You probably saw the commercial, ubiquitous across television earlier this year: “We came here for the friends.” The narrator, sounding just a little like a younger Mark Zuckerberg, skipped us through pictures of kids in braces, awkward bands, birthdays. Facebook was telling us its creation myth, and it almost felt true. Wasn’t it that way when we first made our accounts? Didn’t we marvel at the parade of connections that suddenly poked into our lives, reminding us of who we’d been, who we might become?
“But then something happened,” the voice in the commercial intoned, and the screen filled up with “CLICKBAIT” and “FAKE NEWS.” Until finally, Young Zuck put a stop to it: “That’s going to change…Because when this place does what it was built for, we all get a little bit closer.”
It was a classic crisis campaign. Facebook was desperate to reset its brand, tarnished by Cambridge Analytica and Russian trolls. But in its contrasting of “friends” and “fake news,” the marketing push glossed over what Facebook was erasing, even as it claimed to be restoring it: real news.
We found ourselves coming back to this commercial as we sat down to write our annual December column about the state of media and Mother Jones’ plans for the year ahead. This is supposed to be part of a fundraising campaign—and yes, we need to raise $400,000 this month, and this column is going to try to explain why. But the threads we found ourselves pulling on were about something bigger too.
The toxic combination of Facebook’s anti-democratic effect, Donald Trump’s authoritarian presidency, and the rise of a bolder class of propagandists is the story that in many ways defined this year, and will probably define the next two years too. It’s a complex tale (and an interesting one) in which Facebook is neither the only villain nor only a villain. Let’s try to unravel it.
The perfect, personalized newspaper
On November 6, 2014, Mark Zuckerberg stepped in front of a microphone to announce that Facebook was going all in on news. The internal algorithm, which determines which of a zillion posts every day actually show up in your feed, had been reworked over the previous year and a half to deliver more content from publishers. Facebook, in Zuckerberg’s words, was aiming to be the “perfect personalized newspaper for every person in the world.”
This was a big deal. The social network seemed to recognize that it was in the media business—the newspaper business!—and that had to be good news for the rest of the media.
It certainly was for Mother Jones. Before that shift, between 1.5 and 2 million users would land on one of our stories from Facebook each month. Within a year (thanks to strong reporting, a killer social team, and a lift from the algorithm) that number jumped to 4 million, then 5 million. We were reaching people who had never gone to our website, never seen our print magazine. And while some would only glance at one article and never return, many others were reading deeply.
They were sharing, too. Lacking a huge brand or marketing budget, MoJo had never been able to get our reporting to all the people who might be interested in it. Now, readers became our marketing team, and each share was a signal to the algorithm to show our stories to even more people.
For Facebook, though, those shares meant something else: a precise value to its bottom line. As the Silicon Valley saw goes, “If the product is free, you are the product.” Every moment of every day, Facebook mined the data generated by 2 billion users and gave advertisers tools to reach them in creepily precise ways. Companies could target women in Houston who were in their 30s, had young children, and read articles about personal finance. Or men older than 55 who watched Fox News and browsed fishing gear. Or self-described “Jew haters” who shopped for ammo. No pesky human judgment involved, just the algorithm and its endless capacity to aggregate people’s predilections and assign them a dollar value.
Which brings us to the moment when, as that commercial says, “something happened.” Except it didn’t just happen: The transformation of Facebook into a tool for demagogues and foreign attackers was facilitated at every step by Facebook itself. And the more we find out about how the company—and other platforms—handled this threat, the more we discover where their priorities really lie.
Time after time over the past few years, Facebook was warned that its platform was being turned into a disinformation machine; time after time, it had the option to address the problem and inform the public. And time after time, it chose to go the other way. Consider just the highlights of what we now know but were not told when it mattered most:
- Facebook was fully aware, a year before the 2016 election, that Cambridge Analytica and other companies had gained access to detailed, personal information on many millions of users. Facebook kept that information to itself and even threatened to sue the Guardian when it finally broke the story, along with the New York Times.
