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Episode 92 November 21, 2017 | 40min

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Our co-founders talk about Facebook and antitrust laws.

Show Notes

Is Facebook a monopoly? This week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade tackle the 2-billion-user elephant in the room and go back and forth on two big questions: whether Facebook violates antitrust laws and should be broken up, and how the platform (or its regulators) can solve its rampant fake news problem. Topics covered include what “breaking up” Facebook would even look like, how the platform might verify news sources, separating news from satire, and the general public’s ambivalence about privacy and security.

Paul Ford: Hi, you’re listening to Track Changes, the podcast of Postlight, a digital product studio at 101 Fifth Avenue in New York City. My name is Paul Ford, and I’m the co-founder and co-host of Track Changes.

Rich Ziade: And I am Richard Ziade, the other co-founder.

Paul: Rich, tell the people what we do.

Rich: Postlight builds stuff, Paul. Um…

Paul: Stuff. What kind of stuff?

Rich: Stuff. Sophisticated, high-scale software. Web applications, mobile applications, and engines underneath that power them. Not just the app, but the servers, the cloud…

Paul: You know, it’s worth noting, we don’t just do these things in the abstract. We do them for companies, for organizations. We’ve done big platforms for Vice Media, powers lots of their stuff. We’ve done work for lots of NGOs, including the Obama Foundation. And some work for Time Inc.. And we’re doing quite a bit in the field of insurance! So we’re your all-purpose shop for your big-deal stuff.

Rich: Look. Just to clarify. We’re not doing, like, sophisticated faxing technology for insurance.

Paul: No, that’s right. We’re making it easier to get insurance for lots of people.

Rich: Yes. Technology.

Paul: So, um…

Rich: Enough about us, Paul.

Paul: Let’s talk about a thing. Here’s the thing: is Facebook a monopoly? And should it be broken up?

Rich: Oh boy. That’s where we’re going?

Paul: Well…it’s been in the news. Other people have said it should be broken up.

Rich: The que—I think the preface here is why are we asking this question at all? Um…we…what happened, such that we even have to ask this question?

Paul: Well I think for a very long time, the fact that social media has taken over the web, as the consumer experience of the web is, is, I would say primarily through social media.

Rich: When you say “the web,” you don’t mean just web browsers.

Paul: Right. The whole platform.

Rich: The whole platform that powers mobile apps, web, anything, really.

Paul: Where people spend their time is in social media experiences—

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: On mobile. Snap, Facebook, Twitter.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: LinkedIn, couple others.

Rich: Right.

Paul: But like—

Rich: If you drew that pie chart, Paul—

Paul: Facebook.

Rich: Oh boy.

Paul: Facebook is big. It’s got, you know, what, 2 billion users now?

Rich: Yeah, I mean, it’s like, 5% of Facebook’s users are Twitter’s population.

Paul: And there’s—

Rich: It’s tiny.

Paul: There’s a framing problem here, which is, like, that we wanna discuss, and there’s a lot of nuance to this, but I’ll try to put it, like, in a very simple way, and you push back. In a real way, Facebook allowed for the propagation of enormous amounts of false information from foreign states and foreign actors.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: That had what is hard to prove but is very likely direct influence over the election—

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: In 2016. Also including the sort of overall electoral process.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: Like it’s not purely about Donald Trump. It’s about influence.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: Facebook has tremendous influence, and it’s really tricky, right, because Facebook’s like, “Hey advertisers. You wanna reach our audience because we have tremendous influence.” And then—

Rich: And in an incredibly accurate way.

Paul: That’s right, and then this comes down, and it’s like, “Well, people make their own decisions.”

Rich: Right.

Paul: And this has always been, it’s easy to blame Facebook for it. This has always been the paradox of media, right? Like, hey, when you want—when people come to regulate the media industry is always saying, “Well, you know, people make up their own minds.” It’s like, violence in games, right? Like, “Hey, games should be less violent.”

Rich: Freedom.

Paul: Yeah, freedom!

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And then when it’s time to sell the influence, it’s like—

Rich: Right.

Paul: “You won’t believe the power we have.”

Rich: Power in a way that’s never been available before. This is not smear campaigns, posters, advertising on busses. This is an incredibly sophisticated, uh, accurate, really, you could, targeted down to—they’re creating single ads, specific ads, for one display.

Paul: You know what’s tricky here, too, is that…it is, in a weird way, a neutral microphone, in that it’s constructed so that it doesn’t really care how people—

Rich: Well that’s their argument, right?

