Talk is cheap: the myth of the focus group

The long read: Focus groups make us feel our views matter but no one with power cares what we think

In the early 1950s, the Betty Crocker company had a problem: American housewives liked the idea of cake mix, but they werent actually buying it. And so the company approached Ernest Dichter, a Viennese psychologist who had pioneered a new kind of market research, and asked him to find out why.

At the same time, the relatively new processed-food industry was determined to push ready-made food. Frozen foods had enjoyed a boost during the war because of tin rationing, and the first frozen ready meals were launched in 1952. More women were working outside the home, making the convenience of these meals especially appealing. Incomes were rising, too, during this postwar period, which gave families more money to spend on convenience items, and on trying out new dishes. Not all such products were new cake mix, after all, had been around for decades but in this postwar climate, the food industry assumed there would be a much larger market for them. And yet, cake mix sales were slow.

Dichter, who called his work motivational research, set out to answer the question using a relatively new tool: the focus group. Dichters groups for Betty Crocker diagnosed the trouble women felt guilty that they were not doing the work of baking the cake for their families. Serving prepared foods made them feel inadequate.

Focus groups, which became widespread in the 50s, could illuminate the psychological complexities that blocked womens buying habits. In one focus group from this period, a woman made a Freudian slip: Especially when Im in a hurry, I like foods that are time-consuming. Her slip of the tongue, in the context of the conversation, revealed the womans conflicted feelings about convenience foods, even though she seemed to embrace them. As the moderator, Alfred Goldman, would later recall in a 1964 article for a trade journal, that slip inspired the other women in the group to talk more openly about how guilty they felt over serving prepared foods to their families.

Dichter was creative at coming up with solutions to the problems that focus groups revealed. As Bill Schlackman, a colleague of Dichters, would recall years later, in this case the solution was to assuage the housewives guilt by giving them more of a sense of participation. How to do that? He smiled. By adding an egg. With this simple adjustment to the recipe, sales of cake mixes took off. It was an early focus-group marketing triumph.

Focus groups came, over the course of the last century, to shape almost every aspect of our lives, from cake mix to Barbie dolls. Almost nothing is launched into the world without a focus group. Since the late 1980s, they have affected even the political discussions that ultimately determine what kind of society we can have, not to mention the toothpaste we use, the soap operas we watch, the news media we consume, and the video games we play. Focus groups have also helped to create and nourish a seemingly boundless culture of consultation, in which ordinary people weigh in on just about everything, before the people in charge make a decision. Aided by social media and other technologies, the scope of such consultation has, in recent years, expanded its reach with breathtaking speed, allowing companies to aggregate the views and feelings of millions of potential customers.

Illustration: Leon Edler for the Guardian

Focus groups were developed first in academia by scholars with government contracts tasked with selling the second world war more effectively to the American people. Almost at the same time, similar methods were being developed by the British Labour party, to help them understand why so many working-class voters were turning Conservative. The intellectuals responsible for the idea of the focus group many of whom, like Dichter, were European, and informed by psychoanalysis went to work in advertising agencies, and in firms dedicated to market research, as did their students. In these commercial settings, they developed the method further. Today, almost all Fortune 500 companies use focus groups, especially for branding, public image control and marketing. According to Esomar, a global market-research association, global spending on focus groups in 2012 totalled about $4.6bn (3.27bn).

Like Dichters egg, the focus group has given us the feeling that we are participating. Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote in 1959: Societies everywhere, if they are to be societies, must mobilise their members as self-regulating participants in social encounters. One way of mobilising the individual for this purpose is through ritual. If so, the focus group is a fitting ritual for our market democracy, in which political and commercial success accrues to those who can win our votes and our consumer dollars. It also teaches us to reveal just what the corporate and political elites need us to reveal for these specific persuasive projects, and helps us to play our assigned roles in a society where only a few people hold real power.

But what if focus groups have also been part of a process in which citizenship has been reduced to consumerism a set of choices made passively, under constraint? Focus groups reveal our desires for a better life, for participation, for power, to be heard but do they also limit them? Perhaps it is a process through which our aspirations become much smaller. We talk, we feel perhaps that someone has listened, and we demand nothing more.

