*With contributions from Tonya Stiles
First, let’s get something straight. Everything…everything…that facebook does is for the money. For profit. Facebook—and I will henceforth use the pronoun ‘It’ to describe the company— is concerned with profits and nothing more.
It doesn’t “care about me.” It isn’t interested in helping me “meet new friends.” It doesn’t give a whit about “keeping me in touch with old friends.” And it certainly isn’t interested in protecting me and you from “fake news.” Why would I give it the right to determine what’s fake and what’s real? Knowing its track record, I have a lot more faith in my ability to make that determination myself. I don’t need its help.
Before facebook and social media overwhelmed and conquered us, and made access to— and even dependence upon it— unavoidable, I felt that I had some control over my publication and my work. I still wax nostalgic about the Zephyr’s print era. From 1989 to 2009, the paper’s successes or failures fell solely on my shoulders.
If I wanted to reach more readers, I found the revenues to pay for the increased cost and I printed more papers. That meant finding new advertisers. So I pounded the pavement and I approached the owners of businesses and I talked to them. Face to face.
When I looked for new venues where I could distribute the papers, it meant the same routine—going to Moab businesses, and then later, to other communities in Utah and Colorado and even beyond, and talking to the owners. Face to face. If they weren’t interested, I knew that I’d tried and done my best. But I made the effort to know them personally.
When distribution became too extensive for me to cover alone, it was my responsibility to seek help. I found people who were responsible and caring, and I paid them a fair price. For the most part, it worked (I still miss Jose’ Churampi).
But those days are long gone. When The Z went exclusively online in 2009 (the internet was already destroying print rags like ours), my social media skills were deliberately limited. I was not on Facebook and didn’t want to be. But a few friends I trusted told me I had no choice. “If you want to get The Zephyr out there, you have got to create a Zephyr Facebook page.” I accepted my fate and have been trying to expand the reach of The Z via Facebook ever since. And It has fought me every step of the way.
As we all know, trying to get more “likes” and “followers” is a never ending quest. We’re always a step behind the new algorithms. We want readers, so we play along. But here’s what I don’t understand: We have a meager following by most standards–about 5,500 people, but we earned each one of them the hard way. We didn’t pay a service to bump up our numbers and we don’t have a big media ad budget to assist us either. It’s almost all “cyber word-of-mouth.”
In a just and equitable world, it would be logical to assume that when we post a story or a photograph on our facebook page, the users who “like” and “follow” it would automatically be the the first to see it. It makes sense that Zephyr posts would instantly go on their newsfeed. After all, they chose to follow us.
But it has never worked that way, and it’s gotten progressively worse over time. We can post long-form articles that we worked for weeks researching and writing. And yet when we post these articles, they often reach fewer than 10% of our followers. We invest our time and our knowledge, our honesty and our integrity into serious journalism, and then Facebook and its omnipotent algorithms decide that our work just isn’t worth distributing.
But then I can randomly select a photograph that I shot in 1979 and post it at 9 PM on a Tuesday evening and discover the next morning that this simple copy of an old 35mm Kodachrome transparency somehow reached a thousand facebook viewers in the wee hours of the morning.
Last January, It announced a grand re-working of the newsfeed, which would prioritize “meaningful” interactions with your friends and family. Because again, “they care.” Which is ridiculous, of course. The algorithm shift was a guise to gut Facebook pages and limit even further the number of followers who would see posts—unless, that is, the pages were willing to pony up advertising money. Almost overnight, news organizations found that their “organic reach,” the number of their followers who saw an individual post, dropped off a cliff. It was the perfect con—convince us that the only way to communicate with our readers was via Facebook, and then hold those very readers for blackmail, forcing us to pay in order to reach the same people we’d previously contacted for free.
Frustrated beyond my ability to describe it, we finally resorted to spending some money to “boost” a few of our more important posts. We’d been seeing these constant reminders from facebook, noting that “your post is doing well…BOOST it now and increase your reach.” So we decided to spend a few dollars…not much, maybe five or ten bucks to find a few more readers.
Honestly, just the idea of paying facebook to reach the readers who already followed us infuriated me. But what could we do? Complain to an algorithm? They don’t even have a number you can call to argue with a human.
So we boosted some posts. It worked, mostly, until this Spring. One day, we decided to “boost” an article by contributor Bill Keshlear that covered the recent and ongoing debate in San Juan County about the election, By all rights. that story should reach ALL of our 5000+ followers. But it never does. Se we boosted it, just to our own readers. But Facebook doesn’t make any distinction between a “boost” just to your own followers and an “advertisement” to the general public. Our boost was disapproved, because to Facebook, a 5,000 word investigative report was suddenly the same as a “political ad.” When we appealed that decision, we received a computerized reply, reading:
“The text and/or imagery you’re using qualifies as political, based on the definition we’re using for enforcement.”