- Facebook was warned, as early as the summer of 2016, that its tools were being manipulated by propagandists, including Putin’s minions. Yet Zuckerberg insisted it was “crazy” to think that could have made a difference in the election. As late as April 2017, Facebook downplayed and scrubbed its own security chief’s analysis of how Russia had used the platform.
- Facebook has consistently made important decisions in a way that seems designed to avoid offending conservatives, in part because conservatives have consistently accused it of liberal bias. It’s a classic case of working the refs—complain loudly enough that you’re being treated unfairly, and people will bend over backward to prove otherwise.
- The company also has a pattern of not responding to disinformation crises until its bottom line appears threatened. Sri Lanka begged Facebook to help rein in anti-Muslim propaganda, with virtually no response, until violent mobs ransacked Muslim homes and businesses and the government shut down access to Facebook entirely—whereupon the company finally reacted.
- And the list just keeps growing: Just a couple of weeks ago, Facebook used the afternoon before Thanksgiving to finally admit what it had thunderously denied for weeks: that it retained a conservative oppo firm (which maintains its very own fake-news site) to dig up dirt on its critics and link them to George Soros, the favorite target of anti-Semitic haters.
These are not the actions of a company seriously grappling with how its tools are being used to break democracy. They are the actions of an organization where secrecy and spin are deeply ingrained. And they make it very hard to continue giving Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg the benefit of the doubt, even for those who are inclined to do so.
The sucker punch
But if Facebook were simply covering up its past actions, we’d have a problem of manageable scope. What’s more worrisome is that in some of its efforts to address the problem or at least angle for better PR, Facebook seems to be actually making things worse. This is the other half of the “perfect, personalized newspaper” story, the one that has to do with Facebook’s role in—wittingly or not—hurting actual news.
You know the broad arc of the story: Over the past decade, as advertising dollars poured into Facebook and Google, newsrooms starved. Between them, the two platform giants control nearly 60 percent of the digital ad market, with Snapchat, Twitter, Amazon and the like dividing up the rest and publishers barely a rounding error. Partly as a result, there are now about half as many journalists working in newspaper newsrooms alone as there were in the mid-aughts.
And as the platforms pumped headlines into your feed, they didn’t care whether the “news” was real. They didn’t want that responsibility or expense. Instead, they honed in on engagement—did you click or share, increasing value to advertisers?
Soon enough, your Facebook feed was flooded with the kind of content most likely to pay for itself in that environment: super-shareable bits that maximized ad impressions (or were actual ads). Truth was optional if not an actual hindrance, since the most addictive headlines tend to be the ones that immediately gratify our desires (to be right, to feel superior)—the “information equivalent of salt and fat,” as Danny Rogers of Global Disinformation Index memorably puts it.
But just as with actual salt and fat, we humans didn’t evolve as rapidly as our information diets changed. We were still looking for information when the platforms were giving us engagement. People googling “Hillary Clinton” in 2016 wanted to know about a candidate. When the top search results led them to a Breitbart piece on Benghazi, which generated a recommendation for an InfoWars video, which sucked them into a wormhole of conspiracy chats, they weren’t thinking, “I’m being shown engaging content.” They were reading a perfect, personalized newspaper.
This is what Zuckerberg and the other platform chiefs still haven’t grappled with: Their tools are great at helping you find content, but not at finding truth. (Don’t even get us started on YouTube: When your kids’ app delivers conspiracy videos about our lizard rulers, you’ve lost the “you had one job” game.)
Facebook et al. became the primary sources of news and the primary destroyers of news. And they refused to deal with it because their business is predicated on the fallacy that technology is neutral—Silicon Valley’s version of “guns don’t kill people.”
Instead of attacking this foundational problem, Facebook attacked its PR issue. It made comforting noises about journalism. It put money into media literacy. It hired Campbell Brown, an ex-anchor with GOP ties, to run a “news partnerships” initiative.
And then Facebook delivered the sucker punch. This past January, Zuckerberg announced what amounted to the end of the “perfect personalized newspaper”: Facebook was pivoting back to baby photos. The algorithm would ramp up the number of posts from friends and family and dial way back on news. Not just the fake kind. Any kind.