Whatever the topic travel, detergent or breast cancer the focus group has certain commonalities. It is a discussion among a small group, usually numbering between eight and 12 people. Led by a trained moderator, the conversation is intended to answer specific questions for a client: hence the term focus. Even if it appears to be freewheeling, or to wander off track, the moderator usually knows where it is going. Often, the client is observing through a one-way mirror from the next room. The moderator might receive notes from the client during the discussion perhaps demanding that she get the conversation back on track, or that she probe a little bit harder: how do those present really feel about making instant coffee in the privacy of their own homes?

The process looks like democracy in action, and most people enjoy participating. Yet focus groups are widely despised. The public resents the mediocre outcomes of a focus-grouped world, feeling that the culture of consultation dumbs down our politics, entertainment and just about everything else. The clients who commission focus groups to give feedback on a new product or political initiative resent the obligation to listen to ordinary, non-expert people, and often feel humiliated by their judgments. Everyone imagines the participants to be idiots. Since they remain a hugely popular way of understanding consumer tastes and voter opinions, why do we hate them so much?

Illustration: Leon Edler for the Guardian

Watching a focus group forces us to face our discomfort with our fellow citizens. This queasiness becomes particularly acute during the US election season, when, every time you turn on the TV, conservative pollster Frank Luntz perhaps the person most responsible for turning focus groups into entertaining television can be seen taking the temperature of a group of middle Americans.

During one such session during the 2008 election campaign, I watched with a friend, mesmerised, as a wiggly green line demonstrated how this band of stubbornly undecided voters, assembled by Luntz and armed with electronic dials to indicate their mood, felt about a debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. Did they like it when Barack Obama said energy independence? (Ooh, yes, quite a lot! The line went up.) Or when John McCain said: The surge is working? (Hmm, not so much the line sagged.) My friend and I were so concerned about the green line that at times we couldnt properly concentrate on the debate.

But the focus groups discussion made even more compelling, if awkward, television. We didnt necessarily want to know how undecided our fellow Americans were on the crucial issues of the day. After we had watched in horrified silence for a few minutes, my companion gasped: Who are these appalling people?

Who indeed? They are you and I, in some sense, which explains why they are neither as pretty, nor as articulate, as most people on television. It also explains why we regard them with a distressed mix of recognition and alienation. Heaping scorn upon the focus group and its participants is an equal-opportunity form of elitism that we can all share in.

But the most intense hostility comes from the very people the focus group is convened to help. Clients well-known hatred of focus groups is often joked about in the industry. When I told Andy Tuck, a partner at Applied Research & Consulting, a market research firm based in New York, about my friends worried comment, he was delighted. Were going to put that on a sign in here! he said, gesturing at his conference room. He recognises the sentiment, because its one that his clients express all the time. Clients always hate the participants.

For many market research professionals, the clients hatred seems to validate the process demonstrating that focus groups really do represent the public at large. The corporate clients watching the consumers from behind the mirror are meeting their masters. In Tucks view, the clients hate the focus group participants because elites that is, the political and corporate ruling classes, and the professional classes who do much of those rulers thinking for them hate to listen to people.

Theres a lot of condescension, agreed another veteran market researcher, Julia Strohm, over tea in her Manhattan apartment. Strohm feels that clients make too much of the fact that the participants are getting paid. (There are market researchers, too, who feel that most participants are only there for the money.) The clients feel that because [the groups are] being paid, thats the contract, and that negates any need to have respect or gratitude for them. Many, many clients say how much [the respondents] are being paid. Theyre really hyperfocused on that.

Clients also resent the fact that they, the experts, have to listen to people who know nothing about their field. Kara Jesella, a former editor at Teen Vogue, has been on the client side of the focus group process for several media companies, and described the teenage girls that regularly tested that magazine as vicious. She continued: You know what? In all the ones Ive seen, people really like to criticise. Theres way more criticising than saying: I like this. She recalled the awkwardness of the set-up. Were sitting right there, and theyre critiquing something they know we created.

The negativity can be painful for the client to hear. But some participants view it as their obligation. Turi Ryder spent some time as a focus group mom, and wrote an essay about her experiences: These sessions are like therapy one must be brutally honest, or it doesnt work. If the websites new logo is ugly and looks vaguely sexual, its my duty to say so. Im helping the company succeed. It would be wrong to be diplomatic. Think of all the money theyre paying to get it right.

