Facebook falsehoods made the front page of the Sunday Boston Globe, May 4th. A Globe reporter discovered that Facebook linked an AP wire story from the Globe to scurrilous stories from downtrend.com, theuspatriot.com and nokiamessages.com. The former two are political sites with a rabid style and a slant typically labelled “conservative.” The later appears to be some kind of sex site. The story was about Michelle Obama getting a resume from a girl whose father is jobless.
May 3rd must have been a slow news day – On the 4th, the Globe ran only three stories on its front page including a year-old picture of a fatal house fire, filling a quarter of the page. Your humble blogger had advance notice of the Facebook story through one of the quoted sources, Tarleton Gillespie. Gillespie is an Associate Professor, Department of Communication, Cornell University, and currently a visiting researcher with Microsoft Research, New England.
Gillespie spoke recently on “Algorithms, and the Production of Calculated Publics.” Gillespie was speaking an MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing session, which I have described in a previous post.
“The algorithm did it” was the gist of Facebook’s excuse. The AP story reported an unscripted moment in a made-for-media event in the White House. It was linked with the internet flotsam by a blindingly dumb Facebook formula which may have been as simple as “Michelle Obama” and high ranking recent click counts.
Blindingly dumb is about par for a lot of what gets passed off as “content” on the internet and elsewhere. A former trade magazine executive admitted to your humble blogger recently that his boss at a once high-flying trade publishing company referred to editorial as “The s**t between the ads.” That particular business model flamed out after a hot 30 year run in the print world but similar ones are alive and well in the online world.
Seeing how well information models can run on dumb, cheap content should engender a healthy cynicism about human nature. Developing genuinely good information takes talent and time. Turning good information into something profitable or politically powerful is tougher still. A little cynicism is required, but it is honorable work.