In the final episode in our series on Junk News, some wisdom from one of the leading experts in the murky world of online misinformation. He also happens to be the producer of the series that we aired on the PBS NewsHour. Now he’s taking the software he wrote to Harvard, where they hope to find new ways to combat Junk News. I hope you enjoy this talk with Cameron Hickey, my friend and soon-to-be former colleague.
Miles O’Brien: Hello and welcome to another edition of Miles To Go, I’m Miles O’Brien.
This is the final installment today in our series on junk news, the television version of which you can see on the PBS NewsHour on their site–and, of course, you can find it on milesobrien.com. It was four parts, and if you want to understand the world of misinformation–you can call it fake news if you like, we like junk news–we invite you to check it out. We think we uncovered a few insights… or, at least, we hope so.
Today we’re going to talk to an expert who earned his credentials in this realm in the course of researching this story.
I’m talking about my good friend, my colleague, producer Cameron Hickey who got the ball rolling for us on this more than a year ago by asking a few simple questions–most good stories start that way. What’s different in this case is he applied his excellent skills as a computer programmer to try to find some answers.
He ended up creating some software called NewsTracker, and it informed us in many key ways as we went through our long fascinating investigation into this murky world.
Now, Cameron knows as much about this subject as any individual, in my opinion, and I’m proud to say that we work together–at least, for now. You see, he did such a good job on this that his expertise and his software caught the attention of no less than Harvard, the Harvard University Shorenstein Center to be exact. And that is where he will soon be working.
So this is his valedictory project for us here and it’s a good way to head out the door, I suppose. You know, they say you’ve got to finish strong. But it sure is a bittersweet moment for me–I couldn’t be more proud of him and the work he’s done for us not just on this project but all of them over the last 10 years, believe it or not.
Hopefully he’ll remember all the little people here at Miles O’Brien Productions. In any case, here is the back story from Cameron Hickey on how this long, strange odyssey of junk news began and how it transpired.
Miles O’Brien: Cameron, good to talk to you as always.
Cameron Hickey: Likewise.
Miles O’Brien: So, what got you started on this? You worked with me as a producer and a photographer, a cinematographer and we’ve been working together for 10 years now. But you also come to this with an interesting technical background. So, when you saw what happened during the 2016 presidential election, you were seeing it through multiple prisms, really. And I’m curious what kind spurred you on to decide that there was an interesting journalistic project to do on what we now call junk news?
Cameron Hickey: It started for me with am article by BuzzFeed reporter Craig Silverman. That was a really important story in the history of junk news and its impact on the election because what Craig found was that he studied a set of fake news stories and compared those to real news stories and he saw that on Facebook, over the course of the election season, those fake news stories were outperforming real news stories on social media.
And his reporting showed a graph that was like this very vivid graph of fake news stories, real news stories and two lines going in opposite directions, one going up, the other going down. And I thought, that’s really striking but it leaves all these other questions unanswered.
The first was, did he choose all the right stories? Is that really representative of all the things that are happening on Facebook? Is that really representative of the news as a whole? And I thought we’ve spent so long covering science and met so many scientists and thought about the way that they conduct a research. And to me, it was sort of like I needed to reproduce his research as a starting point. I needed to understand if what he said was accurate in the larger context and then try and figure out why because it still seemed pretty shocking to me.
Miles O’Brien: So it’s interesting that this begins with some healthy skepticism of what you read.
There’s a certain amount of irony in all that because that goes through the entire theme of what we’ve been talking about here is that, you shouldn’t accept what you read at face value and that’s where this begins.
Cameron Hickey: Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny, I absolutely, I admire Craig Silverman. He’s a fantastic journalist and it wasn’t necessarily that I didn’t trust what he had said. It was something actually, I remember from some journalism school class that either my wife or somebody else took which is sort of like whenever you see numbers, don’t trust the numbers. You got to double check them. So I always have that running in the back of my mind. Whenever I’m looking at any of the reporting that we do, science or otherwise, it sort of is like as soon I see a number, I’ve got to make sure, is that number really right? Is it in the right unit? Is it in the right scale? So seeing the scale of what described there, just kicked up a concern that this is something that needs a lot more investigation because it’s so meaningful if those numbers are right.
Miles O’Brien: So, before we get into what you did, we do need a little bit of background for those listening.
Most journalists run away from numbers as best they can. And you, you actually — you fire out of both sides of your brain. Tell us a little bit about your background with numbers and specifically computer programming, just so people understand how you had the water behind the dam to do NewsTracker eventually.
Cameron Hickey: When I was in college, I studied both photography and economics and throughout college, which was in the late 90s, I also taught myself computer programming because I was super interested in technology and in using technology to solve problems. And before I even graduated from college, I got a job at a first generation dotcom ompany. They hired me away. Originally, I was going to stay in college and work for them and they said no. We’re getting all these, you just got to leave college and start working for us. I wasn’t even 21. I wasn’t able to drink at the parties that they held for this new and flush with cash dotcom. But I already started working there and then I went from there to successive jobs and contractor positions, building websites, building web applications and learning to design complex systems to do the kinds of things that were all so familiar with today.
