Facebook is back in the news for doing things that make the world are more desolate place. Before we get to the reason why, here’s a relevant quote from Mark Zuckerberg in April 2016:
”We’re entering this new golden age of video . . . I wouldn’t be surprised if you fast-forward five years and most of the content that people see on Facebook and are sharing on a day-to-day basis is video.”
Per a new fraud lawsuit brought against the tech giant (emphasis mine):
In June 2016, a Facebook engineering manager finally followed up on advertiser complaints dating back to early 2015, writing that “[s]omehow there was no progress on the task for a year.” But even once it was decided to take action on the metrics, Facebook did not promptly fix its calculation or disclose that its calculation was wrong. Instead, it continued reporting miscalculated viewership metrics for another several months, as it developed a “no PR” strategy to avoid drawing attention to the error. The company decided to “obfuscate the fact that we screwed up the math” by quietly retiring the erroneous metrics and replacing them with corrected metrics under a new name.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook lied about how many people were watching their videos by 60 to 80%, and this lawsuit details how Facebook scuttled that reality while trying to rake in advertiser dollars based off of their unreality. The lawsuit also alleges that the WSJ figures are low, and that Facebook inflated its video numbers by as much as 150 to 900%. Whatever the actual figure is, it’s clear that Facebook lied about their video figures—and this wasn’t some small screw-up that robbed a few advertisers of some money—it rocked the journalism world.
Journalism depends on ad dollars to stay alive. There are ads on this webpage which literally help to pay my salary. This is how it all works, and if those advertisers decided that they wanted to take their money elsewhere, Paste would either need to find another way to pay my salary or let me go. Because Facebook misrepresented their video services as this great new frontier in journalism, hundreds of people lost their jobs. Here is but one example, per the Columbia Journalism Review:
Mic is another example of the cautionary tale set by publications that pivot to video. The strategy, which came into vogue around May 2016, goes like this, with apologies to a famous South Park episode:
1. lay off most of your writers, who produce stories fast and cheaply for your own website
2. produce more video, which is vastly more expensive and time-consuming and which only finds an audience on other platforms, like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube
While in the famous South Park cartoon, the “???” is a joke, it's deadly serious in media: Hundreds of journalists have lost their jobs while shiny-object-chasing publishers are no closer to creating cohesive video strategies to replace the traffic those writers were producing. Publishers who pivoted to video have forfeited the majority of their hard-won native audiences in only a year of churning out undifferentiated, bland chunks of largely aggregated “snackable” video. That's no one's idea of success.
2017 was a bad year for the business of media, and it was largely because of the combination of lower profits and the desperate chase for new money in the profitable mirage that was Facebook's push to host journalism on video, as The Atlantic highlighted:
At Vanity Fair, the editorial budget faces a 30 percent cut. At the New York Times, advertising revenue is down $20 million annually after nine months. Oath, the offspring of Yahoo and AOL's union, is shedding more than 500 positions as it strains to fit inside of its Verizon conglomerate. Meanwhile, almost every digital publisher seems to be struggling, selling, or soliciting, whether it's the media company IAC exploring offers to offload The Daily Beast, Fusion Media Group offering a minority stake in The Onion and former Gawker Media sites, or Mashable selling for a fifth of its former valuation. So many media companies in 2017 have reoriented their budgets around the production of videos that the so-called “pivot to video” has became an industry joke. Today, the pivot seems less like a business strategy and more like end-of-life estate planning.
As Digiday detailed, there is a direct correlation between a pivot to video and smaller audience sizes. This was something that was acknowledged at the time that all these companies pivoted to video, but the story was that the smaller audience supposedly still produced greater ad dollars on video than a larger audience did on printed words. Turns out that smaller audience was smaller than companies thought. Oops.
Facebook has been asking some folks when they log in whether they believe Facebook is bad for the world. After reading this lawsuit and the WSJ report, I wouldn’t trust what they say the total responses are, but with each new screw-up that comes to light, it becomes more and more difficult to see how Facebook could possibly be a net force for good.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.