Today, you are far less likely to see posts from Mother Jones or any other publisher than you were two years ago, even when you’ve specifically followed that page. Facebook reach for most serious publishers has plummeted—so much so that some are even breaking their rule against disclosing internal analytics. Slate recently revealed that it sees 87 percent fewer Facebook referrals than it did in early 2017. Many other news organizations have taken a hit in the same range.
Facebook’s actions mean that people are now getting less news, right at a time when a clear-eyed accounting of what the powerful are doing is more important than ever. And because of the lost revenue associated with that traffic, newsrooms can do less of that accountability work.
For MoJo, that decline is significant, but not catastrophic: Facebook never was the primary driver of what we do, and we have lots of other ways to get our stories to people, from various social platforms to newsletters, podcasts, and our gorgeous print magazine.
Still, the decline in Facebook audience over the past 18 months translates into a loss of at least $600,000 just from advertising (not counting donations or subscriptions that won’t happen when people don’t see our stories). That’s a big part of the reason why we need to raise $400,000 this month. It’s a big goal, more than what we did in December ’16 and ’17—because it has to be. We can’t pull back from investigating right now, with the stakes so high.
And hopefully we won’t have to, because readers are a bigger part of our bottom line than advertising revenue (68 percent compared with 13 percent). Many publishers aren’t so fortunate. The depressing tale of how Mic, which aimed to dominate news for millennials, rode the Facebook algorithm all the way up to a valuation of $100 million—and then all the way back down to a fire sale and the brutal dumping of its entire newsroom last week—is just one example.
It’s important to be clear that this is not about Facebook—or any of the platforms—having actual malice toward news. There are many people inside the company who recognize the problems they’re creating, and some of them chafe at not being able to talk about them more publicly. (There are, ahem, ways to communicate with Mother Jones securely.) There are also many who seriously want to support good journalism and have worked hard on initiatives to do that. But at least so far, those efforts haven’t matched the damage done.
Part of the reason is that Facebook is simply not incentivized to make this its top priority. It’s a publicly traded company required to create value for shareholders—not the public—and the business incentives are to continue doing what it’s been doing: optimizing for engagement. The fact that the content that grabs you can be a hateful meme just as easily as your sister’s baby photo is collateral damage.
It’s also becoming apparent that Facebook’s leaders, at a fundamental level, don’t quite grasp the difference between journalism and propaganda. Earlier this year, Zuckerberg explained to a roomful of journalists that “a lot of what you all do is have an opinion.” Facebook, he said, is just providing space for many opinions.
That, as it happens, is also the principle Trump operates on: There is no truth. There are no facts. There is just “somebody’s version of the truth,” in Rudy Giuliani’s immortal phrasing.
Everywhere you look, this truth-agnostic approach pervades the way Facebook and the other platforms have acted—even, or especially, as they tried to dodge responsibility for information warfare. An in-the-weeds but perfect case in point: This spring, Facebook launched a new effort to help users identify political ads. Suddenly, when publishers paid to promote one of their posts to a wider audience—a technique known as boosting—they would find those boosts rejected. Why? Because the posts were about topics like “health,” “energy,” “or “civil rights,” and Facebook required them to be labeled as political ads.
Here’s what that meant in practice: The Puerto Rico Investigative Journalism Center couldn’t promote some of its work on Hurricane Maria to its Puerto Rican audience. The Hechinger Report, which covers education, saw boosts promoting stories on financial aid rejected. Subscription offers from the Washington Post and even an ad for Fox News were blocked unless the publications were willing to put the “political ad paid for by” moniker on them—a no-no for many journalists—and go through a cumbersome process that included submitting copies of staffers’ passports.
To be sure, propagandists often disguise their stuff as news, and it’s not an easy problem to fix with software. But for a company that employs thousands of the world’s best engineers, the rollout of an effort so poorly thought out suggests where its priorities lie. (Facebook finally exempted news publishers from the political ad label last week.)