Illustration: Leon Edler for the Guardian

Its also true that the relative anonymity of the focus group makes it safer for participants to make negative comments than for people within the company who might share some of their misgivings. As Ryder puts it: I fly under the radar. They only know about me what they have on the profile. The people on the other side of the glass will never see me again.

Another complaint made by clients is that the people in the focus groups are not the target consumer. Joseph J Paul, manager of marketing research for feminine care products at Kimberly-Clark, told Marketing News in 1976 that the people from the agency would sit behind the screen during a focus group, and when it was over they would say: Boy, did you bring in a bunch of stupid consumers. Our consumer isnt like that. Our consumer is young, sophisticated, and bright. You brought in a bunch of dummies They dont know anything about this product.

Many clients resent the arrogance of focus group participants, who (in their view) have way too much confidence in their own opinions, and too little humility about their own lack of expertise. Most of the time, clients hate the participants because these ordinary people provide an unbearable reality check: [Clients] cant believe that their customers dont care about them or their product, said Andy Tuck.

The research industry defends its focus groups: for them, the clients hatred is part of what legitimises the method. We tend to hire nice people here, said Tuck, and they are really shocked by how mean the clients are about the consumers.

But the researchers emotional investment in the participants goes beyond their empathy: the moderators tend to feel invested in an idealistic vision of their profession. They believe they are truly listening to the voice of the people, making the ordinary persons opinions matter. They feel there is something ennobling about letting the people speak. I think of myself as an advocate for the consumer, says Donna Fullerton, who who has been moderating focus groups for major brands since the 1980s. Theres stuff that people are saying that is going to be manipulated and used to promote products and services that one may not need, its true, Fullerton observes. But I think my value comes from being the ear for people and hearing what they think.

The story of the focus group is a story of the relationship between elites and the masses. The current culture of consultation has flourished and become more necessary in a period during which the actual power of ordinary people relative to the rich whether in the workplace or the political arena has greatly diminished. Listening is not the same as sharing power. At the same time that our society has become more unequal, and gaps in everyday experience much wider, the need for listening has only grown more obvious. Ordinary people especially working-class women dont have much political or economic power. In addition to telegraphing some of the desires of such people to cultural, political and corporate elites, the focus group is a ritual allowing those elites to send the message that they are listening (and sometimes even responding).

Over the past decade and a half, whenever protesters have gathered to defend the values of the left values of equality and inclusion they have chanted: This is what democracy looks like. A focus group, whether convened in an office park in Columbus, Ohio, or in a brightly lit conference room on Madison Avenue, is not at all what democracy looks like. But a focus group is, in some ways, what democratic participation now feels like. It is one of the ways we crack the egg and feel we are doing something. It has been part of the evolution of our expressive democracy that is, a society in which the expression of opinion has been dramatically democratised, while the distribution of everything else that matters (political power, money) has only grown more starkly unequal.

The focus group offers us the experience of having a voice and the possibility of influence in a world that offers most people little control over their lives, and little opportunity to influence anything. Perhaps they will use my idea! one hopes. Maybe the movie ending I voted on will prevail, saving viewers around the world from sadness or banality. Or perhaps Ill see my own language in this antacid commercial. A focus group with brand managers, campaign managers and all kinds of other important people behind the mirror hanging anxiously on every laboured word of these ordinary peoples discussion can feel like a populist triumph. It takes quite a ritual to produce that feeling.

Traditionally, people have advanced their own interests by organizing and confronting the powerful. They do this by working together in groups. The focus group harnesses this cooperative impulse, but its only result is the production of data that serves the interests of the powerful. Groups have often been a means indeed, for those without money, the only means of building power, but the focus group, like the isolated individual, can only provide information. This is why the focus group is a quintessential ritual of, to borrow the historian Lizabeth Cohens phrase, a consumers republic.

Most people in the corporate or political elite have no idea what the majority of people whose votes or consumer dollars they badly need to win are like. They dont know people who are not like themselves. Elites live in different neighbourhoods and have different values and habits from most people. Speaking of the clients on the other side of the mirror, former moderator Kara Gilmour says: A lot of those people are really out of touch. They think they have all the answers because theyre the professionals. But when was the last time that they went shopping in a mid-range mall? They never shop in a mid-range mall. They get all their clothes at the sample sales.