Paul: Right? Like, “Oh yeah, well you know, there’s lots of Democrats and lots of Republicans, and of course you might want to target them.”

Rich: Well, this comes down to, you know, what will you ban on Facebook? So you can’t, there are definitely still lines. You can’t put pornography on Facebook.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: You can’t, uh, threaten people on Facebook, like, so they have—

Paul: That’s true.

Rich: A set of guidelines about what you can’t do.

Paul: Not long ago, it was uncovered that, um, some of, you could buy demographic categories that basically got you to KKK members, like, to sort of like—

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: People who….like, sort of racist categories.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: You could by racist categories, and Sheryl Sandberg came out and was like, “Let’s not have that anymore. We’re gonna do a review. This is terrible, and it shouldn’t have happened.” And what you have there is a system that kinds of learns as it goes. People with different kinds of discretion overseeing it, and, and it sort of all turns into this big, terrible blob.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: That is horribly reminiscent of the rest of American society.

Rich: Yup.

Paul: And so you have, but, let’s, like, what is this force, right? It’s the, the power that Facebook has is to target individuals and thus affect the overall belief system of the United States and the world in ways that are hard to understand and articulate, and it doesn’t seem to have been managing that or caring about it, but just assuming that Facebook itself is a net positive and a good thing.

Rich: I don’t know if they even make that ar—I think they’re just saying, “We’re neutral.” Like, there’s good and bad in the world—

Paul: I think they are saying they’re good, though. Facebook, overall—

Rich: Wellll…

Paul: The core Facebook thesis is, like, “We make a more connected world and this is better than a government.”

Rich: They’re a commercial entity. They’re gonna paint a very rosy picture about themselves, right? But when it gets into going on the defensive, people, government protesting and starting to challenge how Facebook works, they shift arguments, because they don’t want to state a particular position, right? It’s worth asking the question, you know: Hillary’s campaign did similar stuff. They didn’t, the Russians didn’t collude with them, but they did pretty aggressive things. They probably didn’t even go as aggressively as the Trump campaign, but had Hillary won, I wonder if there’d be this level of heat on Facebook.

Paul: No, there wouldn’t be.

Rich: Right.

Paul: There wouldn’t be, because it would be—first of all, there’s no Russian collusion, or limited Russian collusion, because we’ve lost our mind as a nation with the Hillary campaign. Like, I don’t—there was no coordination along those lines.

Rich: Right. No, no, agreed.

Paul: Everything’s like two degrees of separation, which is why it’s so hard to talk about, like—

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: You know, there’s Podestas everywhere.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: In our world. Um, no, I don’t think so. I think, look, let me throw out something really—

Rich: Wait. Before you do that.

Paul: OK.

Rich: Can I share an example that I think is a blurry line?

Paul: Of course.

Rich: OK. Engadget.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: A site that’s been around for many, many years, considered one of the leading voices in technology products that, consumer products.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: And reviewing them, and what’s the best camera, and what’s the best…wifi router and all that stuff, right? What they’ve started to do is put posts up on Facebook that show a product as if they just reviewed it.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: It’s just, “This wifi router is special. It works, you know, three stories high.” Or whatever it may be.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: And it’s an ad. If you click through, it’s three paragraphs—effectively, it’s an ad. Like you could, it’s easy to, to notice, to read out here, that this thing is an ad, right?

Paul: But you’re still going to Engadget.

Rich: You’re still going to Engadget, but hold on: Mashable’s doing this too now.

Paul: But is it seen as sponsored content when you land?

Rich: Nope. It’s not seen as sponsored content.

Paul: So they’re promoting their articles…

Rich: They’re promoting their, I’m gonna put that in quotes, “articles.” Mashable’s starting to do this, too. At the bottom of the article, you know what it said? “Buy at the Mashable store.”

Paul: Right, right, right.

Rich: OK?

Paul: So—

Rich: Now—

Paul: There’s some content, whether…the content is there to justify an affiliate link that will make them some money.

Rich: I don’t think that’s an aff—I mean, make them some money, I think that’s full-blown deception. You have a brand that’s been around for 15 years, it’s considered independent, and speaking in the, in the best interests of consumers, essentially selling stuff without telling you it’s selling stuff. That’s what’s happening.

Paul: All right, so—

Rich: Is that cool?