As of this past June, if we mention a public official’s name or title, or make any suggestion of a controversy, or allow that an election is even about to happen, facebook’s algorithms have a nervous breakdown and block the boost.
Of course, we weren’t the only news organization facing this problem. Mark Thompson, CEO of The New York Times, got into a public fight with Campbell Brown, head of global news partnerships at Facebook, once the new advertising policies were put into place. Protests flooded in from organizations like ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity, and the News Media Alliance.
All of us face the same quandary: to submit to an intrusive “authorization” process that would allow us to boost our politically-themed articles and tar those articles with the same brush as a campaign flyer for a political candidate—or to give up the ability to get those articles in front of our readers on the world’s most influential platform.
Every time one of those “political” boosts is disapproved, we get a notification helpfully suggesting that we should “authorize our page” for political ads and click a link to begin the process. What does that entail? First, we would have to sign up for two-factor authentication. This is for “security” purposes, but it means we give Facebook our phone number. And they have publicly admitted this Fall that any phone number given to them through two-factor authentication will be handed over to their advertising department and used to target ads. Next, we give them a Driver’s License and our physical address and, here’s the real kicker, the last four digits of a Social Security number. If memories of Cambridge Analytica and the recent massive security breach are flashing through your mind, you aren’t the only one. “Oh hell no,” Tonya said when she read the requirements for political ad authorization. “We aren’t doing that.” So we tweak what we can to get around the ban on politics, alter pull quotes and article titles. Sometimes we just accept that certain article can not be boosted. And we curse this stupid company for the amount of control it has.
Facebook’s explanation for all this (broadly speaking— they are impossible to reach directly) is that they are trying to “protect” us from false and misleading information. From “fake news.” I mean, after all, who knows? The Zephyr may be a front for Russian hackers, or ISIS terrorists, or white supremacists. The fact that we’ve been in business for almost 30 years should account for something, but then there is virtually no sign of a human presence anywhere on facebook. We’ve been arguing with robots and computer programs and their censor-crazy algorithms. But somebody, somewhere programmed these machines to perform as they do. We just don’t know who ‘they’ or as I’ve noted, ‘it’ is.
All we do know is that Facebook’s entire business is based on two things: harvesting personal information and then raking in as much advertising cash as possible. Every action they take as a company is to forward those goals—including, and maybe especially, this new push to eliminate “fake news” by registering political ads.
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If Facebook were actually telling the truth about how much they “care” about all of us, the solution would be so easy. Give accountability back to the users. Don’t make us accountable to facebook. Here’s how it should work:
*Facebook users should control what posts they see or don’t see. In our case, if people ‘like’ The Zephyr, that should guarantee their right to see it. It should be accessible to them. Everything we post should be on their newsfeed.
*If they decide they don’t want to see The Zephyr, they can ‘un-like’ or ‘un-follow’ us. But it should be their choice. Not facebook’s.
*The ONLY posts that should appear on ANY of our newsfeeds, are the posts and links that WE asked for. No more “boosting” to people who haven’t liked your page. I have had a gut-full of “You may be interested in this.” I’m not.
*For those who have chosen to have thousands of Facebook friends and follow thousands of pages, it’s true that the newsfeed could get overloaded. But then it’s the user’s choice to decide what to keep and what to discard.
*If we want to seek out new posts and new links, we can do that on our own. If I think of somebody I went to school with and want to try and find them, I can do that. I think I can figure it out. If there’s a subject matter that interests me, I can figure that out too. I like old photos of The West. It was easy for me to type in key words and search for facebook pages I hadn’t seen. I can find them on my own.
Since there’s no way we’d convince Zuckerberg to ditch advertising, it can continue—but only along the side panels of the feed where it can’t interfere with or substitute itself for the things we actually want to see.
Bottom line. Everyone wants Facebook to butt out. Get out of our personal lives and give control back to us. Nobody likes Facebook. Maybe we did, once, but now we only tolerate It because that’s the only way many of our friends will agree to interact anymore and because it holds a monopoly on half the infrastructure of modern life. If anything better ever came along, we’d all happily jump ship.
And that’s something for Mr. Zuckerburg to think about: How will your company survive, in the long run, if every single one of its users is just waiting for the opportunity to bail out and watch It die?
I know the thought gives me a chuckle.
Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.