have amply doc­u­ment­ed how Face­book has become a vec­tor of dis­in­for­ma­tion and hate speech that rou­tine­ly invades our pri­va­cy and under­mines our democ­ra­cy. For The New York Times and oth­er pil­lars of Amer­i­can jour­nal­ism to effec­tive­ly part­ner with Face­book cre­ates the impres­sion that Face­book is a nor­mal, legit­i­mate busi­ness rather than a monop­o­lis­tic rogue cor­po­ra­tion.

Final­ly, these agree­ments under­mine indus­try-wide efforts that would help the small­er, eth­nic, and local news orga­ni­za­tions that are most des­per­ate­ly in need of help. One such effort would allow the indus­try to bar­gain col­lec­tive­ly with Face­book and oth­er tech giants by with­hold­ing con­tent from the plat­forms unless they received a fair price for it. But for that to work, small news­rooms would need the biggest and most influ­en­tial com­pa­nies to sign on. With those orga­ni­za­tions receiv­ing mil­lions of dol­lars from Face­book through their own side deals, the small­er pub­li­ca­tions could be left strand­ed and defense­less.

If Facebook’s intent were to save Amer­i­can jour­nal­ism, it would be mak­ing gen­er­ous offers to small­er, local news orga­ni­za­tions that do orig­i­nal report­ing, Damon Kiesow, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri School of Jour­nal­ism, told me. By con­trast, Face­book News “doesn’t real­ly help any­one in the indus­try except for the small select group of out­lets that get paid,” he said. “These efforts are all fla­vored with a strong dose of cri­sis com­mu­ni­ca­tion and reg­u­la­tion avoid­ance.”

If any major fig­ure in the Amer­i­can media was going to say no to Mark Zucker­berg, it was Mark Thomp­son.

For most of his eight-year tenure as chief exec­u­tive offi­cer of the New York Times Com­pa­ny, Thomp­son was one of the industry’s most thought­ful, elo­quent, and per­sua­sive crit­ics of Face­book and the dan­ger it presents to journalism’s busi­ness mod­els and essen­tial role in a democ­ra­cy.

“It makes my blood run cold, the idea of Face­book as a pub­lish­er,” he said at a June 2018 event con­vened by the Open Mar­kets Insti­tute. At a pan­el spon­sored by the Tow Cen­ter lat­er that month, he described that same affect when Zucker­berg “starts talk­ing about how he thinks about com­mu­ni­ty, and about what we trust.” Zucker­berg, he said, has a “ter­ri­fy­ing­ly naive per­spec­tive on news.”

Dur­ing the OMI event, Thomp­son warned dark­ly about the “sin­is­ter” prospect “that Facebook’s cat­a­log of mis­steps with data and extreme and hate­ful con­tent” will lead it to try to “set itself up as the dig­i­tal world’s edi­tor in chief, pri­or­i­tiz­ing and pre­sum­ably down­grad­ing and reject­ing con­tent on a sur­vey- and data-dri­ven assess­ment of whether the provider of the con­tent is ‘broad­ly trust­ed’ or not.”

In an exclu­sive inter­view, for­mer New York Times CEO Mark Thomp­son said the Times is get­ting “far, far more” than $3 mil­lion a year in pay­outs from Facebook—“very much so.”

Here was actu­al humil­i­ty from the CEO of the paper of record: “Democ­ra­cy depends in part on unbound­ed com­pe­ti­tion between dif­fer­ent jour­nal­is­tic per­spec­tives and the clash of dif­fer­ent judg­ments and opin­ions,” he said. “His­to­ry sug­gests that main­stream news orga­ni­za­tions fre­quent­ly get it right, but also that, not infre­quent­ly, it is the out­liers who should be lis­tened to.”

And he knew what need­ed to be done. An essen­tial pre­lim­i­nary step was for Face­book and oth­ers to “engage with the col­lec­tive indus­try bod­ies of the news busi­ness to arrive at shared prin­ci­ples both on the pre­sen­ta­tion and choice of news con­tent, and on its mon­e­ti­za­tion.” He called for “con­sis­ten­cy and com­pa­ra­bil­i­ty in the treat­ment of news providers.”

This was not the lan­guage of shake­down. It was an impas­sioned and impres­sive philo­soph­i­cal argu­ment about the sur­vival of news—and democ­ra­cy.

But then, all of a sud­den, The New York Times and Face­book were mak­ing deals togeth­er. In Octo­ber 2019, Face­book announced the launch of Face­book News, with The New York Times as a mar­quee paid part­ner, get­ting prime place­ment in a new ver­ti­cal des­ig­nat­ed for “trust­ed” news sources.’

What changed for Thomp­son between June 2018 and Octo­ber 2019, such that the idea of Face­book pick­ing which “trust­ed” news sources to pay went from sin­is­ter to “Sign here”?