Paul: Let’s get back, though, we made a bold claim. OK, no, it’s not cool. None of it’s cool. Nothing about what’s happening in media with that kind of stuff is ever cool, and everyone who pretends it’s cool is completely full of shit, OK? So—

Rich: OK. Let’s—

Paul: Let’s go out with that.

Rich: Let’s establish that position.

Paul: Unless you can put, unless you can just comfortably put the words “sponsored content paid for—”

Rich: Yup.

Paul: On the top? Unless it’s, like, really obvious that I’m looking at something where someone is paying for my attention—

Rich: Yup.

Paul: Then it’s nonsense, and it’s bad.

Rich: Agreed. So amp that up to…fake news. It’s the same thing. Engadget’s ad, it’s not lying about the product, but it’s taking the, whatever the product is selling to get it out, right?

Paul: No, there’s—

Rich: It’s taking the features that they wanna—

Paul: There’s an ecosystem here, and all the fractional pennies that are flowing in one direction or the other, you can get more fractional pennies if you own more and more of that, like, commerce experience. If you’re, like, “Hey, come to the store.”

Rich: Legitimacy.

Paul: That’s right, and I’ll tell you—

Rich: If you can deceive such that you appear legitimate—

Paul: Yup.

Rich: Whether you’re fake news or you’re Engadget, right? You’re deceiving people.

Paul: And content, look, content, in a certain environment, is always the first thing to go. You just go, like, “Well… [ hissing noise of complicit resignation] I know, I know, I know, I know. Everybody went to journalism school here. But c’mon, we gotta, just, you want your health insurance?”

Rich: We gotta make money.

Paul: But we made a different kind of statement than we’re making now. We said that Facebook maybe should be broken up. Facebook might be monopolistic. Monopolistic of what?

Rich: You know, I gotta say, the monopoly case is a weird one to me.

Paul: Right.

Rich: The monopoly case is anti-competitive, it’s, they’ve reached a point where nobody can get into the marketplace for this particular business.

Paul: And I can go—

Rich: I think that’s different to me.

Paul: I can go stand up a competitor social network. It’s not—

Rich: Exactly.

Paul: Here’s an example: the Bell Telephone system, there was one big phone system. And there were regional operating companies, and there were other telephone systems that had to interact with and have interchange with the Bell system.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: And because it was one giant set of wires, and for lots of other reasons, it was one big government-approved monopoly.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: And there were rules and policies about interchange.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: You know, and there was a big fight when, like, MCI wanted to come on in the 70s and 80s, and everybody was defending their turf, but the government was watching it—

Rich: Yup.

Paul: And saying, “OK, these are the rules for using the network.” The only argument I can see for Facebook being a monopoly, right, is that Facebook essentially owns the network, and I don’t think that’s true in the United States. I think, increasingly, in other nations where it is taking control, it is how people access the internet, and they see the internet as Facebook.

Rich: Without a doubt. I mean, I think at one point, didn’t they pitch, like, a Facebook phone in India that everybody would get for free?

Paul: Wasn’t just—no, there was—oh yeah, no, no, there was Project, no that might be Google, anyway, I don’t wanna get all scrambled up, but yes, there were, um…

Rich: Projects where people want to associate a brand with the internet.

Paul: Well, and there was a Facebook phone, built on Android. It wasn’t very good.

Rich: Right.

Paul: It was a weird product, but the idea was like, you’d just get right into Facebook. There’s a part of me that is—

Rich: By the way, dude, my mom goes right into Facebook.

Paul: This is the thing, right?

Rich: She doesn’t know.

Paul: It’s an effective consumer experience that connects communities that people really like. Like, I don’t, you and I, it’s very easy to be cynical, we have other options that we understand, but they nailed a certain element of the consumer experience.

Rich: She sees my kids’ pictures.

Paul: That’s right.

Rich: It’s the whole deal.

Paul: It beats the hell out of the phone, right? Like, it’s like, you couldn’t do that with the phone.

Rich: Right.

Paul: I look at Twitter sometimes, and I’m like, this could almost be an operating system, like if a tweet had a little button and you could pop it up and it would embed a spreadsheet? And then you could retweet the spreadsheet, you could start doing work in this thing. I mean, it’s just sort of like…

Rich: Google sheets.

Paul: Yeah, exactly like, social media, you know…at some level, I think the future operating system is you turn on your phone or tablet and there’s a chat window with all your friends there, and instead of stickers, those are icons for apps. Just like—

Rich: It’s happening.