So back before there was Yelp, we built something like Yelp. We built all kinds of e-commerce tools. The first company I worked for was — tried to be the amazon.com of sportswear.
I built all these big technical projects and then at a certain point, I became less interested in it. It wasn’t fulfilling for me in terms of how I wanted to address the world and then I shifted gears, went back to the other side of my education, my photography background and became a documentary filmmaker. And after years of that that we met and then I’ve been doing this ever since.
But all along, I’ve never been really willing to give up the coding so I always maintain my coding skills on my own. Over the last 10 years that we’ve been doing PBS productions, I’ve also been on my own time going to hackathons and building little tools for myself or to try and experiment with new things.
I’ve always had the hacking entrepreneurial side to myself and so those skills lent themselves well to trying to address this new problem.
Miles O’Brien: So, you have dual passions for journalism and for computer coding and that puts you in the perfect place when you add this other dimension, the rise of misinformation. How misinformation overwhelmed the presidential election process makes, in your world, a perfect storm moment. So, you had the skills, you had the desire, you had the journalistic fire burning, what was the next step? Did you just immediately start thinking, “I’m going to write a program that’s going to understand this better?” You’ve read the Craig Silverman article, you have the skill set, you have the journalistic desire, what happens next?
Cameron Hickey: I started poking around, looking at all of the different work that other people had done to identify what was being called fake news. What other sites, what other sources, what other places on Facebook people had already identified to try and understand how big this problem really was, to start anecdotally answering the same question that Craig had been trying to answer.
It became clear very quickly that the scale of content was too big to look at manually. There was no way to look at every one of these sites or as soon as you start down a rabbit hole, you quickly discover that there’s hundreds of other paths that you can take. So I knew that the only way to ever get a sense of how big is this problem, how many different networks of junk are out there, was to build software that could crawl all of those and collect them and produce some numbers at the end of the day so that you could try and visualize it.
Miles O’Brien: Well, surely you had some notion or maybe not, but you tell me, of the scope of the problem before you went in. It is after all the internet. It’s the worldwide web and there are a lot of people out there and a lot of players, but were you taken aback by the scale as you delved in?
Cameron Hickey: I was. It’s important I think back right after the election when we talked about fake news and its impact on the election, we were really talking about a couple of specific stories.
There’s the Pope endorses Donald Trump. There’s a pedophilia ring in a pizza place in Washington D.C. It’s Hillary Clinton’s health is no good. There were these specific stories and I think when we first started talking about fake news, we didn’t think about it as this massive problem. We thought about it as specific problems and how each of those stories might have impacted and misinformed the public in specific ways. And then what happened was, I started looking at all of these pages that had been sharing that content.
First, the websites themselves and then the Facebook pages. It was at that moment when I saw that there were many, many layers to it, both in terms of the style of content and the places where it was being published. So, it wasn’t just 10 or 50 or 100 stories, it was thousands and thousands of stories across all of these pages and new ones that were appearing. We started looking into this in January of 2017. And if you thought that the point of junk or fake news was to affect the outcome of the election, then why were people still doing it now? And why was the volume of it growing? It was recognizing that this problem was much more complex and nuanced and massive than I had thought before that necessitated building technology to solve it.
Miles O’Brien: The nuanced aspect of this is, it’s always hard to do nuance, right, especially when you’re trying to search for something in automated fashion on the web.
It’s frankly, I would assume not for me but for you would be pretty easy to go out and find the Pope endorses Trump type story though it’s demonstrably false. It seems like that’s in a relatively black and white world, we can come up with an easy way to look for that stuff. The nuance is where it gets difficult where you might have an article that is there’s not a fact that’s wrong, it’s just missing an entire side or it stresses one aspect, or there’s a very inflammatory headline. How do you begin to identify those, I can’t remember which famous Supreme Court Justice when asked how do you define pornography and he basically said paraphrasing, “I know it when I see it.” You know misinformation, hyper-partisan polarizing fare when you see it, but it’s hard to reduce that decode, isn’t it?
Cameron Hickey: I also use that same basic definition. It’s like porn, I know it when I see it but it’s hard to describe.
There’s a couple of key factors that I tried to understand that you could code for, right? So, it is using specific words in the headline, right? You can write software to detect words. Is it using all caps in headlines? You can write software to detect that. Do the stories have bylines right, because what I found was a lot of these stories that were no listed bylines so that’s a telltale sign. How old is the website that created this content or how old is the website where this content was published? Is this a 10-year-old domain name or is this a domain name that was only registered a month ago? So, those are all the kinds of things that you can code for and that gets you a little bit further.
In addition to that, what I discovered was that people who like some of these stuff like a lot of that other stuff. What else I discovered is that if an individual on social media like some of this stuff, they’re likely to like more of it in other places.