This vast gulf in mindset and everyday experience between ordinary people and elites is the reason the focus group needs to exist at all. In the US, amid the relentless mid-century anti-Communist propaganda campaigns and purges, with successful radical and populist political movements a distant memory, we became reconciled to having elites. Yet for consumer capitalism and democracy to flourish, those elites would need ways to measure the thoughts and feelings of the rest of the public. The ruling classes and even the professional managerial classes that make decisions for those rulers might be increasingly disconnected from ordinary people, but they had to know what the people wanted in order to sell them things and win their votes.

Focus groups can help reach demographic groups that are not well-represented among the corporate elite. Upper management, being predominantly white and male, for example, undoubtedly has trouble imagining the perspectives of women of colour. Revlon found this out when, in the 1990s, it tested an ad campaign for Creme of Nature, a hair relaxer, in focus groups of African-American women, led by a black female moderator. As Richard Kirshenbaum and Jon Bond the founders of the Kirshenbaum, Bond and Partners (KB&P) agency, which rebranded the product write in their book Under the Radar, the focus groups were a revelation to the cosmetics giant.

The researchers found that rather than being happy that a big-name company such as Revlon had a product for black women, the focus group participants found the name off-putting. In Kirshenbaum and Bonds words, the women saw it as a big white company. Revlon had been featuring black models in its The Worlds Most Beautiful Women Wear Revlon campaign, but the black women in the focus groups did not feel represented by them.

Illustration: Leon Edler for the Guardian

They felt alienated by the images: supermodels like Beverly Johnson were light-skinned and wore hair extensions, and the consumers in the groups felt they were white-looking. Kirshenbaum and Bond recalled: What we found was so surprising because no one had ever asked the right questions before, and the answers we got were so incredibly different from what we or Revlon originally thought.

The focus group frequently reveals what lies outside the elite bubble, which is not only bounded by privileged experience or cultural reference, but also by certain political assumptions. Julia Strohm, who has worked with Tuck at Applied Research & Consulting, recalls a project for an apparel company, testing how consumer reactions to an ecologically sensitive clothing line differed on the US coasts and in the Midwest: We did groups in St Louis [Missouri], Westchester [New York] and San Francisco. And it was pretty startling, the difference in peoples consciousness about ecology and the environment. St Louis: nice people, and they could not care less. In fact, they were kind of offended about the hoopla about the environment Their idea about being environmentally conscious was maybe to recycle.

The focus group came into existence precisely because of such jarring points of disconnection between elites and the rest. While both democracy and consumerism depend on the participation of ordinary people, and indeed, are supposed to be powered by their desires, it became clear over the course of the last century that American-style capitalism would ensure the economic, political and cultural domination of a small elite. The focus group became one of many (highly imperfect) ways of managing that contradiction.

We should value much of the focus groups spirit of listening and engagement, but we should not be content with the culture of consultation. During the past decade, ordinary people around the world have been organising against plutocracy and demanding more democratic and inclusive institutions, whether in the Arab spring, Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter. Insurgent political movements have been backing Bernie Sanders in the US, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, or calling for womens strikes worldwide. These contain the seeds of a movement that just might, from the babble and din of consultation and influence, ask: What if powerful institutions did more for us than simply listen?

The problem with the culture of consultation isnt that elites hear too much from the people. The problem is that consultation is not enough: in a better world, the people would have much greater power, whether in culture or politics, and far more avenues for participation.

Policy-makers now regard citizen engagement as so important that they routinely hire specialised private firms or non-profit organisations to manage public debate about local policy decisions. Focus groups, town meetings and other forms of mediated conversation now accompany the hiring of a school superintendent or the redevelopment of a downtown area. There has been extensive research on what forms of engagement work best, but small groups led by a facilitator are still common, and an industry of consultants has emerged to guide these processes.

The success of viral campaigns such as Black Lives Matter has certainly put critical social issues into political conversation but social media has enmeshed us more deeply with the culture of consultation, which ultimately serves those in power best of all. Corporate elites are, so far, doing an excellent job of using the listening process to attract our votes and our spending. We the people are, meanwhile, struggling to be heard in ways that actually change anything, because giving voice is not the same as taking power.

Yet the culture of consultation whether in a focus group, a fan-fiction blog or a TripAdvisor review taps into our desire to be creative, to engage with others and to make a difference in the world. Where focus groups drew us into conversation with our fellow citizens and gave us the sense that someone with power could be listening, social media has done that even more effectively.

