After months of rifling through the lives of Trump associates, the federal government’s investigation into Russian interference in last year’s election has now trained its crosshairs on Facebook. Two weeks ago the social media company delivered more than 3,000 advertisements to congressional investigators after it was discovered in September that Russian-connected entities purchased $150,000 in advertisements that ran on its platform beginning in the summer of 2015.
The advertisements did not endorse or oppose specific candidates, but they did seek to inflame controversies surrounding immigration, race, and sexuality. One advertisement featured a black woman firing a rifle, while others contained pro-LGBT and anti-Muslim sentiments. Facebook says that at least 10 million Americans were exposed to the ads—though some social media analysts speculate this is a gross underestimate—with swings states such as Michigan and Wisconsin intentionally targeted.
Because of the political nature of this story, and the petty partisan mudslinging that has predictably ensued, the particulars of this latest chapter need to be divorced from the context in which they occurred. Whether you accept or reject that a Russian-sponsored social media campaign influenced the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, the powerful tools that made such a campaign possible have negatively impacted us all—and offer only portents for the future.
The reality is sobering. Particular demographics in specific cities and states were systematically targeted by a foreign entity. This was accomplished through the use of Facebook’s micro-targeting advertising tool—an algorithm powered by a treasure trove of data generated by the personal activity of 200 million American Facebook users.
Actions such as visiting pages, liking posts, and sharing news articles help Facebook construct detailed user profile preferences. The social media company monetizes this information by sorting users into categories that can then be targeted by advertisers. By simply selecting the demographics it wishes to reach—e.g. “conservative,” “homeowner,” “Texan”—an entity can ensure that its advertisements are seen by the audience most likely to interact with the content.
Such efficiency has not gone unnoticed by the business community as companies both big and small have become dependent on the tool to promote their products and services. While the power and sophistication of the algorithm has led to Facebook’s dominance in mobile and social media advertising, the tech giant remains only the second biggest player in the digital advertising market: Google, by way of search advertising, procures an even larger share. The two companies are collectively projected to receive more than 60 percent of this year’s $83 billion digital advertising market, including 99 percent of all digital advertising growth.
While this dominance has been a bonanza for Facebook as well as Google’s parent company Alphabet, the ascendance of this digital advertising duopoly has darker consequences for America’s media industry. Left to scrounge for the crumbs of an ever-shrinking piece of the advertising revenue pie, online publishers, deprived of paid subscribers, are increasingly forced to compromise their editorial convictions in the dogged pursuit of Internet traffic. Clicks and views are, after all, the commodity most valued in our advertisement-driven attention economy. And prioritizing these ends has nurtured an editorial mindset that is quickly diminishing the quality of our nation’s public square.
This dynamic is best illustrated by Franklin Foer’s experience as the editor of The New Republic. Elevated to the top of the masthead after Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes purchased the publication in 2012, Foer—idealistic about his magazine’s purpose—was energized at the prospect of working with his new boss.
Foer, however, soon realized that his vision was incompatible with the business model that Hughes wanted to implement. Diverging from the magazine’s highbrow ethos, The New Republic, under the watchful eye of Hughes, submitted to market demands and began publishing daily doses of sensationalism in an attempt to scale up readership and win the favor of advertisers. Now a staff writer for The Atlantic, Foer chronicled this experience in the magazine’s September issue:
My master was Chartbeat, a site that provides writers, editors, and their bosses with a real-time accounting of web traffic, showing the flickering readership of each and every article. Chartbeat and its competitors have taken hold at virtually every magazine, newspaper, and blog. With these meters, no piece has sufficient traffic—it can always be improved with a better headline, a better approach to social media, a better subject, a better argument. Like a manager standing over the assembly line with a stopwatch, Chartbeat and its ilk now hover over the newsroom.
Foer found that the pursuit of traffic favored the sensational over the substantive, bombastic hot takes over nuanced analysis and commentary. He resigned less than two years into his tenure. A quick glance at one’s newsfeed demonstrates that the business model of outrage is no longer novel but rather the norm for media outlets irrespective of their political ideologies.