So by looking for all the other things that those people liked, I could find stuff that had a reasonable likelihood of also being junk, right? It wasn’t a guarantee, it wasn’t the kind of thing you could code for but what I could do and what I started to do was say, “What else is popular with this audience? And then of that, what’s the most popular?” And as you sort up the most popular, that stuff was all much more likely to match that broad definition of it looks like junk to me.
Miles O’Brien: I think the term of art that we discovered when we spent some time at Facebook is signals. You were looking for signals in your own way. As you started looking for those signals, what started rising to the top of NewsTracker feed?
Cameron Hickey: I think it’s important to talk about those nuance things there because that’s what I discovered as the most interesting, right? So the flat-out false stuff there is and will always be some of that but that is a fraction of the content overall.
Miles O’Brien: I think you could make an argument that the flat-out false stuff really doesn’t move the needle anywhere because it’s demonstrably false. So I think people discount it or take it for what it is, right? The grain of salt is employed. Do you really think that moves opinions one way or another?
Cameron Hickey: I wouldn’t agree that it doesn’t move the needle but I think that volume-wise is there is so much less of it that the risk for all of these other kind of stuff is much greater.
Miles O’Brien: So, it’s the more insidious stuff that you think is a greater risk to democracy in general, is that accurate to say?
Cameron Hickey: Well so, one of the things you asked before ought to be pretty easy to find the totally fake stuff. Well, there is certainly a couple of really easy ways to find the fake stuff and that’s one of the ones that I used. I went to all the places that fact check stuff and debunk things and they have lists of all of it. Snopes and PolitiFact, et cetera, have created lists of all the actually false stuff that they’ve debunked and you can use that for all of the sites that those are connected to and everything. However, the content that is not so easily debunked is not stuff that they are capable of addressing because that’s not exactly what they’re in the business of.
So that stuff is both harder to find but there’s so much more of it. So there’s a lot of different ways that misinformation can manifest itself. One is by being false, another is by using techniques of logic which are flawed. So a logical fallacy of false equivalency. Those kinds of forms of misinformation are subtle and do have the same impact at something that’s false. It leaves the person who consumed it with a incorrect impression of the facts, incorrect impression of the reality of our world. But you can’t debunk it the same way that Snopes can say, “This isn’t true because we have this other fact that proves that it’s not true, therefore we mark it false.”
Mies O’Brien: Your entry point to all of this is Facebook and Facebook dominates this world so much that it’s the place to go to figure this all out, there’s no question.
Everybody’s view of Facebook is defined by who we are connected to, our tribe. And in your case, it led you to your grandmother. So tell me a little about this because this is probably not what you expected back when you dove into this and were reading that Craig Silverman article at the outset of all this.
Cameron Hickey: Once I started building this tool and collecting Facebook pages that were sharing misinformation, I started visiting all of them because I felt like, as with any sort of long term investigative project, you really have to understand the landscape. So I wanted to read the content that was being published in all of these sites. I wanted to look through the post, I wanted to see what people were saying about it. And I went to page after page after page of hyper-partisan junk news, misinformation, and fake news, all of it.
Because of the way that Facebook works, whenever you visit a page, it shows you any of your friends that have also liked that page. And for hundreds of pages, my grandmother’s name appeared on the right hand side of the screen.
When it was the first one or two conservative pages, it didn’t — I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting,” but I knew that my grandmother was conservative, I knew that she supported Donald Trump. So that didn’t surprise me but then after it became hundreds of pages, I recognized it was something more significant going on here.
I didn’t immediately contact my grandmother. I tried to investigate and figure out what’s going on. One possible conclusion was maybe my grandmother’s computer is infected with a virus or she’s part of a botnet and somebody else is liking all these pages on her behalf, right? Certainly, we believed that there is some activity like that taking place. There’s a lot of inauthentic bot activity which we’ve looked into in the past.
But then the more I looked and I saw what she actually shared, I started to conclude now she really is doing this, she really is liking this stuff. And then when in fact reached out and started talking to her, she confirmed all of that.
Mies O’Brien: This is an interesting and this is more intramural for journalist but this is a bit of journalistic quandary when it happens to be your own grandmother who’s an ideal source for your story.
I of course encouraged this because I felt like we all have that grandmother. In my case it’s my father, he’s just not very active on Facebook but there is somebody in our tribe, our network who has these ideas and it’s just something that resonated with me so much that I felt that this was something we should pursue for our story.
I assume you walked into that idea with some trepidation. What was going on through your mind before you even called her or much less get on a plane to go see her?
Cameron Hickey: The sort of obvious thing that was going through my mind was I didn’t really want to upset my grandmother by talking about this. But at the same time, I was concerned. I saw that she was consuming a lot of or at least had expressed an interest in a lot of content that I found questionable, that I found problematic. That was the primary meat of our investigation was that this content is problematic and so to see her having engaged with all of it made me both want to talk to her about it and say, “I think you’ve –,” the same way you’d want to intervene with somebody who was abusing drugs or overeating or something, like this is a problem and we need talk about it.
