Once again, the media is righteously furious with Facebook—this time, for allegedly misleading advertisers as to how many people were watching videos on the social network. The fury may well be warranted, the righteousness not so much.
The outrage centers on Facebook’s alleged deception of advertisers about a particular statistic having to do with video viewership. (Facebook admits it screwed up, but denies that it intentionally misled people.) But that tiff masks a deeper lie on the part of Facebook and publishers alike.
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 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported (and Facebook subsequently confessed) that the company had been seriously miscalculating multiple key metrics, including “Average Duration of Video Viewed.” The error: Facebook was only counting views longer than three seconds in its “average,” and thus completely ignoring the vast majority of people who were scrolling right past them.
That was 2016. So why are people mad about it again in 2018?
Because, this week, a group of advertisers filed a lawsuit claiming that the measurement error was much worse than Facebook let on. Worse, they allege, Facebook knew of the error way back in 2015—and intentionally covered it up. Internal Facebook documents cited in the suit show Facebook employees discussing a “no-PR” strategy to temporarily hide the mistake, and looked for ways to downplay its scope and “obfuscate the fact that we screwed up the math.” Not a good look! (For perhaps the best overview of the lawsuit and its implications, read Laura Hazard Owen’s story in Nieman Lab.)
The claims in the lawsuit are explosive. If substantiated, they will further erode trust in Facebook, which already has a reputation for hiding major screw-ups such as the Cambridge Analytica data leak. Specifically, they will erode advertisers’ trust in Facebook—which could have a more direct impact on the company’s bottom line than more generalized user or public mistrust.
Facebook denies any such cover-up of the measurement error. “This lawsuit is without merit, and we’ve filed a motion to dismiss these claims of fraud,” the company said in a statement. “Suggestions that we in any way tried to hide this issue from our partners are false. We told our customers about the error when we discovered it — and updated our help center to explain the issue.” Facebook maintains that the seemingly incriminating quotes by its employees have been taken out of context. It also argues the error didn’t really affect advertisers all that much anyway because Facebook wasn’t using the mistaken figures in its calculations of how much to charge them.
One can understand why advertisers feel wronged, regardless. But that doesn’t quite explain the level of outrage from members of the media when the Wall Street Journal reported on the lawsuit Wednesday. And it doesn’t explain why people seem so much angrier about this now than they did in 2016, when the measurement error first came to light.
To grasp that, you have to recall the way Facebook’s rosy claims about video viewership influenced not only advertisers, but publishers.
There’s a reason the phrase “pivot to video” still causes reporters to shudder: The staffing changes inspired by Facebook’s emphasis on video cost good journalists their jobs. In 2016, the fact that Facebook had been misrepresenting the viewership of video ads to advertisers didn’t necessarily seem like a huge deal to anyone other than advertisers. Fast forward to today and it’s clear the problems with online video ran deep. It turned out most people weren’t much more interested in watching editorial video content than they were in watching video ads. (There are exceptions, of course: Videos are ideal for conveying inherently visual content, including breaking news events, and can add an extra dimension to a story when used judiciously. People also really like watching food videos.) Earlier this year, Facebook itself announced that users will be seeing less video in their feeds. So much for Zuckerberg’s “golden age of online video.”
Some media companies pivoted back away from video, laying off a lot of the same folks they’d hired in their previous reorganizations. Some folded altogether. (Slate recently stopped producing original videos, though it did not lay off any staffers.) Brands were ruined, livelihoods lost, careers destroyed in pursuit of a geyser of video viewership that turned out to be a mirage. Add to that the allegation that Facebook knew all along it was a lie, and you’ve got some seriously pissed off journalists.
That’s understandable. No doubt Zuckerberg’s grand claims forced publishers to take note. But as a few timidly pointed out in the wake of the backlash, it also undersells the complicity of media companies and their backers in the misguided video pivot. The metrics Facebook presented to video advertisers, coupled with Zuckerberg and co.’s endorsement of video as the future of online media, probably influenced media companies’ decisions. But media companies were never the subject nor the main target of Facebook’s inflated numbers, and there’s no evidence that Facebook misled publishers as to how many people were watching their videos.
So forget the metrics misguidance for a moment. There was a big lie beneath the whole push to online video, but it wasn’t the one about average duration of videos viewed. The real lie was one in which both Facebook and the media participated. It was the one that said the push to video was about what people wanted.
The shift from text to video was never about what normal people wanted, for Facebook or the media companies that followed its lead. It was always about what advertisers wanted: the captive attention of consumers.
Since the dawn of the ad-supported internet, advertisers have suspected, known, secretly feared that no one was looking at their banner ads. That everyone was blocking their pop-ups. That ad blockers were rendering their messages invisible on more and more screens. Online video represented a new hope—the hope that pre-roll, mid-roll, and maybe even post-roll ads would interrupt editorial content so dramatically and unavoidably that people would have no choice but to watch. Facebook’s autoplay video feature (which Twitter copied) made this explicit: You literally couldn’t avoid watching video in your feed, even if you wanted to.
It was Facebook’s lie, but it was also the lie of every media company that pivoted to video on the pretense that it was somehow a better way to deliver their content. The notion is so patently disingenuous that it’s the subject of a famous Onion parody—which, by the way, predated Facebook’s measurement error. The lie persisted not only in the face of conventional wisdom, but ever-mounting evidence that supported the obvious conclusion: No one wants a video to start playing every time they try to read something online.
If there’s a lesson here beyond “don’t trust Facebook,” it’s that media companies are supposed to try to align their business models with their editorial goals—not the other way around.