There’s a crack at the heart of Facebook’s advertising business

There’s a crack at the heart of Facebook’s advertising business

October 4, 2018 0 By Nazmul Khan


The recent focus on security breaches and departed Instagram founders around here has prevented us from asking us more mundane questions, such as: how is Facebook’s advertising business going? Today, two quick items on that front.

One, my people are mad at Facebook for requesting that they register as political advertisers in order to promote their gay cabaret shows. Eli Rosenberg reports in the Washington Post:

The Washington Post found dozens of advertisements mentioning LGBT themes and words that the company blocked for supposedly being political, according to a public database Facebook keeps.

The rejections, the majority of which Facebook told The Post were in error, underscore the company’s challenges in regulating the massive amount of information flowing through its service, an issue that burst into the fore after the disclosure that Russian-state actors used advertisements on Facebook to sow discord during the 2016 U.S. election. But they also touch on a deeper tension as the company seeks to better regulate political uses of its platform. Though Facebook has taken pains to appear neutral, the censorship of LGBT ads, however inadvertent, points to the company’s difficulty in finding a middle ground in a tense national climate where policy increasingly hinges on fundamental questions about race and identity.

It’s too much to say that these ads were “censored.” Registering as a political advertiser is certainly a hassle; it involves the US Mail. But Facebook didn’t reject the ads so much as it requested more information about the advertiser — which, as the Post notes, the company later admitted that it did in error. Securing the platform means hassling lots of people, some of whom will be hassled unfairly. This issue is not unique to Facebook; perhaps you have ever waited in a security line at the airport?

In any case, as I said, my people are mad:

Many of the groups’ administrators said their experience had given them a sour impression of the company, though most said there were few alternatives for getting their message out to wide groups of people.

“Why is this community considered a political community?” Bonner, the motivational speaker, said in an interview with The Post. “Immigrants are political. LGBT is now political. African Americans are political. Asian Americans are political. Where does this stop when all we’re trying to do is live our lives?”

Of course, much of the time, being a member of the LGBT community does feel like a political act, although one that should not require you to register with Facebook as a politician. A spokeswoman told the Post that it intends to require LGBT people to register as political advertisers only when they advocate for specific policies or political positions, which seems fair enough. Now Facebook’s content moderators just need to catch up to that policy.

As the Post illustrates, Facebook remains a critical tool for niche advertisers looking to reach their far-flung audiences. For big brand advertisers, though, Facebook can be a less certain proposition. That was my takeaway from Tim Peterson’s story in Digiday today about ad buyers’ apathy toward so-called premium programming on Watch, Facebook’s nascent video platform.

Peterson says the ads are selling so badly that the price of the ads has dropped by two-thirds this year:

Facebook has begun selling video ads through a program called In-Stream Reserve. Similar to YouTube’s Google Preferred program, In-Stream Reserve puts a velvet rope around Facebook’s most prized video inventory and sells it as a standalone package. However, what Facebook considers prized programming may not match with advertisers’ expectations, especially among TV ad buyers who are accustomed to buying individual programs on linear TV and may be unfamiliar with Facebook shows like “Fear Pong” and “Truth or Drink,” which along with MaxNoSleeves are also part of In-Stream Reserve.

When Facebook pitched the program as a test earlier this year, it asked advertisers to commit to spend $750,000 over three months. The price tag has since dropped to roughly $250,000 over three months, according to two agency execs with knowledge of the matter. A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on pricing.

I don’t want to make too much of this; Facebook sees original video as a long game, and it seems likely to invest in Watch for years, even amid apathy from viewers and advertisers alike. The alternative — that it never becomes a destination for video consumption — is simply too chilling to contemplate.

But viewed together, these stories show the crack at the heart of Facebook’s advertising business. News Feed ads remain among the most lucrative digital products ever designed, but they’re also a legacy product for a company that increasingly must find its growth elsewhere. And the project to make them accountable to the public is expensive, frustrating, and far from complete.

Meanwhile, as Facebook attempts to promote newer advertising formats that will carry it into the future, it finds itself in much more competitive waters. The LGBT community only has so many places it can promote its cabaret shows. Television advertisers, on the other hand, can still afford to be quite picky.

Democracy

Facebook Briefs Lawmakers on Breach in Effort to Guard Against Backlash

Facebook officials are briefing lawmakers about its security breach in an effort to escape punishment, report Deepa Seetharaman and Dustin Volz:

Facebook briefed Department of Homeland Security officials last week and some individual lawmakers this week, according to people familiar with the matter. The company is expected to meet with other congressional committees, including the Senate Intelligence Committee, about the breach as early as this week, other people familiar with the matter said.

It isn’t clear whether Facebook provided information pointing to possible perpetrators or about how the hackers exploited the security flaws. A Facebook spokesman confirmed that the company was briefing lawmakers, but declined to provide further details.