At its best, the culture of consultation has always asked us to imagine what we want, and to discuss it with others. We can imagine a baby wipe we might like better, but can we envision democracy? Can we talk about it? Can we imagine ordinary people like ourselves having influence that is more meaningful than the garbled and stuttered input we offer in these airless rooms? Could the culture of consultation give way to something more radically democratic?

As the history of the focus group shows, elites have always been more than happy to give us a microphone. To get more than that, you have to have a strategy, and a theory of how you might take power. Even our forms of dissent mirror the ritual of the focus group. We cannot remain trapped in the conversation, as pleasurable as it is. We need to learn to shift our talk: from giving voice to organising, persuading and challenging. This kind of talk is harder work, but it is where political change actually occurs.

Illustrations by Leon Edler

Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation by Liza Featherstone is published by OR Books

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The female journalists defying taboos and braving death threats in Afghanistan | Sune Engel Rasmussen

The countrys first female-run radio station was looted and its staff persecuted but, despite the risks, women in the media are making their voices heard

When Radio Shaista goes silent, you know the Taliban are close. The female-run radio station was looted and wrecked when the group captured Kunduz, Afghanistans embattled northern city, in 2015, sending journalists fleeing. Even after the Taliban were routed, female journalists have been on guard, if they ever returned, that is.

Zarghoona Hassan, Radio Shaistas director, fled after armed militants knocked on her door at home. They accused her of converting listeners to Christianity and announced a date for her execution.

She says the Talibans anger was fuelled by talk of empowering women. The radio broadcast discussions with religious scholars about womens rights and called on mothers of Taliban combatants to prevent their sons from fighting.

We had conversations about women studying, and talked about female pilots, says Hassan.

Hassan now splits her time between Kunduz and the capital, Kabul. Since 2015 she has shut down her radio station twice in fear of Taliban advances.

A vibrant media is one of the great successes of post-2001 Afghanistan. However, womens position in it is fragile. For many Afghan families, when security worsens, protection of women overrides most other concerns.

[When we started], women flocked to the radio to work, even for free. But when the Taliban came closer, around 2012, peoples attitude changed, says Hassan, who founded two other radio stations in Kunduz. Many women in Kunduz want to work in media but their families wont let them.

This anxiety highlights the complexities around western endeavours to empower Afghan women, particularly outside liberal, urban classes. And when efforts to promote human rights do make Afghan women visible, they are usually cast as victims.

One magazine is hoping to change that. In May, the first issue of Gellara, Afghanistans first womens lifestyle magazine, hit the newsstands.

Until now, the media mostly focused on women facing violence, baad [compensating for a crime by giving a woman away in marriage], and women who had their faces cut, says Fatana Hassanzada, 23, the magazines founder and editor. We want to portray other faces of women.

Modelled on international magazines like Vogue, Gellara addresses Afghan women as consumers of fashion and culture, as book readers and as love seekers. As human beings, says Hassanzada.

The cover of the first monthly issue, 2,000 copies of which were printed at offices in Kabul, features Canadian-Afghan singer Mozhdah Jamalzadah, her hair unveiled. Inside, articles on breast cancer and yoga follow pieces on Iranian film and beauty.

We want to show that a woman can have a pretty face and be well dressed. We are trying to teach society not to be shocked by these things, says content editor Aziza Karimi.

Perhaps most controversial, in a country where arranged marriages are still widely enforced, is an introduction to the dating app Tinder.

When asked how that would go down in conservative rural areas, Hassanzada laughs. We try to target everyone. There is something for the cities and something for the villages, she says, while recognising that many rural women would probably only see the magazine if their husbands brought it home.

Producers in the editing room of Afghanistans first womens TV channel, Zan TV. Photograph: Hedayatullah Amid/EPA

This month, Afghanistan also saw the launch of Zan TV (Womens TV), the first channel dedicated to women. Female presenters are common on Afghan television, but Zan is the first with all-female newsreaders (though its owner is a man).

Mehria Afzali, 25, a presenter, says her parents opposed her working in media until her husband convinced them. Some people in the provinces believe women on TV are destroying the unity of the family, she says. But we wear proper hijab. We are an Islamic channel.

Conditions for Afghan journalists are deteriorating. Last year was the bloodiest for media workers since 2001, according to the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee.

