Weekend Reads

For the profit and pleasure of subscribers, here's a few longer reads on economic, political and social issues for the weekend.

The role of fake news and political advertising on Facebook in the election of Donald Trump has been one of the themes (or should that be memes) of the post-mortem of the last week.

More than two million New Zealanders spend up to an hour a day reading their Facebook news feeds so the news on those feeds will play a role in next year's general election (possibly September 23).

Buzzfeed, which is itself a creature of the world of news going viral on Facebook, has some fascinating analysis, including this piece from its founding editor Craig Silverman showing that the top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined.

Buzzfeed reported there were more than 100 US politics websites being run out of Macedonia.

"This new analysis of election content found two false election stories from a Macedonian sites that made the top-10 list in terms of Facebook engagement in the final three months. Conservative State published a story that falsely quoted Hillary Clinton as saying, “I would like to see people like Donald Trump run for office; they’re honest and can’t be bought.” The story generated over 481,000 engagements on Facebook."

Mark Zuckerberg denied there was a problem, but an internal resistance movement within Facebook is building to try to combat the issue of fake news, as Buzzfeed also reported.

"As former Facebook designer Bobby Goodlatte wrote on his own Facebook wall on November 8, “Sadly, News Feed optimizes for engagement. As we’ve learned in this election, bullshit is highly engaging. A bias towards truth isn’t an impossible goal. Wikipedia, for instance, still bends towards the truth despite a massive audience. But it’s now clear that democracy suffers if our news environment incentivizes bullshit.”

One of the fake news writers, who is making a living from the advertising programmes on Facebook and Google, talked in this Washington Post article about whether he thought his articles helped get Trump election.

Paul Horner, who wrote an article that Barack Obama had invalidated the election result that got 250,000 shares, was asked why his articles go viral.

"Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it," he said.

Brian Phillips' piece on Facebook's refusal to admit its fake news problem skewers the issue well, and many others. If you click through to one piece this weekend, make it this one.

"Facebook may have swallowed traditional media (on purpose), massively destabilized journalism (by accident), and facilitated the spread of misinformation on a colossal scale in the run-up to an election that was won by Donald Trump (ha! whoops). But that wasn't Facebook's fault! It was the user base, or else it was the platform, or else it was the nature of sharing in our increasingly connected world. It was whatever impersonal phrase will absolve Zuckerberg's bland, drowsy appetite from blame for unsettling the things it consumes," he writes.

The Daily Beast documents the fake news issue in just the last couple of days, including an article from "American News" that said Denzel Washington had endorsed Donald Trump. It wasn't true, but was shared 10,000 times from "American News" site and was liked 80,000 times in 12 hours.

This detail is mind-blowing: "Nothing about the post is true, but that didn’t seem to matter to American News, which has 5.5 million followers and an account verified by an employee at Facebook. American News, which on Tuesday posted stories like “Michelle Obama Exposed for the Pervert She Really Is” (the website calls her “Moochelle” in its posts), “‘The View’ Is About to Get Shut Down,” and “BREAKING: Hillary Clinton to Be Indicted… Your Prayers Have Been Answered,” has 700,000 more subscribers than The Washington Post on Facebook."

Ben Thompson's analysis at Stratechery is always worth reading. He takes a more nuanced and less outraged look at the problem of fake news. He's sceptical about replacing the algorithm with human gatekeepers. He'd prefer Facebook fixed the algorithm to weed out the fakery. He also points out something rather powerful: confirmation bias has proved one hell of a business model for Facebook.

Computing Professor Zeynep Tufekci writes in the New York Times that Facebook needs to get serious about the problem.

"In addition to doing more to weed out lies and false propaganda, Facebook could tweak its algorithm so that it does less to reinforce users’ existing beliefs, and more to present factual information. This may seem difficult, but perhaps the Silicon Valley billionaires who helped create this problem should take it on before setting out to colonize Mars," she writes.

Fake news on Facebook is not the only way Trump's megaphone was louder. He also appears to have used advertising for funds and votes on Facebook more effectively and aggressively than Hillary Clinton, as Issie Lapowsky from Wired reports.

This Bloomberg-Businessweek piece on Trump's main digital guy Brad Parscale is insightful, if only because it was written days before the election result.

After the result, Parscale credits Twitter and Facebook for the success. “Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing,” he says. “Twitter for Mr. Trump. And Facebook for fundraising.”

The one welcome result of the Trump election and the fake news debate was a big increase in the number of subscriptions to real news organisations with paywalls, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, the Atlantic and the Wall St Journal, as well as extra donations to philanthropically funded news sites such as ProPublica, as HuffPo reports.

Further to the power of network monopolies such as Facebook, this ProPublica piece on economics professors who argue for greater corporate concentration is eye-opening.

"Some of the professors earn more than top partners at major law firms. Dennis Carlton, a self-effacing economist at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and one of Compass Lexecon’s experts on the AT&T-Time Warner merger, charges at least $1,350 an hour. In his career, he has made about $100 million, including equity stakes and non-compete payments, ProPublica estimates. Carlton has written reports or testified in favor of dozens of mergers, including those between AT&T-SBC Communications and Comcast-Time Warner, and three airline deals: United-Continental, Southwest-Airtran, and American-US Airways," write Jesse Eisinger and Justin Elliott.

Meanwhile in the real world, the Trump Transition team's first week was alarming, as Ryan Lizza points out at the New Yorker. Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner sacked the head of the Transition team, Chris Christie, because Christie put Kushner's father in jail.

Those wondering what a Trump White House might look like should read this Washington Post article by Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, which details the key players and how they work (or don't) together. It is chaotic, to say the least.

"These seven men, as well as Trump’s adult children and a few others, will make up an unusual power grid in a capital city used to a hierarchical structure. Trump is presiding over concentric spheres of influence, designed to give him direct access to a constellation of counselors and opinions. Such an approach also risks bringing confrontation or even paralysis as feuding factions work to further their own goals, edge out adversaries or distract Trump — as happened more than once during his presidential campaign," they write.

Have a great weekend.