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Facebook’s Campbell Brown: ‘We’ve Been Caught Flat-Footed’ on Data Scandal

Facebook was blindsided by the user-data scandal that has grabbed the headlines in the past week — and the company has undergone an “awakening” to deal with the crisis, said Campbell Brown, the company’s head of news partnerships.

“We are in a position now where we have to be judged by our actions,” said Brown, speaking Thursday on a panel at the Financial Times’ Future of News conference in New York City.

Brown, a former CNN host and NBC News reporter, joined Facebook in January 2017. “Inside the company — and outside the company — people are very upset. I’m  upset. This breach of trust that’s happened, as Mark [Zuckerberg] described it, doesn’t feel good for anyone.”

“We’ve been caught flat-footed,” Brown continued, saying Facebook was “focused too much on the positive” and not the negative aspects of the platform. “There is an awakening that is taking place inside the company where the mentality is ‘all hands on deck’ to address this.”

Brown also acknowledged that it was a mistake for Facebook to threaten legal action against the U.K.’s Guardian prior to the newspaper publishing a story about Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of Facebook data. “Not probably our wisest move,” she said.

On Wednesday, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg addressed the swirling controversy about the misappropriation of data on 50 million users by Trump-affiliated political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, after several days of staying mum.

In an interview that aired later on CNN, Zuckerberg apologized for the situation and vowed that Facebook will do better to protect user privacy. He also said he would be willing to testify before Congress and said Facebook would be open to the “right regulation” of the industry.

Asked why it took Zuckerberg as long as he did to come forward to speak on the issue, Brown said there is a “tension” between getting out immediately with statements that “may be half-baked” versus “doing the legwork internally to find out what happened… and come out with answers and how you’re going to address the problem.”

Facebook will have to make significant changes, said Emily Bell, director of Columbia U.’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, also speaking on the panel. Today, Facebook “is designed for the recirculation of content that is largely undifferentiated.”

“It’s been a horribly mishandled crisis,” Bell said about the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The key question is, “Can engineering solve cultural problems?”

The writing on the wall is that there will be regulation around how internet companies handle data, across the globe, said Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, a digital-media trade organization. “It’s going to go to the core of the business model,” he said.

On the subject of how Facebook evaluates the credibility of news sources, Brown was asked if Breitbart News was a reliable source. “To some people, it is,” she responded, adding that Facebook has not publicly released its internal ranking metrics — designed to curb the spread of “fake news” in users’ News Feeds — about news sources.

Richard Gingras, VP of news for Google, said emphatically that it is absurd to expect internet companies to make editorial decisions about news they surface on their platforms or to decide what is a “legitimate” news organization. “The world of expression on matters of public policy… are many and varied,” he said.

“It’s a search engine,” Gingras said about Google, and it should let people find anything in the “legal corpus” anywhere on the internet.

Regarding Rupert Murdoch’s suggestion that Facebook pay news publishers a “carriage fee” in the same way cable operators pay TV networks, Brown said the analogy isn’t quite right. People subscribe to pay TV to watch specific networks, whereas “people come to Facebook to share content with friends and family,” she said.

According to Brown, Facebook is focused on two areas to help news organizations monetize content on the platform: developing a paywall service to let publishers sell subscriptions; and bringing news video into Facebook Watch, its long-form video service.

“We are funding news in Facebook Watch, and my hope is we will be able to create a successful news destination for Watch” to let partners monetize video over the long haul, she said. Brown added, “If you’re trying to build a business around predicting what an algorithm is going to do to your traffic, that’s going to be rough ride.”

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