But I also was concerned about the idea of putting my grandmother on television or trying to do that with her because I didn’t really want to exploit my family. So I felt like I had to spend a lot of time figuring out the right balance there because the flipside of not wanting to exploit your family is, that you have a really unique and powerful insight into somebody by being related to them and you have access that nobody else has. So if you can thread that needle, I think it’s actually really important way to conduct our work as journalists.
Mies O’Brien: And just for the record before we press on here, the finished product which we invite our listeners to watch, go to milesobrien.com to check out the NewsHour piece that we did with Betty Manlove, Cameron’s grandmother, was she okay with it?
Cameron Hickey: Yeah, I had a number of conversations with her. Obviously, while we were there shooting and we got to the edge of her being comfortable with why I was there, but she was comfortable then. And then subsequently, when we talked about the things that we were going to say about her, I made sure she was comfortable with them. And then after the piece aired, I don’t think that she would say she was super happy. Her main response was, “It’s so weird seeing yourself on TV,” which I have to be honest, I felt exactly the same way.
Mies O’Brien: So what are your big takeaways from that visit when you actually sat down with her at the computer and heard her talk about all these things? Was it suddenly made more real in a way?
Cameron Hickey: I took a lot away from that experience and sort of combined with our — all the time I spent talking to and learning about how Cyrus did his work, right? Because those have two sides about it.
Mies O’Brien: And that’s a prolific purveyor of junk news who we’re going to talk about after this, but go ahead, what were your big things takeaways from Betty?
Cameron Hickey: Well, so what I learned by sitting next to her and watching her use Facebook, and talking with her about, “Why did you like 1,400 pages on Facebook?” It became clear she didn’t understand exactly how the mechanics of Facebook worked.
So she would look at a page and she would say, “Now, I agree with what that thing says.” She would see a post in her feed and say, “I agree with what that says.” So when I click “like” does that mean I like everything that that page says? It turns out that kind of is what it means but that wasn’t what she meant. She wasn’t like, “I want to follow that news organization and get all their content in my feed.” She just was clicking “like” on an ad or a post that she in some way agreed with. And it had this effect of building this wall of junk around her, so that that was all she ever saw.
That was a really important realization because it meant that there were probably a lot of people who didn’t really understand how Facebook worked and I have met many other people who don’t have the nuance comprehension that you or I do. And they have possibly been exploited by the way the platform works, by the way that these advertisers are trying to put their content in front of people like that, and have unwittingly buried themselves under a pile of junk. And I think going into it, I wasn’t — I didn’t have a complete awareness that this was almost accidental.
Miles O’Brien: It gets you to the point where it almost sounds like a diabolical plot on the part of advertisers to game us all. That’s probably an overstatement, but what are your thoughts?
Cameron Hickey: Well, I certainly think that this kind of publisher, this person who’s just trying to make a profit from something that people will click on and has hit on the idea that politics strikes a different kind of chord with people than any other kind of content. It feels manipulative, it feels exploitive and it feels wrong.
Miles O’Brien: So, let’s talk about Cyrus Massoumi. How did you happen upon him?
Cameron Hickey: Early on in the investigation of these different junk news pages that I was looking at, I happened upon two pages that looked identical. They had the same layout, design, I even checked in their code and found that they had the same ad tracking code in both of these sites. The difference between the two was that in one, the logo of the site was blue and on the other, the logo of the site was red. And the site with the red logo had conservative content and the site with the blue logo had liberal content.
And I found that both of these sites had massive followings on Facebook and were definitely reaching a huge audience. I frequently like to say double the audience of our own PBS NewsHour Facebook page, which I found rather disturbing. So, I used these sites, I guess in retrospect sort of like a canary in a coal mine. I would look at them every day or every a couple of days.
Whenever I would try and explain this work to people, I would demonstrate these two sites and how I had been able connect the two as being clearly connected to the same source. So, I watched them constantly. And one day last summer, the conservative site stopped publishing the political news that it had been publishing all along.
The Facebook page for that site was still publishing stuff, but now, it was publishing from some other domain and the content wasn’t political at all. And I thought that that was really odd because the liberal site was still publishing. The liberal site was still posting every day. And clearly, this operation continued. But for some reason, the one domain stopped and the other domain continued going.
So, through a couple of different means, one was looking for other reporting on these sites, another was investigating the owners behind these sites in terms of their domain registration records, I figured out that a guy named Cyrus Massoumi owned both of these sites. I searched on Skype for somebody with a name Cyrus Massoumi that was in the same location as the domain had been registered and I found that person and I sent them a message on Skype.
Within an hour I think, I got a message back and an hour later, he called me up on the phone and we started talking.
Miles O’Brien: So, you find him, you reached out to him. He is willing and interested in talking. That makes it sound a little more simpler than it was. You spent a lot of time trying to understand him and his motivations and ultimately, convince him to come on camera. Just tell us a little bit about that process.