Which takes us back to the fundamental problem. Facebook has an enormous role in things—journalism, the future of an informed public—that it neither understands very well nor is economically incentivized to care about. And even when it does genuinely try for a fix, it remains, at heart, a tech company seeking tech solutions for problems that transcend tech. It turns out that democracy is really hard to engineer.
There is one kind of publisher that thrives in the “everything is opinion” ecosystem Facebook has helped create: agenda-driven conservative shops like Fox News, Breitbart, and the like. Consider, briefly, the moment that in some ways launched the age of digital news almost exactly two decades ago: On January 17, 1998, a conservative website published an item alleging that Newsweek was sitting on a story about President Clinton and a White House intern.
The site was the Drudge Report, which mostly served to aggregate headlines that would push conservatives’ buttons and monetize them with state-of-the-art advertising technology. It was, in those days, one of the most powerful referral engines on the web—at MotherJones.com, our rickety servers would crash each time Drudge linked to us.
Learning at Matt Drudge’s shoulder was an assistant named Andrew Breitbart, who would soon work with Arianna Huffington to launch Huffington Post and go on to start Breitbart News. Before long, other hardcore conservatives joined in—an ex-banker and radical-right filmmaker named Steve Bannon, a hedge fund billionaire named Robert Mercer—and Breitbart became a guided missile aimed at the Republican Party as we knew it. It said out loud the things that many conservatives would only wink and nod to. (There was a vertical dedicated to “Black Crime.”) It hammered birther conspiracies.
And, by insisting that these things were news and deserved to be taken seriously (everything is “somebody’s version of the truth”!), it mainstreamed toxic ideas. Bannon even established an investigative arm that produced a book on the Clinton Foundation and struck deals with the New York Times and the Washington Post, both of which ran major stories based on it—stories that did a lot to establish the corruption narrative that dominated 2016.
With the arrival of Trump, the dream team for weaponizing social media was complete. Until this point, explicit racism and anti-Semitism had struggled to break past the media gatekeepers. But Bannon and Trump blew those filters away: They recognized that if you appealed directly to the worst instincts of the base, party elites will soon follow.
That’s why pushback from mainstream media didn’t matter: “They can call me whatever they want,” Bannon told 60 Minutes. “As long as we’re driving the agenda, I’m happy.“
And Bannon, Breitbart, and Trump were driving the agenda because—here’s where we get back to Facebook—on social media what matters is emotion, and the most powerful emotional button is anger. (The second most powerful may be oxytocin-releasing empathy and affection, as this Twitter thread has humblingly shown us. But that’s for another column.)
As we were writing this, on Monday, November 25, we checked in on the CrowdTangle tool, which lets you see high-performing posts on Facebook. Of the top 50 stories from US publishers, 15 were screeds from the Daily Caller, Fox News, the Daily Wire, and Breitbart. (But not, notably, from the lone conservative publication that has consistently staked out a Never Trump position—the Weekly Standard. It’s a sign of how much the conservative movement has become Trump’s movement that the Standard likely won’t survive the year.) All other US newspapers, magazines, and broadcast and cable networks combined accounted for another 16. The rest were clickbait from the likes of LADbible and TMZ.
This happened to be the day after a photo of a mother and her young daughters fleeing tear gas at the US-Mexico border went viral. Among those Facebook top performers was a Daily Wire piece suggesting, with zero evidence, that the photo had been staged. It had accumulated nearly 55,000 Facebook likes, comments, and shares. The BuzzFeed piece, whose writer actually interviewed the family (who were decidedly not staging their terror), had fewer than 7,000.
This pattern holds true day after day—and it’s worse when you zero in on stories about politics: Of the top 20 political stories on any given day, twice as many typically come from conservative outlets as from mainstream ones, with progressive voices barely breaking through at all. (Hat tip to the New York Times’ Kevin Roose, who has been keeping tabs on this for some time.)
So right-wing sites and clickbait dominate the platform that dominates American news consumption. And that same platform, despite its stated commitment to supporting “quality news,” keeps making it harder for people to find serious journalism.
