Data is power

Oh Facebook, again?

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by John Thys/AFP/Getty Images.

To understand why any of this matters, you have to rewind to 2015. That’s when Facebook executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, were going around the world preaching the gospel of online video. Video, they said, was the future of Facebook and the future of media. Text and pictures were on the outs. Within five years, they said, Facebook’s news feed might be mostly video.

To back up its claims, Facebook touted impressive statistics that showed vast numbers of people were not only seeing video in their feeds, but pausing to watch videos for extended periods of time. That kind of data is catnip to online advertisers, who pursue mostly in vain any morsel of evidence that people are actually paying attention to the ads they spend so much money on.

As advertising budgets shunted toward video to tap the apparent Facebook viewership goldmine, publishers’ editorial budgets followed. Publications such as Mic, Vice, Mashable, and many others laid off writers and editors and cut back on text stories to focus on producing short, snappy videos for people to watch in their Facebook feeds.

One problem: Facebook’s numbers turned out to be all wrong.

In short, Facebook provided media orgs with faulty metrics about users wanting more video. Media orgs quickly fired journalists and hired more multimedia technicians. The allegation of a new lawsuit is that Facebook knew about the error and but covered it up. And that, if proved in court, would be a really serious blow to the credibility of Facebook and, arguably, other organisations purporting to use big data for decision-making.

More broadly, we definitely need a serious, society-wide, discussion data and power. I keep thinking about the idea that ‘data is the new oil’; earlier this year I read Daniel Yergin‘s The Prize*, about the history of oil. Oil is power – the power to change the world, both physically and politically. The sheer amount of change, disruption and upheaval that oil has created in less than 200 years beggars belief. Granted, QUITE A LOT OF THAT DISRUPTION HAS BEEN FOR THE BEST** – but there are definite downsides playing to this day.

The interesting – scary? – bit is that we are arguably still in the beginning of the data revolution. How do we deal with issues such as this?

 

* It’s a great book, but it dwarfs a medium-sized phonebook, and has about as many characters. You may want to try the much more easy-to-digest History of Oil podcast first.

** This cannot be highlighted enough. The world today is objectively a better place for most people than it was back in 1859, when Col. Drake drilled the first successful oil well, in what is perhaps one of the most successful cases of fake it ’till you make it ever.

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