Paul: Yeah, no, right?

Rich: Like—

Paul: If I wanna work on a document with you, I just open a chat and I would just share the, the spreadsheet sticker.

Rich: No, I could push a button and play a little baseball video game with you right there in the chat.

Paul: That’s exactly right.

Rich: It’s happening.

Paul: So Facebook is motivated to own the, you know, Google Docs/Microsoft Office space right now.

Rich: They’re motivated to own everything.

Paul: Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing, it’s like, everybody wants everything. Amazon wants everything, Apple wants everything, Facebook…

Rich: I think we’re getting jumbled up here.

Paul: OK. I think we probably wanna get away from monopoly as a concept.

Rich: I think that’s exactly right. Because I’m not an antitrust lawyer, but I think the criteria is you’ve gotten big enough that you can control price.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: Right? Because if I say it’s 10 bucks, right, and you say, “Oh man, let me get other brands, because I don’t need the fancy one. I only want to spend $6.” But the other brands can’t get into the market. They just completely dominate—and especially if they own, like, the resources that are underneath, like, Bell, which had all the wires.

Paul: It’s tricky right, though, because they’ll buy anything that gets too big.

Rich: That’s exactly right.

Paul: WhatsApp gets big…

Rich: And also, you know what they do, they keep somebody around.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: You know, there was always a theory that Intel kept AMD around, even though it was like, whatever, 8% of the market.

Paul: Right.

Rich: To avoid antitrust.

Paul: Sure.

Rich: You know?

Paul: Sure.

Rich: So I, I agree. Let’s park monopoly, because, like, we started off saying, “Bad things are happening on Facebook,” and ended up, “Is it a monopoly that should be broken up?”

Paul: Well that’s the traditional reason you would break it up, right?

Rich: Actually I don’t think it is.

Paul: OK.

Rich: I think it’s, it’s, um…to preserve marketplaces, and—

Paul: OK so—

Rich: So that—

Paul: There is a marketplace risk—

Rich: With Facebook?

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: I think, I…I don’t think it’s there, because of Twitter and Snapchat. I don’t think it’s there today.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: But it’s, they’re heading over there, right? Like, they’re, at one point they thought about buying Twitter, that was a while ago, and that’s not happening, but I don’t think it’s there from a monopoly perspective. I think—

Paul: Because the tricky thing, too, because no one else, like, if people can’t build social networks, they really can’t, like, Google tried, with Google+—

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And it was a debacle.

Rich: If they, if Google failed, nobody else can get in there.

Paul: Right. And Apple’s tried a couple times, with—

Rich: Don’t bother .

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Don’t bother. Yeah, so you could make the argument, right? But I don’t think that’s…what the issue is. The issue is it’s reached the level of power such that it could be manipulated to manipulate people. I think, and manipulate people, not just to buy cameras, but manipulate people which, in turn, manipulates the democratic system.

Paul: Well and let’s just say, let’s make a very broad, sweeping statement that I think is actually true: social media has the power to change peoples’ belief systems or to reaffirm beliefs that are sometimes in just total negation to the facts or what’s happening in real life.

Rich: Without a doubt.

Paul: That seems to be something we’ve seen proof of on all sides of the political spectrum, with fake news going lots of different directions. There’s a side that’s a victor right now, but it’s also possible that this could go in a completely different direction and we would be having a Facebook that was promoting the dismantling of capitalism starting, like, Tuesday.

Rich: Right, right.

Paul: So it’s not a monopoly, let’s get that out of there, but we do think we need to regulate.

Rich: Yes. Well, I mean, terrible things are happening on there, and Facebook, their argument is, “We can’t keep up. Like, we think they’re terrible, too. It’s just there’s too much and we can’t keep up.”

Paul: This is just how it works. We have algorithms. You can’t, this is not something where…you know, it’s not your local hometown paper. OK, so what are we regulating?

Rich: [sigh] It’s, I don’t know, I don’t even know where to start. Like, it’s hard, right?

Paul: OK.

Rich: That if you—OK, here’s one. I’ll come in heavy-handed, OK? If you are planning to advertise or planning to promote a political figure during an election process, a new set of rules kick in for you.

Paul: Well should this be, like, the “paid for by the….you know, the Citizens to Reelect…”

Rich: There’s, like, light rules around that. You have to do that.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: There’s laws that say you’ve gotta put “paid for blah blah blah.” Because sometimes the ads are just smear of the other side. So you can’t just put a smear out and not clarify that, look, there’s a reason this is here.

