The tiny Alaskan public broadcaster in Facebook's crosshairs

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In an internal Facebook meeting leaked to The Verge, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg described Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), one of the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, as an "existential" threat to the company. Now Warren is citing reporting from Popular Information to raise questions about Facebook's role in the 2020 election. 

In a series of tweets, Warren noted that as Zuckerberg attacks her candidacy, Facebook "quietly changed its policies on 'misinformation' in ads" to allow Trump and other politicians "to run ads that have already been debunked by independent, non-partisan fact-checkers." That change was exposed by Popular Information last Thursday.

As an example of the kind of activity that Facebook would allow, Warren cited another Popular Information report from April. That story highlighted a Trump campaign ad that falsely claimed Democrats are advocated a "repeal of the Second Amendment." Since April, the Trump campaign has re-run versions of this ad on a regular basis. 

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes endorsed Warren's criticism of the company and its ad policy. "Mark, by deciding to allow outright lies in political ads to travel on Facebook, is embracing the philosophy behind Trumpism and thereby tipping the scales," Hughes tweeted.

Facebook seems prepared to let the Trump campaign get away with almost anything. At the same time, Facebook claims to be taking aggressive action against misinformation, spam, and clickbait.

So who is being impacted by Facebook's policies? Today's newsletter takes a look at one example: A small public broadcaster in Alaska. 

Baiting people to click with detailed stories about local ballot initiatives

KTOO is a public radio station based in Juneau, Alaska. It also posts digital versions of its stories on its website. According to its mission statement, the outlet "provides trusted and independent news; connects our community to a wide range of local, national and global media; promotes civic participation; and embraces diverse viewpoints and cultures."

KTOO maintains a Facebook page with about 11,000 followers. On September 24, Ryan Cunningham, KTOO's digital media manager, posted a story to the KTOO Facebook page. The story, headlined "If you think Juneau’s municipal ballot measures are confusing, you’re not alone," was a prototypical example of public service journalism. It walked readers through a confusing set of local ballot initiatives that would provide funding for upgrades of local arts facilities. This wasn't an easy task since, as the article detailed, the Juneau Assembly "approved three separate ballot questions asking voters whether to fund upgrades to two city arts venues through three different types of funding mechanisms."

Cunningham posted the story to the KTOO Facebook page with the following introduction: "Confused about Juneau's municipal ballot measures? You're not alone. The debate is over who should fund the city's new home for the arts."

A couple of weeks later, Cunningham received a message from Facebook: "We've identified that recent posts shared on your page are clickbait, which are links with misleading or sensational headlines." The message says that Facebook will reduce the distribution of these posts, and "Pages that repeatedly post clickbait will have all distribution reduced even if those posts have been deleted."

The other KTOO post cited by Facebook as clickbait, "This old Alaska mining town is almost a ghost town. It has everything to gain from Donlin mine," was part of a series documenting a community's complex relationship with the mining industry. Cunningham posted the story to Facebook on October 2 with this text: "In the tiny town of Red Devil, residents dream of a mining-driven revival in Part 1 of a series on the proposed Donlin mine." 

Facebook defines clickbait as "content with headlines that encourage people to click links to see more, without telling them much information about what they'll see. Clickbait sensationalizes topics by intentionally omitting crucial information or exaggerating details in the headline headlines."

"We are too small"

"KTOO, this is Ryan." 

I dialed the main number for KTOO to find out more about the outlet's trouble with Facebook. It's a nine-person newsroom, and Ryan Cunningham answered the phone. 

Cunningham said he found Facebook's behavior "strange." He also noted the irony that Facebook, which created the market for clickbait by rewarding content that evoked an emotional response with a firehose of traffic, had now decided that his small Alaskan radio station was the problem. 

Cunningham said that KTOO had appealed Facebook's decision, but it was the station's creative services director, David Purdy, who handled it. So he transferred me over to Purdy, who told me the details. 

Purdy said that the appeal process was automated. He explained that he didn't have any problems with Facebook's clickbait policy; he just didn't think KTOO's content was in violation. 

He wasn't given any explanation of the process, but a couple of days later, he received the following message from Facebook:

So Facebook not only continued to claim the posts in question were clickbait but also said that, as punishment, it would reduce the reach of the KTOO page for two weeks. Alaskans will see less content from their local public radio station as a way for Facebook to teach KTOO a lesson about responsible journalism. 

"We don't have anyone at Facebook we can email or call because we are too small," Purdy said. He had tried to contact Facebook about various issues in the past with no luck. 

So, Purdy posted about his issues with Facebook in a Facebook group for NPR affiliates. After his post, someone from Facebook emailed him, but the email only included links to the clickbait policies he had already reviewed. Purdy responded in hopes of getting Facebook to address his specific concerns but has not heard back. 

Facebook told Popular Information that it was looking into the issue.

The big fish and the small fry

Trump is currently paying Facebook over $1.2 million per week to run ads. Paid and organic content from the Trump campaign, including false and misleading advertisements, reach millions of Facebook users every week. 

The entire annual budget for KTOO's radio station was $1 million in 2016. It is a non-profit that reaches just a few thousand people on Facebook each week with content intended to educate the public. 

Yet Facebook, a $500 billion company, is disciplining KTOO and reducing the reach of its content while giving the Trump campaign the green light. 

Facebook claims that it is a neutral arbiter that is not making decisions about what content is acceptable. Here is what Nick Clegg, Facebook's VP of Global Affairs and Communications, said in a speech last month:

Freedom of expression is an absolute founding principle for Facebook. Since day one, giving people a voice to express themselves has been at the heart of everything we do. We are champions of free speech and defend it in the face of attempts to restrict it. Censoring or stifling political discourse would be at odds with what we are about…

To use tennis as an analogy, our job is to make sure the court is ready – the surface is flat, the lines painted, the net at the correct height. But we don’t pick up a racket and start playing. How the players play the game is up to them, not us.

But, as KTOO's experience illustrates, Facebook is picking up the racket. Facebook is the company with a huge influence on elections in the United States and around the world. It has decided that Trump's false political ads should be privileged, while KTOO's accurate explanations of local ballot initiatives should be punished. 

Thanks for reading!