Facebook’s lead EU regulator opens probe into data breach

As expected, Facebook’s lead regulator in the European Union, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, said Wednesday that it had launched an investigation into the breach that Facebook disclosed last week.

Facebook Faces Political Hurdle Over Banned Party in China

Mark Bergen and David Tweed find that Facebook is in a political pickle in Hong Kong:

Police in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous part of China, have asked the company to remove the official page of the pro-independence National Party, which was slapped with an unprecedented government ban this week. The prohibition pledges fines and imprisonment for those aiding the group. Hong Kong officials made their request of Facebook after the measure was announced on Monday, according to the South China Morning Post.

The move to ban the National Party, which the government calls a risk to national security, is fueling concerns that Hong Kong’s administration wants to set a precedent for clamping down on opposition groups, eroding the city’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework in place since Chinese rule began in 1997. The request also puts the Menlo Park, California-based social media company in a difficult position, and refusal could hamper any future efforts to expand in China.

Fake Ad Claiming Iran’s President Endorsed Beto O’Rourke Is Pulled From Production

Gideon Resnick has a story on some attempted shenanigans in the Texas Senate race:

A neoconservative foreign policy group appeared to try and get audio recorded claiming erroneously that Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D-TX) Senate campaign was endorsed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

The campaign appears to have not made it into production, and maybe never will, as the site where the group posted a call for voice actors took down the solicitation on the grounds that the script was clearly false.

Shiva Ayyadurai’s Senate Campaign Was Being Promoted By Fake Facebook Accounts

Nina Jankowicz has the tale of how the campaign of a third-place candidate for Massachusetts Senate has been augmented with fake Facebook accounts:

Though this instance of false amplification was small-scale compared to the millions of impressions generated by Russian trolls during and after the 2016 election, it demonstrates the ongoing presence of astroturfing and fake accounts in US politics.

The fake profiles were created in June and July and appear to have been dedicated solely to pushing positive messages about Ayyadurai, attacking his opponents, or engaging in flame wars with people on Facebook who don’t support him. The four fake accounts alone were responsible for hundreds of posts and comments over the summer before being shut down.

South Korea Declares War on ‘Fake News,’ Worrying Government Critics

Yesterday we talked about Singapore’s worrisome new law about fake news, which critics say will be used by the country’s authoritarian government to suppress free speech. Now Choe Sang-Hun has the story of how South Korea, a liberal democracy, came to consider a similar law:

[Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon] was furious last week after he visited Vietnam for the state funeral for its president, Tran Dai Quang. While in Hanoi, he visited the stilt house of Ho Chi Minh and wrote in the visitors’ book at the compound that he felt “humble” before the “great” Vietnamese leader. South Korea fought against his Communist forces alongside the Americans during the Vietnam War.

When the photo of Mr. Lee’s tribute was reported in South Korea, conservative critics called him a “commie” on social media. Some even falsely suggested that Mr. Lee made the tribute not to Ho but to Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea and the grandfather of its current leader, Kim Jong-un. Mr. Lee has called the misinformation “vicious.”

Tim Cook to talk consumer privacy and data ethics at European data protection conference later this month

Tim Cook’s favorite hobby is traveling all around the world dunking on Facebook, and he will bring his one-man show to Brussels last month for a conference about GDPR.

Google is building a search engine for fact checks

Probably not for China, though!

Elsewhere

Facebook’s Lead Board Member Backs Zuckerberg in Wake of Breach

No one ever suggested she wouldn’t, but Facebook’s lead independent board member, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, is standing by Mark Zuckerberg in the wake of the breach:

“Facebook right now has a number of challenges, and I have a lot of confidence that Mark as Chairman and CEO is going to drive Facebook in the right direction,” she said on the Bloomberg Technology TV show. “I would endorse everything that he’s written and his testimony because I have confidence in him and Sheryl (Sandberg) and the leadership team to drive Facebook to be what I also want Facebook to be – a good company that people trust and feel good about.”

Facebook starts Africa fact-checking but WhatsApp the problem

Facebook now has a fact-checking program in five continents. The latest is Africa:

The company announced today (Oct. 3) that it would work with independent fact-checking organization Africa Check along with the French news agency AFP to assess news accuracy and stem the flood of misinformation. If a story is identified as false, Facebook will demote them in the news feed and will warn users who try to post those stories. As part of the review and rating process, the company will also share related pieces written by the fact-checking partners immediately below the story in the news feed.