“We always reserved our rights to do what we need­ed to do for our own busi­ness and to con­tin­ue to fund our jour­nal­ism in the inter­im,” Thomp­son insist­ed in a phone inter­view in March. “I’m a sort of prag­ma­tist,” he said. “I don’t real­ly see this as a con­flict of inter­est or an issue of prin­ci­ple, it’s the real world.” He reject­ed the depic­tion of the pay­ments as a gift or a pay­off. “As far as I’m con­cerned, we were paid by a plat­form for access to our con­tent.” Face­book, of course, does not pay The New York Times for access to its con­tent when it is shared on reg­u­lar news­feeds.

And Thomp­son said that while he still thinks it would be sin­is­ter for Face­book to be mak­ing its own edi­to­r­i­al deci­sions on a sto­ry-by-sto­ry basis, “Face­book mak­ing it eas­i­er for peo­ple to iden­ti­fy The New York Times and mak­ing it eas­i­er to access The New York Times is a good thing.”

What about his devo­tion to col­lec­tive rather than indi­vid­ual action? It remains—in the­o­ry. “As it hap­pens, I’m still very much in favor of broad­er agree­ments,” he told me. “Ide­al­ly,” he con­tin­ued, such pay­ments would be “not just avail­able . . . to the hand­ful of big play­ers but broad­ly, in par­tic­u­lar to local and region­al jour­nal­ism.”

So tak­ing the deal wasn’t a betray­al of his prin­ci­ples, Thomp­son insist­ed. “I still fun­da­men­tal­ly believe every­thing I said.” With any col­lec­tive agree­ment years away at best, he said, “I don’t accept that our reach­ing it made it hard­er for the oth­er pub­lish­ers to get it—on the con­trary . . . I don’t think you’ve got any evi­dence that a refusal to engage . . . would have helped them at all.” It actu­al­ly sets a good prece­dent, he sug­gest­ed. “It’s bril­liant to have got a big dig­i­tal plat­form to pay for the use of our con­tent.”

But orga­ni­za­tions that are favored by Face­book will obvi­ous­ly have dif­fer­ent incen­tives going for­ward than those that are not. Unfa­vored out­lets, if beg­ging doesn’t work, may want to play hard­ball with Face­book to get their due—while the Time­sand oth­ers will inevitably have qualms before blow­ing a hole in their bud­gets.

The Times spokesper­son Danielle Rhoad­es Ha declined to address a long list of ques­tions about the specifics of the rela­tion­ship with Face­book, respond­ing instead with gen­er­al com­ments. “Qual­i­ty jour­nal­ism is expen­sive to pro­duce and we believe qual­i­ty pub­lish­ers should be fair­ly com­pen­sat­ed for cre­at­ing valu­able jour­nal­ism,” she wrote in an email. The Times “does not dis­close licens­ing and adver­tis­ing terms,” she wrote, and “our licens­ing agree­ment with Face­book has no impact on our news­room.”

Once news out­lets take any amount of mon­ey from Face­book, it becomes dif­fi­cult for them to let it go, notes Math­ew Ingram, chief dig­i­tal writer for the Colum­bia Jour­nal­ism Review. “It cre­ates a hole in your bal­ance sheet.

Thomp­son stepped down as CEO in July 2020 and was replaced by his pro­tégé, Mered­ith Kopit Levien, who may be even more com­mit­ted to the deal than Thomp­son was. A few months after she took over, Levien expressed enthu­si­asm that Face­book had promised to cre­ate a space “for a par­tic­u­lar lev­el of qual­i­ty news providers,” to pay the Times “a fair amount,” and to “feed your fun­nel.”

The Face­book News deal isn’t Facebook’s only, or first, inroad at the Times. The com­pa­ny already had a seat at the table—literally. The pub­lish­er and chair­man Arthur Sulzberg­er Jr. installed the Face­book exec­u­tive Rebec­ca Van Dyck on his 12-mem­ber board of direc­tors in 2015. Van Dyck, who was Facebook’s glob­al head of con­sumer and brand mar­ket­ing at the time, now runs mar­ket­ing for Facebook’s aug­ment­ed and vir­tu­al real­i­ty labs.
Indeed, the Face­book News boun­ty might even be dwarfed by the undis­closed sum that Face­book is pour­ing into the Times’s new aug­ment­ed real­i­ty efforts. The newsroom’s new “AR Lab,” a col­lab­o­ra­tion between Face­book and the Times, builds aug­ment­ed real­i­ty fil­ters and cam­era effects dis­trib­uted on Face­book and Face­book-owned Insta­gram.

There are like­ly even more ties the pub­lic doesn’t know about. Buz­zFeed News recent­ly dis­cov­ered that the Times colum­nist David Brooks had writ­ten a pro-Face­book blog post while on salary for a non­prof­it par­tial­ly fund­ed by Face­book and hadn’t dis­closed it to his cur­rent Times boss­es or the read­ers.