Though cities offer a larger, liberal audience, they are not always safe. A few years ago, Hassanzada, then a TV presenter, fled to Kabul from Mazar-i-Sharif with her family after a group of men stabbed her younger brother in the street, demanding that she stop working.

In Kabul, she faces threats, too. On a visit to Kabul University this week to promote the magazine, students from the Islamic law faculty tried to intervene, calling the magazine infidel, before security blocked them.

Hassanzada says she would not go back to the university. But three of our reporters study there. I am worried something will happen to them.

Yet, she says, reporting on controversial topics is worth the risk. We are the second generation of democracy in Afghanistan. In a revolution, there will always be sacrifices.

These issues are not dangerous. Its society thats dangerous.

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5 ways inclusive marketing can benefit your business feat. Nigel Barker

Inclusive marketing is a technique that consumers may not be able to pinpoint, but for many businesses, it’s the secret ingredient behind creating ads that set out to empower people and create confidence amongst consumers.

Inclusive marketing is marketing that doesn’t specifically target one demographic nor does it rely on the traditional stereotypes we set up amongst ourselves and with other people

On the other side of the coin, not all brands utilize inclusive marketing correctly. There have been a handful of brands over the past several months who have tried to take a stab at inclusive marketing, but to their dismay, their message was not received by the masses in the way they had hoped (looking at you, Pepsi). However, when executed correctly, inclusive marketing has the potential to make serious impacts for any business of any size.

Nigel Barker, internationally renowned photographer whos been highly esteemed for his 17 seasons as photographer and judge on the hit TV show Americas Next Top Model, has spent majority of his career working on marketing campaigns and advertisements for a plethora major fashion, makeup, and beauty labels. So who better than Baker to help break down the ins and outs of inclusive marketing?

Nigel stopped by #BizChats, Mashable’s business show, to share with us the five simple ways any business or brand can appeal to a more diverse audience in an authentic way.

1. Use philanthropy, there is a charity for everyone

Barker says: “The most important thing is to think about a cause what’s most important to you.” Baker shares his experience with working on a Nine West campaign with a social target on breast cancer. Using the technology of FitBits, they tracked every step that was taken by models. The advertising campaigned garnered more than one billion views within a month.

2. Be social, throw parties to bring people together.

Barker says: “As a company, it isn’t’ just the advertising campaigns, it’s about being with the people and bringing them together. It’s the unconventional, yet important side of marketing and opportunity for people to be in a community.”

3. Use health and fitness as a common ground

Barker says: “Working out with people is a new great way to break down boundaries, market your personality to other people, and work together.”

4. Music is one of the best ways to bring people together

Barker says: “Music is probably the number one way to touch someone. It’s nostalgic, it speaks to both the past and the future. The sounds resonate with in ways that are special.”

5. Humor is a powerful way to disarm people and help them see your point

Barker says: “[Humor] is probably one of the most powerful tools we have. One of the most important things in life is having a giggle. We don’t do it often enough. Having a sense of humor and being able to poke fun at yourself is important.”

Missed the show? Don’t worry! Re-watch the episode in the video above.

WATCH: Woman uses Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino to spread some magical news to her husband

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2016: The Year Facebook Became The Bad Guy

This year has revealed how difficult it is for the social network to make the world more open and connected when the decisions it makes can be so divisive

Mark Zuckerberg started 2016 with a cookie cutter message of hope. As the world faces new challenges and opportunities, may we all find the courage to keep making progress and making all our days count, he wrote on his Facebook wall on 1 January. He and his wife, Priscilla Chan, had just had their daughter, Max, and had been sharing warm and fuzzy photos of gingerbread houses and their dreadlocked dog Beast over the holiday season.

Then 2016 happened. As the year unfurled, Facebook had to deal with a string of controversies and blunders, not limited to: being accused of imperialism in India, censorship of historical photos, and livestreaming footage of human rights violations. Not to mention misreported advertising metrics and the increasingly desperate cloning of rival Snapchats core features. Things came to a head in November, when the social network was accused ofinfluencing the US presidential election through politically polarized filter bubbles and a failure to tackle the spread of misinformation. The icing on the already unpalatable cake was Pope Francis last week declaring that fake news is a mortal sin.

This was Facebooks annus horribilis. Mark Zuckerberg must long for the day when his biggest dilemma was deciding which grey T-shirt to wear on his first day back at work.

