Tech Tent: Media panic at Facebook news experiment

Rory Cellan-Jones

A limited experiment by Facebook in how it presents news posts rocked publishers this week, while Twitter pledged to start revealing the origins and funding behind political adverts, before banning ads from two Russian media outlets completely. On Tech Tent we ask whether the social media giants are starting to feel the heat over accusations that they are allowing themselves to be used to manipulate elections and undermine democracy.

Image copyright Keystone
Image caption Many people now get their news online not on the street

Facebook panics publishers

In any newsroom around the world these days, the air will be full of mentions of Facebook and Twitter. Publishers know the readers and viewers they want to reach are increasingly spending their time scrolling through those apps on their smartphones. And many publishers have come to rely on the social media giants to give their articles and videos maximum exposure.

So a limited experiment by Facebook in six countries - Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Slovakia, Serbia, Guatemala, and Cambodia - to take unpaid news posts out of the main feed and put them into a separate "Explore" tab, raised serious concerns about the financial importance of Silicon Valley to the news media. Slovakian journalist Filip Struharik documented the impact, writing that publishers in his country were seeing just a quarter of the interactions they used to get before the change.

Joshua Benton, who runs the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, told me that Facebook and Google together are responsible for around 80% of external traffic to news organisation websites, so publishers are right to be worried.

However, he also said that Facebook has its own worries. "They're in a tough position because Facebook users prefer posts from their friends and family, but at the same time Facebook has become an absolutely critical source of traffic for news organisations. And Facebook's business is selling ads."

So, I asked him, is Facebook trying to distance itself from being treated as a news publisher itself by regulators worried about fake news and foreign political interference? "Facebook did sort of stumble into being the main distributor of news on the planet Earth by accident," said Benton. "I think a lot of folks at Facebook would be happy if this was just something they didn't have to worry about."

Meanwhile Adam Mosseri, Facebook's head of News Feed, tried to calm frayed nerves. "There is no current plan to roll this out beyond these test countries or to charge pages on Facebook to pay for all their distribution in News Feed or Explore," he wrote in a blog. But perhaps his use of the word "current" won't allay every publisher's fears.

Image caption Pharrell Williams will advise Roli about products and strategy

Stars endorsing tech

Does getting a superstar to endorse your tech product increase its chances of success? Well Apple and Beats headphones' association with Dr Dre doesn't seem to have hurt. But mobile handset maker Blackberry will want to forget the time they appointed 15-time Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter Alicia Keys as "global creative director", only for it to emerge shortly afterwards that she was tweeting from an iPhone.

But now a tiny UK music tech startup has hooked a very big fish indeed.

Pharrell Williams - the artist behind the smash hit Happy - is going to be chief creative officer of Roli, which makes a range of electronic musical instruments.

I asked Roli's founder Roland Lamb whether it was just a stunt. He insisted not. "We thought about bringing someone in who was a great musician but also a great creative person to work with," he said.

"It's about advising, and giving us feedback on our products, and we stay in touch on the development of new products. When we met up it turned out we had quite a similar concept for a product that we were already working on, that he had been dreaming about, so there was quite a deep synergy to begin with."

We'll check in and see how that collaboration goes.

Image copyright The Glass Room
Image caption The Glass Room helps people understand what data reveals about them

In the Glass Room

A newly refurbished shop unit in central London contains what at first glance is a trendy technology store. The walls are brilliant white, and glitzy tablet devices sit on pure white pedestals whose underlighting illuminates the freshly painted white floor.

There's even a long bar where visitors can get advice from the staff. But this shop is not selling the latest tech gadgets. It's an exhibition called The Glass Room, which aims to get people thinking about where they go and what they do online, and the data trail they leave in cyber-space.

I asked Stephanie Hankey, who curates the exhibition, what experience she wanted visitors to have. "I think we're trying to get them to think about technology in a different way, to bring the issue they may have been thinking about themselves, to life," she said. "It could be anything from feeling like you're using technology too much and it's invading your life, to having reasons for wanting to understand technology in a different way to the way it's sold to us."

I tried out a facial recognition system that attempted to match me to a database of faces from photo-sharing site Flickr. I must say I didn't think the matches looked much like me, but Stephanie Hankey said that was part of the point of that exhibit. "Are they good enough yet? There have been lots of cases of misidentification of people and facial recognition is already being trialled, for example in the UK by the police."