Thomp­son would have been very much alone among his U.S. peers had he resist­ed Facebook’s induce­ments. He was also hard­ly the most enthu­si­as­tic Face­book partner—that would be News Corp. CEO Robert Thom­son, who, after years of vitu­per­a­tive attacks on Big Tech, was grin­ning at Zuckerberg’s side at the Face­book News launch event and announc­ing a “new dawn” for jour­nal­ists.

The roll­out was unde­ni­ably a huge win for Face­book pub­lic rela­tions. The Times sto­ry was head­lined “Face­book Calls Truce With Pub­lish­ers as It Unveils Face­book News.” What few neg­a­tive head­lines ensued were relat­ed to Facebook’s deci­sion to include Bre­it­bart, the far-right web­site known for spread­ing white-suprema­cist dis­in­for­ma­tion, among its cadre of “trust­ed” news sources—although, in Breitbart’s case, an unpaid one.

Months lat­er, Joshua Ben­ton, the direc­tor of the Neiman Jour­nal­ism Lab, described the big down­side: The Face­book News deal, he wrote, “lets them (1) pick the pub­lish­ers they want to pay, (2) pick the amount of mon­ey they want to pay them, (3) get pub­lish­ers to stop com­plain­ing, at least hope­ful­ly, and (4) get head­lines like ‘Face­book Offers News Out­lets Mil­lions of Dol­lars a Year,’ in the hopes that they can stave off gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion or tax­a­tion.” Face­book isn’t spend­ing the mon­ey “because they think News Tab will be prof­itable,” Ben­ton wrote. “It’s a way to solve a PR and pol­i­cy prob­lem.” The vaunt­ed new prod­uct, he not­ed, con­sists of “a new tab buried so deep in Facebook’s inter­face you need a spelunker’s head­lamp to find it.”

To col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain with Face­book, small news­rooms will need the biggest ones to sign on. With those larg­er orga­ni­za­tions receiv­ing mil­lions of dol­lars from the social media giant through side deals, the small­er pub­li­ca­tions could be left strand­ed and defense­less.

Face­book News only links to approved out­lets, while in the actu­al News Feed, the algo­rithm spews out non-rep­utable click­bait based on what’s entic­ing the peo­ple, pages, and groups a user engages with the most. “The most notable thing about Face­book News is that it includes almost none of the sto­ries that do well on the rest of Face­book,” observed the Nie­man Jour­nal­ism Lab edi­tor Lau­ra Haz­ard Owen.

Face­book is sus­pi­cious­ly eva­sive about how many peo­ple use Face­book News and how much traf­fic it gen­er­ates for pub­lish­ers, refus­ing to pro­vide any indi­ca­tion of its scale at all. “We don’t have hard num­bers,” the Face­book News spokesper­son, Mari Mel­guizo, said when I asked for data on its per­for­mance. “It’s def­i­nite­ly grown and con­tin­ues to grow. It is on an upward tra­jec­to­ry.”

Pri­or to Face­book News, the com­pa­ny had repeat­ed­ly proved to be an unre­li­able part­ner for news pub­lish­ers. As Sarah Perez detailed for TechCrunch, the plat­form estab­lished an “Instant Arti­cles” fea­ture in 2015 that “restrict­ed adver­tis­ing, sub­scrip­tions and the recir­cu­la­tion mod­ules pub­lish­ers relied on” in exchange for a bet­ter user expe­ri­ence. It was a bad bar­gain, and, as a result, many out­lets aban­doned the fea­ture.

Face­book pro­mot­ed a “shift to video” in 2016, but inflat­ed its video use met­rics and then refused to pay pub­lish­ers. This prompt­ed lay­offs at many com­pa­nies, includ­ing Vox, Vice, and Mic. Short­ly before Face­book News launched, Joanne Lip­man, a for­mer edi­tor in chief of USA Today, warned her col­leagues that they had “been at the beck and call of these behe­moths” for too long.

“I think it’s a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion for news orga­ni­za­tions to count on any­thing when it comes to Face­book,” the North­east­ern Uni­ver­si­ty jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor Dan Kennedy says. To Kennedy, Face­book lost any pre­tense of moral­i­ty when, hav­ing tweaked its algo­rithms after the Novem­ber 2020 elec­tion to favor author­i­ta­tive news sources in the News Feed, it switched back—presumably to boost engage­ment, to pla­cate right-wing pub­lish­ers, or both. “You pull all this togeth­er, and Face­book is just the worst pos­si­ble part­ner,” Kennedy says.

