By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
They’re at it again, those Facebook algorithms that act more like mischievous gremlins.
I wrote a post about the first Earth Day 52 years ago, and attempted to boost it with advertising. Meta for Business, the corporate parent of Facebook, rejected the boost, saying the Earth Day post doesn’t comply with advertising policies against “social issues, elections or politics.”
Imagine that. Facebook, an online social media and social networking service owned by Meta Platform, doesn’t want posts about social issues.
True, Earth Day was a huge social issue. On April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million Americans conducted a day-long environmental awareness campaign, including students from thousands of colleges and universities. Americans of all ages joined in rallies, marches and “teach-in” education programs identifying the kinds of pollution tainting the air, land, water and food across the nation. It was the biggest demonstration in the nation’s history.
That event made a huge impact on the United States, starting a revolution that snowballed and produced new environmental laws and regulations intended to protect all Americans. But it’s not the sort of thing Meta wants discussed on its platform. It’s too relevant.
Ethics is cheating
That’s annoying, since it’s the second time in recent weeks that Meta blocked an ad for an AdviceLine post. An April 15 post explained how an ethicist tells the difference between a genuine ethical dilemma and a difficult ethical choice. It’s about journalism ethics. Meta rejected the boost saying it did not comply with Meta’s cheating and deceitful practices policy. It considered a report on ethics to be cheating and deceitful conduct.
This either is hilarious, or proof that Facebook is descending into algorithm madness.
That social media are swamps of misinformation and bias is fairly well established. Calls for regulation usually focus on social media content, including unproven conservative complaints that Silicon Valley is anti-conservative. Let them take their lumps like everyone else.
My gripe is with what could be described as the man-machine interface. How the algorithmic machines treat people, like me. My recent encounters with Facebook demonstrate a lack of commonsense. Maybe that is too much to expect from machines.
A mass media critic, or readers’ representatives, might help. This is an idea from the past, when newspapers and television stations employed staff members to be sure media served the public interest and were open to complaints or suggestions. They were a check on old-fashioned customer satisfaction.
As deeply invasive social media are in modern society, their operators seem distant and unreachable.
Silicon Valley behemoths
A Tech Policy Greenhouse report by Matthew Feeney put it this way: “Centralized content moderation also suffers from a perceived lack of transparency and process, with Silicon Valley behemoths considered by many to be secretive, distant institutions with few incentives to care about an individual case when their empires include millions or billions.”
In such a communications landscape, individuals don’t matter. And nonsensical algorithms seem to make that apparent.
Feeney ends the report by pointing out that “we are still in the early years of online speech,” and activists and lawmakers seem to have forgotten that firms once dominant in online speech, search or entertainment — like MySpace and AOL instant messenger — fell into obscurity or are gone.
Facebook, Twitter and Google are dominant today, writes Feeney, “but their continued success is not an axiom of history.” That could be especially true if users contending with algorithm nonsense appear to be an afterthought.
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.
Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.