Cameron Hickey: I spent an hour on the phone with him the first time and then I spent successively over several months, many hour-long phone calls and a continuous text communication. And I think, it’s important to say from the beginning, he was willing to do an on camera interview. He’d talked to a couple of other news outlets in the past and was happy to do it. He was quick to point out that he was one of the only people that did this kind of work that was willing to talk to the press.
But I felt like in order to really understand this and do the best job, I needed to spend a lot more time understanding him, understanding what he did and understanding exactly what the landscape was for this whole industry of hyperpartisan junk news publishing.
So, that involved bouncing ideas off of him and vice versa, talking about how the changes that Facebook was making were impacting him. He would get in touch with me frequently to say, “We just saw this massive decline in traffic, is there anything you’ve seen or heard about this? What’s Facebook doing about it?” I hadn’t really, because at that point, we weren’t getting much out of Facebook. But I certainly was curious to investigate further based on the different things that he was explaining to me. He also detailed to me off the record lots of back story about his relationship to other players in this industry and how other people operate and the bigger picture of how the business works that all really informed how our investigation move forward.
Miles O’Brien: How were you able to vet him? Because he makes a lot of claims and it’s a murky world to say the least.
Cameron Hickey: I tried to talk to a lot of other people, none of whom were willing to talk to corroborate the specific things that he said about his experience in this world.
The internet is the main tool for vetting him, right? So, I was able to find the various other sites that he had created in the past and verify like what kinds of sites they were. I think he wasn’t frequently employed in official capacity and other places that he worked. So, it wasn’t easy to verify that stuff. So, I think we had to stick to the bits that we could verify in terms of our reporting. And those were about the things that he was willing to talk about and that we could verify directly by looking at them.
Miles O’Brien: Cyrus by those accounts, I think we can agree, is a relatively big player in this world and maybe one of the first movers the way he describes it. There’s no question in my mind, he is a gifted natural marketer. Remembering what you said earlier in our conversation, “Why did this all continue in January 2017, the election was over?” and what you realize when you talked to Cyrus is that while that he begins with ideology, it is core which is, he would describe as “libertarian”, I believe would be the most accurate way, he is motivated in other ways. It’s kind of a complicated mix, isn’t it?
Cameron Hickey: Well, I think he’s really an entrepreneur. I think that money motivates him, a lifestyle that’s expensive is one he enjoys. So, finding ways to make money efficiently, using his intellect to exploit a system. Doing something he can do all on his own from his apartment or his bedroom or whatever, that’s the kind of work that he does.
I mean, he started out selling t-shirts as a high schooler because he wanted to make money. They were snarky t-shirts, right? They were anti-Obama conservative t-shirts. But in the end, it was just selling a product. And then he discovered, “Oh, I can get rid of the product, I don’t need the overhead of dealing with that stuff and just collect money digitally directly by using ads.”
And I think it’s always been about the money and that was — that’s evident from having recognized that, “I don’t even just need a site that matches my political ideology. I can create a site completely contrary to it and make money off of that too.”
Miles O’Brien: So, if we’re going to the hierarchy here, he’s an entrepreneur, he’s a marketer, and he’s an expert in arbitrage. And then, somewhere in there is politics. Politics is a useful tool to enable all of that, right?
Cameron Hickey: He didn’t do this with other kinds of content, right? I think Craig Silverman told me awhile back that when he went to Macedonia and he met with the Macedonian teenagers who were publishing fake news, what he learned was, they had been doing this long before it was about fake news. They were publishing all kinds of sites and all other subject matter just to generate clicks and get ad revenue. And then they hit on politics because they saw that politics was getting a ton of traffic on Facebook and on Google.
And I think that Cyrus’ strong interest in politics made it a natural fit for him to become really successful because he understood what drove him to be interested in politics and therefore, what would likely drive the audience as well.
Miles O’Brien: Cyrus is not what we imagine when we think about fake news, junk news, hyper-partisan–we’re thinking St. Petersburg, Russia, we’re thinking about Macedonia, we’re thinking about–really, we’re not thinking about a young man in Napa, California, are we? And really, I think probably, based on your research, that type of individual is probably more common, would you think?
Cameron Hickey: Yeah, well, I guess, it’s funny because now that’s exactly what I think it is. I suppose when we started, we didn’t think it was that kind of individual but it became clear that it’s more likely that. I mean, and I think to be honest, probably the teenagers in Macedonia are probably, Macedonian Cyrus’. There are other people who are smart, they have a good grasp of language and technology, and they want to make money and this is a really great way to — there are a lot of ways to make money in this world. There’s only a few of them where you can do it all sitting at a desk in your own apartment.
It’s the classic idea of a get-rich quick scheme, right? So, I think that whoever the people are around the world that are doing it for profit anyway, they are all going to be a lot like Cyrus. They have to be smart, they have to be technically sophisticated, and they have to be really motivated by profit.
Miles O’Brien: The unfortunate consequence to all of this is, it does put some dense in our democracy at the very least. And what you would suggest is the main driver here is profit.