It wasnt all bad. None of these controversies made a dent on the bottom line; Facebook had a bumper year for advertising revenue, and the $3bn investment to tackle all diseases (no big deal) through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was well received.

But this year has revealed how difficult it has become for the social network to stand behind its mission to make the world more open and connected when the decisions it makes can be so divisive.

Unprecedented power

Thanks to its 1.79bn users and how much it knows about them, Facebook rakes in billions in advertising. In the first three quarters of this year, the company made almost $6bn in profit a big jump from a mere $3.69bn in 2015. They have perfected advertising in a way that makes it extremely enticing. Its so easy to place an ad and get immediate results, said media expert Gordon Borrell, whose analysis suggests that Facebook has taken $1bn away from print publications in the past year. For every new dollar spent by brands online, a whopping 85 cents goes to Facebook and Google at a time when traditional publishers are facing layoffs.

Some believe Facebook has become too big to be regulated effectively.

We dont have the right regulatory paradigm for these globe-striding technology giants, said Carl Miller, research director at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the thinktank Demos. We treat them like neutral utility companies but they are value-maximising commercial entities.

Facebook is a monopoly with too much power, argues author and activist Robert McChesney. When you get companies this big they are not just a threat to democracy, but they are also a threat to capitalism. They suck investment capital and profits away from smaller businesses and screw over the competitive sector.

He has an extreme solution: if Facebook cant be regulated effectively, it should be nationalised to ensure it acts in the interest of the public.

McChesney scoffs at the suggestion that Facebook is acting democratically by serving its many users. Thats self-serving garbage, he said.

Does it not make a difference that Mark Zuckerberg is a principled CEO with good intentions? Not according to McChesney: I am sure the people who produced napalm thought they were doing a good service to protect the free world.

Digital colonialism

One of 2016s earliest missteps was Facebooks mishandling of Free Basics. The company pitched Free Basics as a way to give internet access, and all the wonderful benefits it can unlock, to the worlds poorest people. The catch: it wasnt real internet access, but a selection of apps and services curated by and always including Facebook. In February, the Indian government rejected Free Basics over its violation of the tenets of net neutrality following a public debate in which Facebook was accused of digital colonialism. It was an expensive and embarrassing blow for the social network and indicative that not everyone finds its brand of Silicon Valley techno-utopianism palatable. To compound the issue, Facebook board member Marc Andreessen reacted on Twitter with the tone-deaf and contemptuous line: Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?

Nitin Pai, director of the Takshashila Institution, an Indian thinktank, and a critic of Free Basics, said: Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg must take a long, hard look at what are the values it wants to strengthen or weaken in this world … Unlike other multinational firms that merely sell goods and services to people across the globe, Facebook enables connections among them. It cannot take the usual, and usually untenable, we are apolitical route to international business.

Facebook is a monopoly with too much power, some argue. Photograph: Sergei Konkov/TASS

Indeed, so political are Facebooks global expansion plans that they are said to be working on a censorship tool that would allow them to operate in China once again.

Censorship and accountability

Censorship has been a running theme on Facebook in 2016. Despite insisting it is not a media company and is not in the business of making editorial judgments, Facebook, it seems, is all too happy to censor content when that content violates its own policies or at the request of police. This has led to a number of high-profile blunders in 2016, including the removal in September of the iconic Vietnam war photograph napalm girl from a Norwegian journalists post and the deletion of a breast cancer awareness video in October. In both cases, human moderators made bad judgment calls that the algorithm then enforced across the site to widespread criticism.

In August, Facebook deactivated Korryn Gaines profile during an armed standoff with police at the request of the Baltimore County police department. Gaines, who was later killed by police, had been posting to the social network after barricading herself inside her apartment and aiming a shotgun at police. The incident highlighted the existence of an emergency request system that police can use to get Facebook to take content down without a court order if they think someone is at risk of harm or death.

Elsewhere, Facebook suspended live footage from the Dakota Access pipeline protests and disabled Palestinian journalists accounts; there were also reports it had removed Black Lives Matter activists content.

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Rolling Stone ‘Jackie’ trial: university administrator awarded $3m for defamation

Former associate dean of students Nicole Eramo wins case over discredited gang rape story that cast her as a villain

Jurors have awarded a University of Virginia administrator $3m for her portrayal in a now-discredited Rolling Stone magazine article about the schools handling of a brutal gang rape a fraternity house.