Yet while the national media has caved to economic incentives in an effort to stave off insolvency, it’s still far “healthier” than its decentralized counterparts. Without that ability to scale up readership, local and regional news outlets are unable to generate digital advertising revenue, and are quickly dying as a result.
Media writer Jack Shafer, employing data compiled by his colleague Tucker Doherty, explored this dynamic in the May issue of Politico Magazine, and asserted that market forces have led to the formation of a “media bubble.”
As is to be expected in an increasingly paperless world, print journalism looks less viable by the year. Daily and weekly newspaper employment dropped from 455,000 in 1990 to 173,000 in January 2017—a decline of more than 60 percent. A steady growth of digital journalism jobs has largely offset this downward trend, but unlike local and regional news media which are intrinsically linked to the localities and regions they cover, digital outlets need not be rooted to a particular location.
With much of their content focused on the happenings of Washington, Hollywood, and Wall Street, the digital media industry—much like the tech industry in Silicon Valley and the automobile industry in Detroit—is geographically consolidated. Shafer and Doherty found that 73 percent of Internet publishing jobs are “concentrated in the Boston-New York-Washington-Richmond corridor or the West Coast crescent that runs from Seattle to San Diego and on to Phoenix.” Chicago, meanwhile, is home to an additional 5 percent, with the remaining 22 percent of the industry dispersed amongst the rest of the country.
This geographical consolidation is not without consequences. Shafer writes that the digital media industry, inculcated in its left-of-center enclaves, is unable to accurately keep its finger on the pulse of Middle America. He points to Trump’s unexpected electoral victory as evidence, and concludes that the media will “miss the next one too” if it doesn’t find a way to remedy the unintended consequences of this geographical divide.
But getting the “election wrong” and potentially missing “the next one too”—though damaging to the egos of coastal journalists—is the least consequential element of this phenomenon. More important is that it means a rapidly growing percentage of our nation’s communities is no longer serviced by newsrooms.
The Columbia Journalism Review has closely monitored this trend, lamenting the formation of what it calls “news deserts,” communities with “no daily news outlet at all.” In the journal’s spring edition, Emily Bell documents the development of one such news desert, tracing the rise and fall of the Watershed Post, a regional media outlet in upstate New York. Launched in 2010 as “a wholly digital operation built to thrive on the open Web,” its editor and publisher, Lissa Harris, announced in March that it was suspending its daily operations.
Although the digital news website attracted more than 50,000 monthly readers, The Watershed Post experienced chronic financial instability as advertising dollars from local businesses migrated from their small website to the digital platforms of Facebook and Google. In the article, titled “The Facebook Rescue that Wasn’t,” Bell writes:
The Watershed Post had a list of more than a hundred advertisers, but beginning in 2012, those businesses and others, including the Post itself, started to build their own pages on Facebook. This gravitational pull of advertising dollars away from tiny websites like the Post into Google and Facebook, which allow a high degree of targeting at low cost, make perfect sense for small businesses but spell disaster for local journalism.
Facebook in particular was meant to be part of the solution to the problem of sustaining hyperlocal publishers. The publishing tools and hosting services Facebook offers for free are compelling. But in sparse or poorer areas, they do not allow for the traditional civic bargain of the local press, wherein the businesses and individuals who can afford to advertise, in effect pay for the journalism that covers a community.
The death of the Watershed Post is no negligible side effect of technological progress. Not only do the Post and its local and regional brethren serve a social function—reporting on neighborhood happenings and thereby creating communal cohesion—they also hold America’s smaller powers to account. In fact, the Watershed Post was precisely what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they codified the protection of the free press in the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Amidst growing congressional pressure, Mark Zuckerberg has orchestrated an apology tour in an effort to earn back the trust of the American public. He has announced self-imposed reforms to ensure that his platform isn’t used to compromise our nation’s democratic process. But Zuckerberg can’t escape the fact that the efficiency and sophistication of the tool he developed has contributed to the denigration of our media. Perhaps the more substantial threat to our democracy isn’t simply the “misuse” of that tool, but its very existence and the power it has amassed.
Daniel Kishi is associate editor of The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter: @DanielMKishi