Did Facebook’s faulty data push news publishers to make terrible decisions on video?

Did Facebook’s faulty data push news publishers to make terrible decisions on video?

Publishers’ “pivot to video” was driven largely by a belief that if Facebook was seeing users, in massive numbers, shift to video from text, the trend must be real.

“It will probably be all video.”

In June 2016, Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook’s VP for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, spent several minutes of a panel at a Fortune conferencetalking about how Facebook was witnessing video overtake text.

“We’re seeing a year-on-year decline on text,” Mendelsohn answered. “We’re seeing a massive increase, as I’ve said, on both pictures and video. So I think, yeah, if I was having a bet, I would say: Video, video, video.”

“Wow,” the moderator, Pattie Sellers, responded.

“The best way to tell stories, in this world where so much information is coming at us, actually is video,” Mendelsohn continued. “It commands so much more information in a much quicker period. So actually, the trend helps us to digest more of the information, in a quicker way.”

“Five years to all video” wasn’t just Mendelsohn’s line — it came from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself. “We’re entering this new golden age of video,” Zuckerberg told BuzzFeed News in April 2016. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you fast-forward five years and most of the content that people see on Facebook and are sharing on a day-to-day basis is video.”

But even as Facebook executives were insisting publicly that video consumption was skyrocketing, it was becoming clear that some of the metrics the company had used to calculate time spent on videos were wrong. The Wall Street Journal reported in September 2016, three months after the Fortune panel, that Facebook had “vastly overestimated average viewing time for video ads on its platform for two years” by as much as “60 to 80 percent.” The company apologized in a blog post: “As soon as we discovered the discrepancy, we fixed it.”

A lawsuit filed by a group of small advertisers in California, however, argues that Facebook had known about the discrepancy for at least a year — and behaved fraudulently by failing to disclose it.

If that is true, it may have had enormous consequences — not just for advertisers deciding to shift resources from television to Facebook, but also for news organizations, which were grappling with how to allocate editorial staff and what kinds of content creation to prioritize. News publishers’ “pivot to video” was driven largely by a belief that if Facebook was seeing users, in massive numbers, shift to video from text, the trend must be real for news video too — even if people within those publishers doubted the trend based on their own experiences, and even as research conducted by outside organizations continued to suggest that the video trend was overblown and that news readers preferred text. (Heidi N. Moore put many of these trends together in 2017, and her accounting is only strengthened by the new information that we’re seeing this week.)

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