Paul: So the tricky part, then, is news distribution, right? Because ads are one thing. You could, you could go and validate that businesses exist—

Rich: Exactly.

Paul: Or organizations exist.

Rich: Right.

Paul: Or, you know, check FEC filings.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: Things like that. OK, so news is another. If I say I am “Joe’s Newspaper,” and that, uh, a new candidate, Jane Doe, eats baby dolphins.

Rich: OK. Big issue, right? So Jane Doe, look, let’s, let’s park libel for a second. Jane Doe could sue you.

Paul: That’s right.

Rich: Jane Doe can say, “That is a false statement about me.”

Paul: A political—

Rich: It’s harmful.

Paul: As a political candidate, she almost never will.

Rich: She almost never will, but it’s libel.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: If anything, she’d spin it on you, and say, “You’re a monster for even suggesting that.”

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: But—

Paul: Dolphin blood dripping down her chin.

Rich: Correct. There is, there is a libel law that allows me to sue you.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: Now what Facebook has done is—

Paul: If I can find you. Where’s “Joe’s Newspaper”?

Rich: There you go.

Paul: OK.

Rich: Now this thing is, like, spun up out of thin air. They make up the name of the, like, newspaper so it sounds really close to the local paper.

Paul: Right.

Rich: In your town.

Paul: Right.

Rich: They just ad like, a, you know, an apostrophe to it or something, so you think it’s that paper, and—

Paul: It’s—

Rich: Even if I go after you—

Paul: It’s the Topeka Courier Express, right, and you’re like, “Oh, I never even heard of this before, but looks good.”

Rich: It looks good, right? The typography’s solid.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: So OK. Candidate finds out about it—

Paul: Which, worth noting, it’s Facebook’s typography, right? It’s flowing through their system.

Rich: That’s right. That’s right.

Paul: OK.

Rich: Candidate finds out that—the candidate that’s been targeted finds out about it, and wants to sue you. You can’t do that. Putting bad information about me, harmful information about me, go ahead, Paul, where is Topeka Courier Express?

Paul: Oh, it’s not in Topeka.

Rich: Where is it?

Paul: It could be any number of countries that end with “-stan,” “-ia,” “-onia.” [laughter]

Rich: Right. Exactly.

Paul: Right? Like it’s…

Rich: Exactly.

Paul: It’s…a place where either a foreign agent is paying to make this content, and having people do it in weird rooms, that’s, we know that that sort of stuff is happening, or possibly, and who knows if this is real, but like, it’s teenagers who’ve figured out how to hack the system, and essentially, they’re making memes—

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: That people are consuming as news.

Rich: So let me ask you this: can you find the “Topeka”—let’s say you went to Estonia and you found the house where it was, like, posted from?

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: It’s probably a house.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: Can you then go after them?

Paul: I don’t know enough about international law.

Rich: I don’t think you even have to hit up international law. I think it’s so ephemeral that it’s gone, like, two days later.

Paul: That’s right.

Rich: It’s not there.

Paul: That’s right.

Rich: There is no there, right? So there isn’t even an entity to target. Like, it’s not only far away, and international law is a whole other world, but it’s just, it’s spun up for a moment, and then it disintegrates.

Paul: So there’s ephemerality that can do permanent damage.

Rich: A foundational premise of the law is that there is something on the other side to sue.

Paul: Right. And in this case, no—and, in fact, it could even be a bot. [laughter]

Rich: It might not even be human, exactly.

Paul: It could be a bot that just spews out stories and then one of them hits.

Rich: You write a good bot, Paul, you could spin up newspaper names. [laughter]

Paul: That’s right. That’s right. Just “city” plus, like…

Rich: Right.

Paul: “The Sacramento…”

Rich: Exactly.

Paul: Whatever. OK, so…

Rich: So we’ve got an impossible situation to police, you could argue.

Paul: This is the thing, right: this is where I think it actually does become something Congress gets involved in, something that you need law about, because you end up in the situation here where you register journalistic sources.

Rich: This is a very powerful suggestion, right? Which is…

Paul: But this is—

Rich: They’re not a certified journalist.

Paul: Facebook doesn’t have—it can be individuals saying whatever the hell they want about public figures.

Rich: Yep.

Paul: And actually Jane Doe probably can’t sue, because she’s so famous.

Rich: She—it’s hard.