It’s hard to overstate how serious this is—and how much it differs from the conventional wisdom that Americans are just becoming “polarized” into left and right. The polarization evident in social-media news consumption is not between left and right—it’s between real news and conservative propaganda.
Another model for news
So this is where we’re headed: a news ecosystem that gets Breitbart-ier feeding a politics that gets Trump-ier. Unless we come up with a different model. But what would that be?
There are a lot of things that deserve changing about journalism—ditching the View from Nowhere, for starters, but let’s zero in on the business side, because no business model for news means no news, period.
Media shops tend to be one of two kinds: commercial or nonprofit. For-profit news companies rely mostly on two very traditional revenue streams—advertising and subscriptions—and a lot of each now comes from digital. This is why you see all those “you have read your three free stories” pop-ups: Getting at least a fraction of the audience to pay is more efficient than squeezing pennies’ worth of advertising from every last page view. Many publishers also offer “membership” programs that give you benefits (exclusive content, discounted event tickets), and a handful are even successful at selling swag.
But there are also more and more news nonprofit, from national ones like ProPublica to tiny (but mighty) local ones like the 100+ represented by the Institute for Nonprofit News—and we’ll probably see a few more media owners do what Philadelphia’s Gerry Lenfest did and donate their companies to a nonprofit. Despite much effort to diversify revenue, many of these organizations rely heavily on a handful of individual or foundation donors. They also often have limited audiences.
Both these models come with built-in limitations and risks. Advertising revenue tends to plummet during economic downturns, and we know the United States is overdue for one of those. Big donors can, and often will, change their minds or priorities—especially during times of turbulence. That doesn’t make them a safe bet for ensuring the strong, stable Fourth Estate we need to serve as a real check on power.
That’s why at Mother Jones we have bet on a third way. Ours is a hybrid model that incorporates all of the above sources (plus any other income that doesn’t compromise our work—yes, we have awesome tote bags). We take advertising (though we set some limits), including event and podcast sponsorships. We sell subscriptions to our print magazine (some 2 million people have had one since Mother Jones was founded 42 years ago), but don’t paywall our website because we want to make sure our investigations are seen as widely as possible. (Are there gift subscriptions? We thought you’d never ask!)
We get some support from foundations, though here, too, we set limits (no editorial input, for starters). And we have the biggest donor community of any US nonprofit news organization outside public radio and television—more than 60,000 people, about one-tenth of whom give a sustaining gift each month to help us stay on track and spend more of our energy on reporting than we do on fundraising.
Together, all that does not make MoJo exactly lucrative, as anyone who has seen the carpet in our office can attest. But with careful budgeting and a firm eye on our values—scrupulous accuracy, for starters—it has allowed us to weather the booms and (mostly) busts that have roiled our peers. In the past three years, Mother Jones’ annual budget has increased 40 percent, from 12.5 million a year to 17.3 million. The majority of that growth has come in our newsroom, which now has 59 staffers and 13 paid fellows, but we’ve also invested in the business side to make sure we can sustain all that work for the long term. Here’s how those revenues stack up:
As you can see, support from a broad range of people is the single most important piece of this puzzle—the one that Mother Jones could not survive without. It protects us from the swings of the market—including the Facebook bust that costs us hundreds of thousands a year. It also keeps us accountable to exactly who we should be accountable to: not hedge funders or billionaires (even benevolent ones), but hundreds of thousands of people who are committed to a vibrant democracy and the free, fearless press that it requires.
Over the next two years, America will discover whether small-d democratic institutions are strong enough to withstand one of the most significant assaults they’ve suffered in modern history—and by that we mean not the election of Donald Trump, but the effort, across many arenas, to suppress votes, turn the judiciary into a handmaiden to partisanship, and make facts irrelevant. That last one is where news organizations like Mother Jones—and our readers and supporters—need to rise to the challenge.
We need business models strong enough to support our work regardless of the whims of an algorithm, and to stiffen our spines when the targets of our reporting scream “bias” or “fake news.” We need the stability to send reporters into the field every day, knowing that the payoff won’t come for a long time, and to run with important stories before they go viral. We need confidence and, yes, optimism to fuel the work. And we need you to join in, and to help us push harder.
