Facebook acknowledged in 2016 that it had been overstating to advertisers the average time users spent watching videos on the platform. But when exactly Facebook found out about that error—and how long the company kept it under wraps—is now the subject of a federal district court lawsuit in California. The suit, filed earlier this week, was brought by Facebook advertisers who allege that Facebook knew about the measurement error for more than a year before it was first reported publicly in The Wall Street Journal.
But advertisers aren't the only ones seething over the prospect of Facebook knowingly inflating its video viewership; members of the press are, too.
According to the complaint, which Facebook has dismissed as being "without merit," the company may have been alerted to the analytics error as early as 2015 by advertisers who reported seeing an unrealistic 100 percent average viewership rates on some videos. It was also around that time that many newsrooms across the country began laying off reporters, in what has become snarkily known as the "pivot to video."
If the tech platforms publishers relied on for advertising and distribution were prioritizing video over text, the thinking went, then video would be key to any media company's survival. That wasn't just based on a hunch. In 2015, Facebook tweaked its algorithm to surface Live videos, a feature that had just launched, higher up in News Feed. And the following year, during an interview at Mobile World Congress, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that in a few years "the vast majority of the content that people consume online will be video.”
"They were making this move to video the number one priority across the company and were very vocal about that," says Jason Kint, CEO of the digital publishing trade organization Digital Content Next. (WIRED parent company Condé Nast is a member.) Publishers, who had already weathered the transition from print to digital only to watch their online ad revenue get leeched away by Facebook and Google for a decade, listened. Outlets like Mic, Fox Sports, and MTV News laid off writers to focus on video. Not long after, page views plummeted. Just two years later, in early 2018, Facebook changed the News Feed again, this time giving videos a demotion.
When the Wall Street Journal broke the news about the complaint Tuesday, it was almost instantly met with anger and frustration from members of the media. "This is especially maddening because the 'pivot to video' is not, as this proves, necessarily a consumer-led initiative," tweeted Phillip Picardi, the editor-in-chief of Out and former chief content officer of Teen Vogue (Teen Vogue is also owned by Condé Nast).
"A lot of friends lost their jobs over this bullshit," tweeted Benjamin Bailey, a writer for Nerdist. "Facebook outright lied and pushed this whole 'pivot to video' narrative. It's all a big house of cards."
"They were making this move to video the number one priority across the company and were very vocal about that."
Jason Kint, Digital Content Next
The current suit stems from an earlier, more narrow lawsuit filed in 2016, after Facebook admitted its error. The issue, which Facebook has since addressed, involved Facebook's calculations for the average length of time a video was being viewed. Instead of dividing the total watch time by every user who played a given video, Facebook only factored in users who watched for more than three seconds. That yielded watch times that, the Journal reported at the time, were 60 to 80 percent higher than reality. But over the course of the last two years, the plaintiffs in the case have gotten access to tens of thousands of internal Facebook documents, which they say suggest the numbers were actually inflated between 150 to 900 percent. And, they write in one court record filed Tuesday, they "discovered that Facebook’s inflation of average view times was far from an honest mistake." The suit quotes one Facebook record about a decision to "obfuscate the fact that we screwed up the math."
Facebook doesn't deny that its numbers were off. It admitted as much in the 2016 blog post. But the company does deny having any knowledge of the error before the summer of 2016. "Suggestions that we in any way tried to hide this issue from our partners are false," a company spokesperson said in a statement. "We told our customers about the error when we discovered it—and updated our help center to explain the issue."
Facebook refused to comment on any specific claims in the lawsuit or answer repeated questions about the parts of the complaint which quote the company's internal documents. The company has filed a motion to dismiss the claims of fraud.
To be sure, in 2015 and 2016, publishers would have been in a tough spot economically no matter what numbers Facebook showed advertisers. And yet, the allegations add to a mounting heap of ongoing trust issues involving Facebook users, advertisers, and the publishers who have had little choice but to cling to Facebook for survival.