Cameron Hickey: Absolutely. I mean, it’s profit on both sides, right? The profit drive that people like Cyrus have to make a good living for themselves, because it’s also the profit drive that major social media platforms like Facebook have. In order to acquire an audience, in order to profit from them, Cyrus and the Internet Research Agency both had to buy ads on Facebook, right?
So, Cyrus, as we know spend over a million dollars on ads. So, Facebook profited a million dollars from Cyrus’ operation and I suspect hundreds of others to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars or more.
The entire information ecosystem is built not on a desire for fact or a desire for high quality information or the desire for important work that I think we do as journalists. It’s really all built on a profit motive, right? And that’s not a surprise to us, that’s the capitalist world we live in. But it feels a little bit sad and frustrating when it corrupts this space of journalism, this space of truth.
Miles O’Brien: So, as long as we have an attention economy, that’s the term, the amount of time our eyeballs spend on Facebook, digesting a piece of content or an ad, that’s the coin of the realm. And that’s what Facebook is selling. As long as that is at the core of it, is anything really going to change?
Cameron Hickey: It seems hard to imagine that it would. It seems like as long as somebody wants to make money off of our time, off of our attention, they’re always going to find ways to exploit that, to optimize it, to make the most out of it. And it seems like most people are more susceptible to low quality ways of capturing their attention than high quality ways, right? People like to watch junk television in much greater numbers than they like to watch high quality investigative journalism.
Miles O’Brien: So, is that a failure of us as journalist, not to be able to capture people’s attention as effectively as Cyrus Massoumi?
Cameron Hickey: I don’t know about that. I think that it’s like saying, “Is it a failure of salad makers that they’re not as good at capturing our taste buds as cake makers?”
I think that I like watching entertaining non-educational content too. So, I think it’s really a different problem which is about our society recognizing the stakes of being uninformed, right?
What are the consequences of being uninformed? And I think most people don’t spend any time pondering that. They’re blissfully ignorant of how the fact that they don’t understand how the world works is having a negative impact on the world. And I’m not even sure that’s a problem we can solve with journalism, but it’s certainly one that I intend to continue trying to solve.
Miles O’Brien: So, Facebook is for all appearances and based on the conversations we had with people inside, is trying to figure out a way to fix this, to try to get some quality journalism in those News Feeds have it rush to the top and have the pure junk go to the bottom.
I keep going back to what Cyrus Massoumi said is, “People don’t want quality journalism in their News Feed.” They don’t want those long takeout pieces that are 5,000 words that are going to get someone a Pulitzer Prize maybe and earn a newspaper, an award, an interest and engage a small group of people. But it’s really not what Facebook is all about. So, how to provide quality and yet fit that model? That’s a real tricky one to get through, isn’t it?
Cameron Hickey: Certainly. It’s funny, I have pondered the idea that we ought to adopt and at least experiment with some of the same tactics that Cyrus and the other kings of marketing on Facebook use.
I wonder if we tried to wrap high quality, critically important information in the style, in the words, in the imagery that people seem more receptive to if we might not achieve a little bit more penetration. It feels gross.
Miles O’Brien: It does. So I mean, that would the headline for this would be, “Five reasons you have to listen to this podcast. You won’t believe number 3”, right?
Cameron Hickey: Exactly.
Miles O’Brien: And we got a click, right? And that’s something that we as journalist are uncomfortable with, but maybe we don’t have to go that far, but maybe we need to think about how we present our content to–we got to get people in the tent, don’t we?
Cameron Hickey: Yeah. Well, and I wonder if maybe it has to come from outside of us, right? We frequently aren’t well-equipped to market our work because we are so deep inside of what we’re doing that I think that we need to look for people who are really good at being tastemakers to learn to respect the things that we do and to help us reach an audience.
Miles O’Brien: There is this whole other thing which were not addressing and we probably don’t have time to get fully into this, but it’s worth mentioning that as this all has unfolded, the great journalistic enterprise of which we are a part has been decimated.
And interestingly, a lot of that has to do with the way the online advertising revenue scheme has evolved. Journalism is in a terrible way. So, it’s really not strong enough right now to counter this, is it?
Cameron Hickey: I don’t think I am equipped to answer that question. I definitely think that journalism is incredibly strong right now. I think that —
Miles O’Brien: You do, really?
Cameron Hickey: I think that everyday critically important journalism is getting done and it’s having an impact.
It’s not having the most satisfying impact today that maybe we want it to have, but I think that in the long term, it still is important.
I don’t think that it — I definitely think that our industry has been decimated by a couple of things. One of them is the migration of dollars away from our product directly and to these platforms that essentially exploit our content production. But I also think it’s the fact that there is such a diverse selection of content out there that didn’t used to be available. When you only had three TV networks there weren’t a lot of choices.
Now, you have hundreds and now you have millions with the kinds of content you can get online. So, people’s attention can go all of these other places whether or not our ad dollars are gone.