The Dangers of YouTube for Young Children

Alexis Madrigal travels to Chennai to meet the people behind “Johnny, Johnny, Yes Papa” and other unsettling children’s content on YouTube:

America’s grip on children’s entertainment is coming to an end. ChuChu is but the largest of a new constellation of children’s-media brands on YouTube that is spread out across the world: Little Baby Bum in London, Animaccord Studios in Moscow, Videogyan in Bangalore, Billion Surprise Toys in Dubai, TuTiTu TV in Tel Aviv, and LooLoo Kids in Iași, a Romanian town near the country’s border with Moldova. The new children’s media look nothing like what we adults would have expected. They are exuberant, cheap, weird, and multicultural. YouTube’s content for young kids—what I think of as Toddler YouTube—is a mishmash, a bricolage, a trash fire, an explosion of creativity. It’s a largely unregulated, data-driven grab for toddlers’ attention, and, as we’ve seen with the rest of social media, its ramifications may be deeper and wider than you’d initially think.

Reddit hits 1 billion video views per month a year after launching its own video player

Reddit says it’s now hosting 1 billion views and 13 million hours of video per month on its own video player. Not bad!

Secret co-founder David Byttow joins Snap as director of engineering

Secret was one of the last pop-up social networks to approach something resembling escape velocity. Now one of its cofounders is off to work at Snap, whose flagship app he has long admired. Let’s all wish him a pleasant six to nine months as head of engineering!

Launches

Google’s cyber unit Jigsaw introduces Intra, a new security app dedicated to busting censorship

Interesting in light of Google’s plans to build a censored search engine for China: its subsidiary Jigsaw has a new app that lets users in countries where websites are censored to get around the bans and use the web as intended.

WhatsApp Beta 2.18.301 brings picture-in-picture video playback for YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram

Watch Facebook Watch while you WhatsApp and help Facebook’s $22 billion chat app start paying some bills around the office.

Facebook adds A.I. to Marketplace for categorization, price suggestions and soon, visual search

Even I didn’t click this link!

Twitter adds Data Saver feature to its iOS and Android apps

Twitter added an option to reduce data usage on mobile devices.

Recommendations startup Likewise emerges from Bill Gates’ private office, letting friends track and share their favorite things

Prominent friend of Mark Zuckerberg Bill Gates has backed a social app! It’s called Likewise, and it’s one of those apps where you recommend things with your friends. I have seen a couple dozen of these come and go, and almost cannot imagine this one succeeding.

Takes

Russian Meddling Is a Symptom, Not the Disease

Zeynep Tufekci says social media companies feed and profit from our worsening political polarization:

This all leads to two other questions: Why does it take outsiders to discover such flagrant problems, and why does it take so much outside pressure to get the company to act? Again, follow the money: Silicon Valley is profitable partly because it employs so few people in comparison to its user base of billions of people. Most of its employees aren’t busy looking for such problems.

Wall Street is under no illusion about how things work for these companies. When Mr. Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would try to do better — even if it hurt profits — and when Twitter started purging bots, bringing down the number of “users” the company can report, their stock prices dropped because of worries about their long-term profitability.

Some problems with reposting

Vine and Peach creator Dom Hofmann writes about the pros and cons of viral sharing mechanics, such as the retweet:

In a “pure” socialish app, the idea is that you see stuff created by the people you follow. this is easy to understand and gives you decent control over the shape of your experience, which mostly centers around the feed. reposting typically dilutes this experience, by introducing content not just from the people you follow, but also the people they follow, and more than likely the people they follow. not unlike ads, this can introduce friction while you make it through your feed. in the long term it can even contribute to feeds that move too quickly to keep up with, which can contribute to the need for algorithmic sorting (again, for another time), at which point you’re so far down the rabbit hole that your algorithm might weight reposted content more than followed content.

All Of Your Presidential Alert Jokes Were Great. Good Job, Everyone.

The US government tested a “presidential alert” today, lighting up Twitter with jokes. (“Congrats to Tiffany Trump, who just received her first ever text from her dad!”) Here’s a good roundup of these jokes, although note that I’m only saying that because BuzzFeed included one of mine.

And finally …

Researchers: Selfie-related deaths on the rise, call for ‘no selfie zones’

Selfies kill. That’s the conclusion of this local TV news report from Sharon Song, who offers us this chilling stat:

From October 2011 to November 2017, there were 259 reported deaths that happened while clicking selfies, according to a new study published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care.

But those numbers are considered misleading. The study noted that selfie related deaths are believed to be vastly underreported. “For example, certain road accidents while posing for selfies are reported as death due to Road Traffic Accident,” the study’s authors wrote. “Thus, the true magnitude of problem is underestimated.”

Researchers are calling for the establishment of “no selfie zones” near bodies of water, mountain peaks, and over tall buildings. Let me take this opportunity to extend the ban to this newsletter: any selfies you submit of yourself reading The Interface will not be considered for publication. Safety first!

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and your rejected gay Facebook ads: casey@theverge.com.



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