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Does the Facebook data scandal strengthen the case for public news funding?

When The New York Times broke the story that Cambridge Analytica had used Facebook user data for the 2016 Trump Presidential Campaign, it did little than re-enforce the issues that are inherent with the platform.

Cambridge Analytica’s sister company SCL, used an app to gather the information of 50 million Facebook user accounts, through access to just 270,000 that downloaded the app and consented to use. For a full explainer on how Cambridge Analytica used the data, the Globe and Mail has a succinct breakdown here.

Facebook has said that SCL violated their policies by passing the data to Cambridge Analytica . However, the use of Facebook audience data is common practice.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that Russian “troll” accounts used various social media platforms to target ads to specific groups in an effort to sway the election. Even when foreign entities are not trying to interfere in elections, using Facebook and other social media platforms for political campaigns is not uncommon. Barrack Obama leveraged data analytics in his election win in 2012 - and in Canada, Justin Trudeau also had a robust social media strategy to help him win the election.

As more nefarious uses of the platform have begun to hit the mainstream, the term fake news is now ubiquitous with the Trump Presidency, whichever side you are on. Facebook is at the center of a boiling over conflict with how citizens get the information they require for a democracy to function effectively.

There’s no question that governments can benefit from utilizing platforms like Facebook to drive insights and also deliver messaging to potential voters, but if this stops them from a) regulating more or b) funding real news organizations, then serious issues exist.

To be clear, I don’t want to misunderstand the issue and blame Facebook for everything that is wrong with media today. News organizations should shoulder their own shortcomings in not being able to adapt their business models fast enough as well. BUT - There is a public health risk if people are being fed fake information that is meant to solely generate page views and subsequently ad revenues. When only ad revenues are pursued from a content perspective, we engage in a race to the bottom. Consider that News Media Canada asked for a $350 million annual journalism fund to support journalism in Canada and was met with a fund of $10 milion per year over 5 years. On the other hand, today Google announced the Google News Initiative – which in addition to working more closely with news organizations to meet their needs, came with $300 million USD over 3 years.

It’s positive and timely to see Google making a positive contribution to journalism, at a time when search is trending up and social is trending down in terms of discoverability for news organizations. It should also be concerning that support for journalism is coming Google rather than the government. As the other half of the digital ad duopoly, albeit working on a different model – Google has historically not meshed well with pay walls, as “first click free” allowed users to get around this with several free articles that could be accessed. On the topic of fake-news – Google’s YouTube has succumbed to fake news from those that game their algorithms as well. Credit is due that they have worked to change this recently, and are pushing forward other initiatives like the News Initiative. However, there is always potential for conflict of interests.

Data driven ads driving a decline

Finding a business model that works in a digital ad where ads have migrated from print media is fundamental problem that has broken the news business. A solution does not exist – yet (podcasting has high hopes, I believe).

When Print news was driving ad revenue, but it was the readership and quality content that drove the ads. Now we are seeing ads driving the type of content that is created. The result is click-bait, hyper-partisan headlines or outright fake news.

Newspapers have the most to offer in an algorithm and data driven world by reporting on the issues that people need to know, not the ones that they want to know. Yet these organizations are being driven to delve deeper into data and insights to adjust to audience wants. While not all bad, and this information potentially resulting in a better experience, news organizations have the ability to provide a quality over quantity at a time that content is being commoditized. It will take time for customers to come back full circle to trusted sources, after being inundated by stories that offer shallow engagement. However, governments can play a role for organizations during this transition period. We’ve seen Facebook falter a couple of times this year, but the behemoth is not going anywhere. How long can we rely on Google’s News initiatives to fund news organizations, in exchange for better AMP articles?