Miles O’Brien: So, there are no easy fixes here. One thought that came to mind is, we were in the midst of shooting all these and at least in my mind was, “What if Facebook just went to a subscription model?” It wasn’t selling us as a product, our time as a product. Is that just a completely unrealistic notion?
Cameron Hickey: I think critically, it is a really unjust notion. I think that if what you did was — made it something you had to pay for and that if you couldn’t afford to pay for it, you’re still stuck seeing the ads, then it becomes very classist, right? Facebook is a critical piece of communications infrastructure all over the world and for people who certainly couldn’t afford to pay for it if they had to.
Miles O’Brien: And in some places, Facebook is the internet, isn’t it?
Cameron Hickey: Yeah, exactly. So, in places like the Philippines or even Myanmar, I think that the penetration of Facebook is really high and it is the way that people get their information, the way they communicate with each other. It’s all of the different things that we do on different platforms all in one.
I think it’s really important to recognize that Facebook is something different than what we’ve been trying to box it into. Some people talk about the idea that Facebook should admit it’s a media company and take responsibility for the content on its platform because that’s the only other model that we’re familiar with.
Facebook has over 2 billion monthly active users. That’s more people than exist in any other nation. It is the largest nation on earth. We can’t think about regulating it here in the United States like it’s a company anymore. I think it’s something completely different. So, we also can’t think about solutionism that’s focused on changing its business model, right? Like it is an expensive and complex thing to operate, so coming up with a way to support that functionality is always going to be important. But we can’t simplify it anymore down to, “Oh, why don’t you just switch from this model to that model?”
I personally have thought that the way that Facebook works feels really unfair to the content producers. And I don’t just mean us as journalists spending a lot of time and making a TV or print article, but everybody who publishes stuff. When I post pictures of my children that my friends and my in-laws get to see, I’m making the effort to post those pictures. They’re deriving a little bit of enjoyment out of it, and they’re seeing ads and Facebook is profiting, right?
Miles O’Brien: So, you should get it to a little bit of a cut?
Cameron Hickey: Yeah, absolutely. Well, if my in-laws or my friends want to see those pictures, they could pay for it, not a subscription to Facebook, but as a compensation to me as the content producer.
And I don’t really expect my mother-in-law to pay for pictures of her grandkids, I love giving them to her, but I think that this idea that Facebook has put itself in the middle of a content transaction and it’s taking all the profit, it doesn’t really seem right.
I recognize that putting the platform out there and making it useful to us, means they deserve some of it, but certainly not all of it. And if you made it equitable in that way, then it wouldn’t necessarily have to be the classist problem that a subscription model would be, right?
If I was a revolutionary in some other country and I wanted to publish my content, I want to make it available to everyone for free, then I could do that and those people could consume it for free. Or if I am in a developed country and I want to profit a little bit off of the content production I do, I can do that too.
I think that there is a way to make it equitable, but also change the economics of the content production and consumption so that it isn’t always focused on the lowest quality junk that we’ve seen so much of.
Miles O’Brien: So that’s a little fix and we’ve talked about some other ideas, but at the end of the day, as you pointed out, more than 2 billion people–truly a tiger by the tail.
And you get the sense that they have created something that human beings really can’t control or not. Is there a patchwork of fixes or patches that can get us through this to a little more of a same dialogue on the likes of Facebook?
Cameron Hickey: No. Sorry.
Miles O’Brien: The short answer is no. So, at the end of this, at the end of all we’ve done, a year and a half of work, about 40 minutes of television and a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor as always, you’re a bit of a pessimist?
Cameron Hickey: It’s not a hard no, but I think that there is a lot of things that we learned here that tell us about where we’re going.
I’ve started to recognize how this facet of our world is structured in a way that I didn’t understand when we started. So, I talked about how my grandmother is walled in, in a bunch of junk, right? I do not think that I am walled in that same pile of junk.
My version of Facebook doesn’t look like hers and I think it has reasonable value. Every so often, there is a story I don’t care about but for the most part I’m following news sources and people who’s updates I do want to see and I enjoy seeing those every single day. But I don’t know if the typical user is more like me or more like my grandmother and it’s very hard for us to know which is more typical because everyone sees a completely different version of their social media feed.
And Facebook in theory could but I think an effort to respect the privacy of its users to a certain extent and because the scale is just so large it’s impossible for them to really take the pulse of what kind of stuff people are seeing.
We talked before about the precursors to Facebook, right? There was a site called Myspace that became really popular at hundreds and millions of users but they let people customize it too much and so people made their individual pages look like garbage. The whole place looked like Time Square in the 1980s or something, just awful. So, it became less popular because of that, at least that’s what a lot of people think.
It was easy to recognize that it was a junky place because everything was essentially open to everyone else. You could see everyone else’s junky pages and you’re like, “Every page I click through on Myspace looks like garbage. I am sick of visiting this thing”.
But with Facebook, you don’t get to see that. I can’t tell what my grandmothers feed looks like unless I fly to Indiana and sit down next to her at her computer. I can’t tell what pretty much anybody else’s Facebook page looks like or their Facebook feed looks like.