Let’s talk a little about the expense side of the ledger too—what we actually do with your money. Mother Jones publishes, on any given day, some 20 stories, blog posts, and videos on anything from the impeachment debate to the health effects of climate change and the solution to restaurant harassment. But one thing runs through them all: They are basically connected to two big fights, for democracy and against corruption, with a dash of delight at the weirdness of it all.
News is news because you can’t predict it, but one of the benefits of being independent and reader-supported is that at MoJo, don’t have to chase every twist of the news cycle. For us, Trump is not (as media critic Margaret Sullivan has so incisively put it) the “de facto assignment editor.”
Instead, we can drill in on stories that either haven’t received enough coverage or continue to be covered poorly. Here are some of the biggest stories that—with your support—we will focus on next year:
- Corruption in the White House: We’ll continue digging into the Trump-Russia connection and the president’s foreign IOUs, but there are other scandals deserving our attention too—from Betsy DeVos’ war on public education to the true sources of the National Rifle Association’s Washington clout to fossil fuel interests buying their way into leases on vast stretches of America’s public lands.
- Voting rights and voter suppression: “You would think, given the state of our elections, that [voting rights] would be at or near the top of journalists’ agenda,” wrote media scholar Dan Gillmor just weeks before the 2018 midterms. “It is not, and that represents a staggering failure.” MoJo’s Ari Berman and Pema Levy have made it their top priority.
- Overincarceration and private prisons: When MoJo’s Shane Bauer worked for four months in a private prison, we learned a lot about how broken for-profit lockups really are—and there’s a lot more digging to be done.
- Civil and human rights: Reporting on justice for people of color, women, and the LGBT community—i.e., the majority of Americans—has always been a top priority for MoJo; we’re also building a team to capture the complexity of the immigrant experience.
- Disinformation: Earlier this year, Mother Jones readers responded overwhelmingly when we asked you to help us establish a disinformation team; we’ll focus on the forces that allow falsehoods to spread online and the bottom-line interests that motivate them.
- Our planet’s future: While some of the press still relegates this issue to the second tier (or keeps giving denialists a forum), for Mother Jones it has been a top focus—and there’s a lot more to investigate than Trump officials’ furniture choices.
- Feet to the fire: Last, but perhaps most urgent of all, is the job of holding a new cohort of elected officials accountable. Are they in thrall to donors or vested interests? Will they fall prey to claims of “investigation fatigue” and soft-pedal oversight? As we’ve seen time after time, from Watergate to Trump and Russia, Congress doesn’t discover scandals: Journalists do, and committee investigators follow. The press is an advance squad for truth, and never has that been more important.
That $17.3 million budget we mentioned above is not the biggest chunk of change in the media world—it’s right around one-fourth of Megyn Kelly’s severance package—but we make it count. It pays for nearly 100 Mother Jones staffers and 13 fellows, plus the computers and discount coffee shipments that keep the newsroom buzzing. No onsite chefs, limo rides, or fancy consultants. And no nest egg being stashed, because we’re putting everything we’ve got on the line.
There are, of course, ways to make up for a curveball like a $400,000 decline in ad revenue. We could cut back on reporting—but if there was ever a time to retrench on investigative journalism, now is not it. We could deploy some of the advertising tricks so many of our competitors use: Just adding one of those paid “Around the web” widgets that you see almost everywhere, for example, would just about close that gap. But those widgets are full of bait-and-switch ads and fake news, which is why it’s so ironic for legitimate news sites (looking at you, CNN and HuffPost) to also lend their platform to disinformation. So no thanks.
What we are going to do instead is this: Work as hard as we can to deliver the kind of reporting this critical moment demands—and do our best to make the case that it’s worth your while to support it. If everyone who visits our website during December gives just 10 cents, we’ll be done. If everyone who visits just on the day that you read this gives $1.50, we’ll be done.
If fearless, accurate investigative reporting is worth $5 to you, please make that gift—or whatever number is right for you. We need to hit that year-end goal, and we don’t think any of the alternatives are what you want.