The world watched an extra­or­di­nary exer­cise of Facebook’s mas­sive pow­er in Feb­ru­ary when it stymied an Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment attempt to force it to pay to link to news. First, Face­book tem­porar­i­ly banned Aus­tralian news sites from its plat­form. Then it did an end run around the reg­u­la­tors by agree­ing to arrange mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar deals with major news providers—on its terms, not the government’s. Facebook’s head of news part­ner­ships, Camp­bell Brown, described it as “an agree­ment that will allow us to sup­port the pub­lish­ers we choose to.” In Aus­tralia, the biggest recip­i­ent by far of Facebook’s largesse will be Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which owns most of the country’s news­pa­pers. News Corp also heav­i­ly lob­bied for the new leg­is­la­tion. Face­book didn’t pay the country’s small­er out­lets.
“In the end, Google & Face­book have a big buck­et of bak­sheesh that will go to old pro­pri­etors and their share­hold­ers,” Jeff Jarvis, the direc­tor of the Tow-Knight Cen­ter for Entre­pre­neur­ial Jour­nal­ism at the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York, tweet­ed in Feb­ru­ary.

As Face­book News con­tin­ued to roll out across the globe in 2020 and 2021, some­one did final­ly tell Face­book no. The Ger­man media giant Axel Springer reject­ed Facebook’s offer, describ­ing it as both unseem­ly and insuf­fi­cient­ly lucra­tive: “We con­sid­er the efforts of sev­er­al plat­forms to become news brands them­selves while at the same time com­pen­sat­ing some pub­lish­ers with inap­pro­pri­ate­ly low remu­ner­a­tion for their con­tent as prob­lem­at­ic,” a spokesper­son said. The com­pa­ny is now hold­ing out for the pas­sage of new copy­right laws in Europe that it hopes will cre­ate rev­enue-shar­ing agree­ments “in which all pub­lish­ers can trans­par­ent­ly par­tic­i­pate and receive rea­son­able com­pen­sa­tion.”

Mean­while, in the U.S., Facebook’s need for allies in the press has tak­en on a par­tic­u­lar urgency. In Octo­ber 2020, a House judi­cia­ry sub­com­mit­tee released a bold, agen­da-set­ting report, alleg­ing wide-rang­ing antitrust vio­la­tions by Google, Face­book, Apple, and Ama­zon. In Decem­ber, the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion and 46 state attor­neys gen­er­al, as well as the attor­neys gen­er­al for D.C. and Guam, brought an antitrust law­suit against Face­book, alleg­ing that the com­pa­ny is ille­gal­ly main­tain­ing its per­son­al social net­work­ing monop­oly through a years-long course of anti­com­pet­i­tive con­duct.

Con­gress is cur­rent­ly hold­ing hear­ings on the bipar­ti­san Jour­nal­ism Com­pe­ti­tion and Preser­va­tion Act of 2021, which would give news orga­ni­za­tions of all shapes and sizes the abil­i­ty to nego­ti­ate col­lec­tive­ly with the big plat­forms. At a March 12 hear­ing, News Media Alliance CEO David Chav­ern not­ed that the larg­er media com­pa­nies already have lever­age with Face­book and oth­ers. “The ones most in need of col­lec­tive action are small and com­mu­ni­ty pub­lish­ers, includ­ing most par­tic­u­lar­ly pub­lish­ers of col­or, who are suf­fer­ing deeply in this bro­ken mar­ket­place for real qual­i­ty jour­nal­ism,” he said.

HD Media, which owns sev­er­al West Vir­ginia news­pa­pers, filed a fed­er­al antitrust law­suit against Google and Face­book in Jan­u­ary, seek­ing dam­ages from the duop­oly. The suit charges that Google’s monop­o­lis­tic con­trol of dig­i­tal adver­tis­ing, along with a secret deal with Face­book not to com­pete against it, had stran­gled their source of rev­enue.

In the long run, reform­ers say, it will be nec­es­sary to break up the giant plat­forms, end their stran­gle­hold on adver­tis­ing dol­lars, and ban algo­rithms that incite out­rage or even vio­lence. In the near­er term, how­ev­er, some observers sup­port the idea of an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­is­tic fund, financed by Big Tech but oper­at­ing at arm’s length, that could reward news orga­ni­za­tions accord­ing to the resources they put into their report­ing and the val­ue they con­tribute to their com­mu­ni­ties.

Some sort of trust­ed inter­me­di­ary or col­lec­tive agree­ment seems nec­es­sary, because it’s hard to see direct hand­outs as any­thing more than a cor­rupt stop­gap measure—especially when they’re most­ly giv­en to the news orga­ni­za­tions that need the mon­ey the least. As Doug Reynolds, the man­ag­ing part­ner for the West Vir­ginia news­pa­pers suing Face­book and Google for dam­ages, told me, “If the future of this indus­try is that we’re depen­dent on their good­will, then we don’t have an inde­pen­dent press any­more.”

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