As we move forward, I suspect we’re going to learn that a lot more of Facebook looks like the junk because those are the people that have migrated to it.
I saw this morning, I gasped when I saw it. I think, couple days ago, Facebook released a report, an audit on various aspects of its operations. And in the first quarter of this year, they deleted half a billion fake user accounts.
In the last quarter of last year, they deleted nearly 700 million fake accounts.
Miles O’Brien: It’s so mindboggling, the scale of everything at Facebook including that detail right there.
Cameron Hickey: And what that tells us is, they’ve got 2 billion monthly active users. So, how many of that half billion that they just deleted is among that 2 billion and did somebody else?
If they deleted a half billion six months ago and they deleted a half billion three months ago, then it seems like a half billion in the next quarter it might also be fake user accounts, right?
So, I feel as though there’s a real concern about how much of the activity on Facebook is authentic and it’s really impossible for us on the outside to understand it. But possibly in two, three years given all the different scandals around privacy and the recognition that a lot more of what’s happening on this platform and others like it is garbage, not high quality that they may wither and die.
This may not be the platform of the future that we think it is and that in it of itself makes it easier to solve the problem or —
Miles O’Brien: What’s really interesting to think of that right now, it seems unimaginable with the dominance that they have. But there was a time when PanAm dominated the airways and Kodak dominated photography, so it’s worth remembering those kinds of things.
Cameron Hickey: And the Bells dominated our ability to communicate with each other on wired phone lines.
Miles O’Brien: So, to wrap it up, it’s a bittersweet moment for myself. We’ve had a long relationship working together doing some great journalism over the years. You are now taking you and NewsTracker to Harvard. Just a few words on that and what you’ll be doing over there to try to keep working on this problem?
Cameron Hickey: At the Shorenstein Center, which is a part of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, they are developing a project called “The Information Disorder Lab”.
And the idea is to put a bunch of journalist researchers in a room dedicated to investigating misinformation starting which the upcoming 2018 midterms. To try and identify it, identify the sources of it, review it, debunk it if necessary and alert the media to these misinformation elements or narratives that are appearing so that they can be exposed, or so that media organizations can be protected from reporting on misinformation, so that we can start to get a much better handle on the scale of misinformation and what specifically is happening and what impact it might have and try to mitigate that impact.
So I’m going to go Shorenstein to support that work by building and expanding tools to try and track and identify misinformation right when it begins to emerge.
Miles O’Brien: You could make an argument that everything you just described should be done internally at Facebook but they don’t?
Cameron Hickey: Facebook, I believe because both the scale of it is so massive and because there’s so many other kinds of challenges that they’re trying to solve, can’t easily tackle these problems in an editorial way. If they did start tackling them in an editorial way, we just start criticizing what their editorial stance was. So it would be very easy for us on the outside to find a new avenue of critique.
I think by working as journalists, investigating this problem and making judgment calls, exercising editorial judgment, I think we’re actually better positioned than Facebook is to sift fact from fiction, misinformation from hyper-partisan content, to really explain how this thing that no one can debunk that you can’t call false is still detrimental to our civil discourse.
Miles O’Brien: Cameron Hickey, NewsTracker, junk news, a new chapter for you, I wish you all the best. We’ll miss working with you on a day-to-day basis but you are just going to be across the river and I’m certain we’ll come up with some fun projects. It will be hard to top belaying into the sewers of Detroit, I know that’s your all time favorite story we did for the NewsHour.
Cameron Hickey: Absolutely.
Miles O’Brien: But it’s been a pleasure working with you all these years and I thank you for your really excellent work on this series. I hope everybody listening takes a few moments, actually about 40 minutes to watch it all and we’d love to hear what you think about it. Cameron, all the best to you.
Cameron Hickey: Thank you, Miles.
I just have to say, working with you has been one of the most important parts of my life. And I’ve always admired you and I’ve always really looked up to you and I’ve really appreciated all the opportunities that you’ve given me. And while I know that we are moving in different directions right now, I don’t imagine that we’re ever going to stop being friends and collaborators and I hope to maintain this relationship in perpetuity.
Miles O’Brien: Yeah. Not just friends we’re family. All the best.
Cameron Hickey: Absolutely.
Miles O’Brien: I’d say some more but I probably would tear up again. Godspeed Cameron Hickey and, by all means, stay in touch. You’re just across the river, after all.
Now, remember you can see all of our work–milesobrien.com is the place, you can sign up for our weekly newsletter. We won’t spam you, it will just give you an opportunity to see what we’re up to without having to do to much work. Promise you won’t miss anything if you sign up.
And, if you get a chance, we sure would appreciate it if you would rate and review this podcast. We’re still trying to figure out the business model for all this. I do know this: it’s fun! And I hope you’re enjoying it and learning a little something along the way.
I’m Miles O’Brien. This has been Miles To Go. Thanks for listening.
Banner image credit: Suzi Tobias | PBS NewsHour.