Paul: Yeah. It’s hard.

Rich: It’s just, when it goes dirty, and, and—

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Ugly, it’s, it gets real hard.

Paul: It’s all right.

Rich: It’s just complicated.

Paul: It’s just kind of understood that you can sit there and say, “Jane Doe eats dolphins…”

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: And she’s gonna have to just grin and bear it—

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Because she’s a very, very well-known public figure running for office, right?

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: So Facebook, to my mind, doesn’t have a choice, aside from saying, “This is a valid news source. This is not a valid news source.”

Rich: See, I think you’re right, I mean, it’s insane.

Paul: But I’m thinking, like, down—there’s a database deep down in there and they need to check that box.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: And if it doesn’t get checked through that box, it needs to either be flagged as…probably needs to be suppressed.

Rich: Do you apply?

Paul: This is where it gets tricky, because—

Rich: The New York Times is gonna fill out an application?

Paul: Probably yeah, because anyone will do anything Facebook tells them to. [laughter]

Rich: All right, so, you get verified. You get, like, a seal.

Paul: That’s right.

Rich: Like, you know certain websites…

Paul: Real news.

Rich: There’s, like, “verified.” The checkmark, at the bottom, when you’re about to give your credit card.

Paul: And this is where it gets really tricky, right, because what people point out about Fox News and other things like that, as compared to sort of more traditional consensus-y news…I think everybody knows what my biases are, but they tend to be more towards the traditional New York Times style of journalism. I live in Brooklyn. But Fox News doesn’t report lies. It reports the same damn story over and over again. If an immigrant does something bad, they hammer that bad boy day in, day out.

Rich: You’re hittin’ on some—another thing that’s really important.

Paul: So that’s not fake.

Rich: That’s not fake. That’s even harder, dude.

Paul: Right?

Rich: Like, how the hell am I…first off, I think you can’t touch it. I think, I think there is a line where you’re getting news from bias, and there is bias on all sides.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: We’re pointing out, you know, Fox News, there’s also Now This, right?

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: Which has its position. Regardless, let’s not even make a judgement here. You’re not, you can’t go there. That’s, like, part of the importance of the press in a democratic society.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: Like—

Paul: Well and then—

Rich: It all comes at you, and you’ve gotta make a judgement.

Paul: What if there’s something, what if there is, like, and I’ve seen these again on both sides here, where it’s, like, everything’s basically accurate, but 8% are just completely over-the-top speculation. Like, and it’s a lot of stuff like, “I’m not saying Jane Doe eats dolphins.”

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: “But there seems to be a lot of dolphin blood.” [laughter] “On her face.”

Rich: “There are dolphin fins at her door.” [laughter]

Paul: Yeah, just, “I saw her, you know, the thing in her lunchbox had flippers.”

Rich: You just stated a fact.

Paul: Right.

Rich: And if that fact is not real, that will be a scandal. It will be on TV. The person who said it will come on and apologize. Or CNN will fire them.

Paul: Yeah, but CNN will. But then there’s all these other outliers, like, places, and…naming them does us no good, but everybody knows, like, that one outlet on whatever side where they’re like, “Well, I know, that’s just a lot of garbage.” The reality is, here’s a good example: there are really far-right and fundamentalist Christian websites that believe the rapture’s coming tomorrow, or that, you know, Obama is the antichrist.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: OK? 80% of what they publish is just rabble-rousing anger based on relatively real news stories.

Rich: I think you can do that.

Paul: And then 20% is—

Rich: Those are op-eds.

Paul: “Obama is the Antichrist.” Right? But this is the world that Facebook desperately wants to avoid.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: They don’t want to be there, but they need that news, they need that, that sort of flow and momentum that comes from having the media in their world.

Rich: Facebook—

Paul: This is a horrible—

Rich: Wants it all.

Paul: This is a horrible product problem.

Rich: It’s a horrible product problem, and Facebook wants it all. We’ve made a couple of suggestions. You have to be verified, as a journalist, or journalistic entity. You have to—

Paul: And you just have to accept that that is gonna mean endless product nightmare and a social disaster where people, where you don’t verify someone, and they go and they complain for the next five years, and trash your brand, and say that you’re in league with fascism. That is the only, that’s the best possible outcome Facebook can hope for.

Rich: Yeah. It’s, it’s an unbelievable challenge. I mean, let’s give Facebook the benefit of the doubt—they wanna solve it. This is hard, man.

