There’s been yet another #DeleteFacebook campaign doing the rounds on Twitter recently. I can’t even keep track of exactly what the problem was this time. Facebook turning out to have secretly held meetings with conservative political figures? Or the awkward trademark dispute over its logo for its doomed crypto venture? Something worse? It’s easy to think that Facebook is flailing when you’re just plugged into social media, but Facebook is still a juggernaut. With 2.41 billion monthly users worldwide, Facebook is still the world’s biggest social media network.
As to why it’s back on the news, a brief Google search indicates that it’s because Zuckerberg gave a speech in Washington about Facebook’s decision not to ban political ads because they should “err on the side of greater expression”. Rather hilariously, he went on to reference Martin Luther King Jr, a man who the FBI and others had spread disinformation about when he was alive. MLK’s daughter, Bernice King, swiftly responded by noting that disinformation spread by politicians had led to an “atmosphere” that led to his assassination:
The event came three days after it emerged that since July, the Facebook chief executive had hosted private dinners at several of his homes to which he had invited conservative journalists, commentators and at least one Republican politician. These social events followed claims that the firm had shown bias against the right.
Facebook has also recently been attacked on the left, by two of the leading candidates in the contest to be the Democratic Party’s candidate for the 2020 presidential election.
Last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren paid to run an intentionally misleading advert on its platform that claimed Mark Zuckerberg had personally endorsed Donald Trump for re-election. She said she had done so in protest against the firm’s decision to allow politicians to run ads containing” known lies”.
“When profit comes up against protecting democracy, Facebook chooses profit,” she claimed.
A spokesman for Joe Biden had previously criticised the firm for refusing to remove a video posted by Donald Trump’s re-election campaign which promoted an unproven conspiracy theory involving the former vice president and his son.
“It is unacceptable for any social media company to knowingly allow deliberately misleading material to corrupt its platform,” Mr Biden’s press secretary said.
Depressing as it is to see Facebook continue to prefer profits over consequences, it’s hardly unusual. After all, this is a week where the NBA’s increasingly awkward backpedalling over the Hong Kong issue has put paid to their reputation as the most “woke” sports organisation. This isn’t what we’re looking at for the purposes of this article though, even if it’s good for your overall privacy online if you do decide to delete Facebook. We’re looking at the relatively small Facebook scandal that’s somehow flown under the radar: that Facebook inflated its video metrics in order to pull more people to the platform.
Video Metrics and You
Facebook agreed to pay advertisers $40mil in cash for inflating video metrics. Here’s how it happened:
The lawsuit in question began in October 2016 as two separate cases, but eventually combined into one lawsuit filed against Facebook. The core of the complaint regarded how Facebook calculated metrics that were being promoted to advertisers. One metric, “Average Duration of Video Viewed,” purported to represent the average number of seconds users watched a given video. A second metric, “Average Percentage of Video Viewed,” calculated the percentage of a video ad that users watched. According to the lawsuit, Facebook incorrectly calculated Average Duration of Video Viewed, misrepresenting the engagement of its videos in a way that made the platform look more appealing to video advertisers.
“The Average View Duration error, in turn, led to the Average Percentage Viewed metric also being inflated,” the complaint states. “The plaintiffs contend these errors inflated the average-watch-times shown to advertisers by several orders of magnitude. As a result, Plaintiffs allege the metrics indirectly impacted billing, since (all else being equal) advertisers are likely to pay more for video ads that are being watched longer.”
Hence, last week Facebook agreed to pay advertisers $40 million in cash for inflating video metrics the company provided to digital media platforms in 2016 and 2017. It is estimated that had the case actually gone to trial, and not settled privately, they may have recovered between $100 million and $200 million in damages.
In Facebook’s defense, the company said it corrected the error after it was discovered and made a public announcement in September 2016. Yet the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit allege that the company’s engineers knew of the errors for over a year before the company’s public announcement.
“The average viewership metrics were not inflated by only 60%-80%; they were inflated by some 150 to 900%,” an amended complaint stated.
Facebook had likely done this in order to compete with YouTube. Manipulating video metrics like this has created a false impression that has had serious consequences for previously profitable companies, as advertises wasted money and manpower chasing views on Facebook:
Adam Conover, a former employee of College Humor, took to Twitter to narrate how Facebook eviscerated a booming online comedy industry. In a series of tweets, the now podcaster explained how Facebook’s inflated metrics lured College Humor and Funny or Die to divert resources from other channels into the social media platform. In the beginning of his tweetstorm, Conover provided background on how College Humor (CH) was doing well. The company was making money before Facebook made big claims. This profitable setup would be torn apart after the company heard the news of unbelievable viewership numbers on Facebook. As CH relied heavily on Facebook to get viewership, their site visits plummeted. Consequently, ad rates and video budgets followed suit.
It was the same case for NZ on Air. They saw their videos rack up views from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands on the social media platform. Thus, the broadcast company spent millions of dollars. They created dozens of new jobs to cater to their viewers on Facebook. They even rerouted funds from sources such as TV, radio, display, print and outdoor. Then they found out that their viewership data was a lie.
Given the damage, and the money that Facebook has already made out of lying to everyone, a $40million settlement is low.
Pivot to Video
Facebook has claimed that it’s just an innocent mistake, which is also hilarious when you look at it. Because of the error, many news sites — not just comedy sites — had pivoted to Facebook video, which has affected print journalism. Ad agencies have encouraged their clients to make video content for Facebook based on the metrics, which would’ve made results look good but would’ve actually meant money paid into nothing.
Video still works. A great ad does get shared around over social media, and a great ad on traditional tv can motivate particular audiences. What this fiasco really means is that we have to be more careful about setting KPIs — and about not putting all your eggs in one basket. Facebook is still a great place to advertise — it’s still the biggest social media platform in the world. But it isn’t the only one.
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