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Jan Lee headshot

Facebook Improves Transparency, But Groups Say More Work to Do

By Jan Lee

Facebook agreed to submit its ad metrics for a third-party audit after several advertisers called on the social media giant to provide more transparency on its reporting methods.

Last Friday, Facebook said it would start working with the Media Rating Council (MRC) "over the course of the year" to put its metrics through third-party scrutiny.

In November the social network admittedly found several errors in its reporting methods and promised the issues would be fixed. As Bloomberg reported, the errors included overstating the amount of time viewers spent on Instant Article stories, how visits were calibrated (repeat visitors were double-counted instead of shown as single new impressions), how video views were calculated, and other complexities that weren't tied to Facebook's calibrations but still affected the data that marketers received.

The company also promised marketers more transparency in coming months as to how the network determines its metrics.

Last week Facebook rolled out the first peek at how it would do that, which includes providing "specific in-view and duration data for display ads" and more third-party accountability.

Part of that increased outside accountability would come from audits by MRC, which Facebook said would be able to "verify the accuracy of the information we deliver to our partners," and extending its use of third-party measurement partners like Nielsen and comScore.

This isn't the first time Facebook has come under criticism about the way it presents or calculates the information viewers and marketers want. Last year it found itself pitted between two seemingly opposing accusations: a "bias" against conservatives and a failure to advise users about censorship policies, and bowing to pressure by law enforcement agencies that allegedly didn't want certain information like videos of specific events aired.

To address the first, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg met with leading conservatives last May and assured them that Facebook does not use bias in its presentation.

"We've built Facebook to be a platform for all ideas. Our community's success depends on everyone feeling comfortable sharing anything they want," Zuckerberg said in a media announcement. He argued it wouldn't make business sense to suppress "political content" or other material that viewers wanted to see.

"The reality is: Conservatives and Republicans have always been an important part of Facebook," Zuckerberg wrote in his response. He added that Donald Trump's presidential campaign actually had more readers on Facebook than any other political group, with Fox News gaining more impressions than any other media outlet worldwide. "It's not even close," Zuckerberg said flatly.

But a few months later the issue of censorship surfaced again, while several law enforcement agencies were coming to grips with accusations of police violence against African Americans.

This time, criticism came from a coalition of 77 civil rights and consumer NGOs. They took issue with Facebook's reported use of censorship concerning accounts and media related to high-profile incidents such as the death of 23-year-old Korryn Gaines at the hands of police.

In a letter to Zuckerberg, the groups claimed live footage was removed from the Facebook pages of activists participating in or covering civil rights protests in Charlotte, N.C. and at the Dakota Access Pipeline site in Standing Rock, North Dakota. They further allege that Palestinian journalists found their accounts temporarily disabled.

The coalition, which includes SumofUs, Daily Kos, Color of Change and Center for Media Justice, also asked Facebook to share insight into allegations that "sent data to help police track and surveil protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore."

Facebook denied the allegations. Joel Kaplan, Faciebook's vice president of Global Public Policy, reiterated the company's policies in a letter late last year -- drawing attention to its "community standards" page, which outlines expectations for Facebook user conduct and procedures.

Kaplan said Facebook is working with "community and partners" to find ways to ensure users can share content they find interesting and important without jeopardizing the safety of themselves or others, such as through the exposure of information that would jeopardize minors' privacy. Kaplan affirmed that Facebook wanted to "allow content — including photos and videos — that “people find newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest — even if they might otherwise violate our standards."

The coalition has since responded to Kaplan's letter, outlining a list of suggestions it says would help address accusations of censorship on Facebook pages. In a letter penned last month, the group argued that members of the Movement for Black Lives report images and dialogue relating to complaints of racism have been taken down "with the justification that it violates Community Standards."

"[Your] recent response indicates that you are addressing the problem," the groups wrote. "We disagree."

The coalition says these four steps would strengthen the social network's transparency.

  • Create an appeals process that allows users to appeal the takedown of images and partial content. At the present time, it said, Facebook's appeals procedures only relate to the closure of profiles or pages.

  • Ensure more transparency through written information as to why a photo or other content is removed.

  • Apply standards more consistently.

  • Produce a public report "that lays out basic data on user censorship" so users can become more informed and feel reassured that censorship is not being applied arbitrarily.

The groups also say they are expecting to visit the Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters this month. Neither party has announced publicly how the call for more transparency will be addressed in the future. But it does look like the social media company has a bit further to go to close the gap on all of its users' expectations.

Image credit: Flickr/Benstein

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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