Paul: It’s really hard. Because of the way that data works, where you can only kind of, like, set flags, ambiguity is really hard in their world, OK? So there’s not a lot of grey area. They have one, in a way, you can look at Facebook as one super-giant database. They’re trying to map the world onto that database.

Rich: Yes, and they’ve saved the, you know, they’ve solved a bunch of it. Like, you know, they did a lot of, like, machine learning to figure out who my kids are, because of their faces. Like, if I add names, like, when I sign up to Facebook, you can, like, suggest a few friends’ names.

Paul: Right.

Rich: And it’s, they bring up pictures of people with the same name, and they say, “Is this the one?” And then, like, they box out the face, and whatnot. They’ve done some stuff where it’s going beyond just throwing numbers into a database. But this is, this is a whole other game.

Paul: I guess what I’m saying is that they’re in the business of facts. And there’s a certain point at which humanity just gets into pure interpretation and kind of relative madness, and it’s not, I know a lot about machine learning, or I know enough about machine learning to know that we’re nowhere near being able to—you can classify sentiment.

Rich: Here, you want another one, Paul?

Paul: Hmmm.

Rich: The Onion comes out with a theory that Irish midgets that 9/11 happened.

Paul: Right.

Rich: OK? Satire.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: Right? Pure satire. The Supreme Court, years ago, there was a case called Hustler v Jerry Falwell.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: Or Jerry Falwell v. Hustler. Hustler put a joke at the end of one of their issues—

Paul: Yeah, many of our readers may not know: Hustler is a pornographic magazine which is—

Rich: I didn’t know that until a week ago, Paul.

Paul: You read it on paper. You go to the store.

Rich: Yes. It had photographs.

Paul: You. People would. People would go to the store and buy it. Um….a lot of our readers may never have purchased a magazine. Or listeners, have never purchased a magazine.

Rich: So they, you know, one of Hustler‘s little things, kind of one of their angles, was they make fun and they really rip to shreds politicians and people who they thought—public figures they thought were a little slimy.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: So they put out an article essentially stating that Jerry Falwell, who was a minister, a TV evangelist, who was always, there was always suspicion that he stole money, and all this stuff, that he had, he had had sex with his mother in an outhouse.

Paul: OK, that was what it said.

Rich: That was what it said, OK? Obviously satire, right?

Paul: And I think, if I remember, this was written first-person, it was like, his memories of the first time and…it was like…

Rich: OK.

Paul: And it was really kind of…

Rich: It was ugly, but—

Paul: It was ugly and gross and that was the aesthetic of that magazine.

Rich: Exactly right. So he sues them, and it makes it all the way up to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court says, concluded, that if it is obviously satire, and obviously is obviously a really important word.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: If it feels like it’s not, then we’ve got, they’ve got an issue, and Hustler is a target. But if it’s obviously satire, it’s protected speech.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: And that was a landmark case. It went all the way up to the highest court. And add that to Facebook’s problems, OK?

Paul: Sure.

Rich: Add that to the Irish midgets, uh, being responsible for 9/11, and their algorithms distinguishing satire from fact. Impossible!

Paul: It’s all a mess, right? So that means they have to have a registry with someone on the other side who will be, like, a 19-year-old intern. [laughter]

Rich: I think they have hundreds of people somewhere that read stuff, no?

Paul: But that’s the thing. There’s gonna be some 19-year-old intern telling The Washington Post that they may be a real news source, right? [laughter] And it’s…this is the, this is the structure that, OK, so we’re saying that—

Rich: Also, like, older journalists just aren’t even gonna get it. [laughter]

Paul: All right, so don’t break up Facebook. It doesn’t really qualify as a monopoly like the Bell system. Do regulate it, but let’s all just acknowledge, it’s going to be hideous. [laughter]

Rich: Do you even go there, Paul? Can you imagine the government sitting down and saying, “All right, let’s write this up.” [laughter]

Paul: I don’t—I think, I think that’s what’s coming. You can’t have an entity with this much power that doesn’t have a clear regulatory framework, and an understand and actual relationship with, like, not just—this is beyond lobbying, right?

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Like, this is not, like, “Hey, our guys on K Street are gonna come over and talk with you about our next, our year plan. You know, we made a little donation into the, into the Senatorial, um, campaign box there.” This is, like, this is a, the equivalent of a giant foreign entity, right? It’s like, Facebook is like, we—

Rich: It’s important. Its power is important.