The 10-member jurys decision came after they concluded on Friday that the magazine, its publisher and reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely were responsible for defamation, with actual malice, of former associate dean of students Nicole Eramo in the 2014 story A Rape on Campus.

Eramo sued the magazine for $7.5m, claiming it cast her as a villain who sought to discourage the woman identified only as Jackie from reporting her alleged assault to police. A police investigation found no evidence to back up Jackies rape claims.

Jurors heard testimony on Monday about the extent to which the story has damaged Eramos life and reputation before they began deliberating to decide how much to award her in damages.

Eramo told jurors that after the storys publication, she had trouble sleeping, feared for her safety and struggled with how to explain what was happening to her then-seven-year-old son. One day, she crawled under her desk and contemplated suicide as she felt her world come crashing down around her, she said. Her husband testified that she told him: I dont know that I can live anymore.

I just wanted to disappear, said Eramo, who cried throughout much of her testimony. I didnt know how it was going to be OK.

She claimed the article prompted the university to move her out of her job as an associate dean into a different administrative role that she doesnt like as much because she rarely works with students. When the article was published, she was also preparing to undergo a double mastectomy for breast cancer. Eramo and her attorneys suggested that the stress she was under could have contributed to a post-surgery infection that led to a hospital stay.

Even the strongest people have a breaking point, said Tom Clare, an attorney for Eramo.

The story roiled the University of Virginia campus, prompted calls for Eramos resignation and sparked a national conversation about sexual assault at elite institutions. Jackies story quickly fell apart after reporters from other outlets started asking questions and determined that Rolling Stone never spoke to the womans alleged attackers or even verified their existence before going to print.

Because the judge determined that Eramo was a public figure, she had to prove Rolling Stone made statements with actual malice, meaning it knew that what it was writing about her was false or entertained serious doubts about whether it might be true.

Jurors found that the magazine and its publisher, Wenner Media, acted with actual malice because they republished the article on 5 December with an editors note after they knew about the problems with Jackies story. The jury also found that Erdely acted with actual malice on six claims: two statements in the article and four statements to media outlets after the story was published.

Jurors awarded $2m to Eramo for statements made by Erdely and $1m for the republication of the article by Rolling Stone and Wenner Media. Rolling Stone could appeal the verdict.

Rolling Stone has agreed to pay Erdelys legal costs and the damages levied against her.

Rolling Stones attorneys argued throughout the three-week trial that while it may have been a mistake to trust Jackie, their portrayal of the university and Eramo was fair and accurate.

On Monday, attorney David Paxton told jurors that the magazine was heartbroken by Fridays decision and urged them not to be tempted to award a large sum of damages in order to send a message to the magazine and the media. Theyve already done that with their verdict, Paxton said.

This was tough medicine to receive, Paxton said.

Paxton apologized to Eramo, but stressed that Eramo not only kept a job at the university after the article was published, but she received a pay raise.

In their damages defense, attorneys for Rolling Stone showed jurors just one exhibit: A 2015 Office of Civil Rights report that criticizes the universitys handling of sexual assault complaints and specifically mentions that Eramo helped to create a hostile environment for victims on campus.

Rolling Stone also faces a $25m lawsuit from Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity where Jackie claimed her assault took place. That case is schedule to go to trial late next year.

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Facebook to consider public interest before removal of posts violating guidelines

Move comes after repeated criticism of Facebook from news organisations, charities and others over important posts being taken down without notice

Facebook is finally going to consider whether or not posts are important to the public interest before removing them from the site for violating community guidelines, the social network has announced.

Two vice presidents from the company, Joel Kaplan and Justin Osofsky, co-signed the announcement, which acknowledged that observing global standards for our community is complex.

In the weeks ahead, were going to begin allowing more items that people find newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest even if they might otherwise violate our standards, Kaplan and Osofsky wrote. We will work with our community and partners to explore exactly how to do this, both through new tools and approaches to enforcement. Our intent is to allow more images and stories without posing safety risks or showing graphic images to minors and others who do not want to see them.

The move comes after repeated criticism of Facebook from news organisations, charities and others over important posts being taken down without notice or the chance to appeal. The company has faced such criticism for years, but the chorus has become particularly loud in the past two months, sparked by the removal of an article illustrated with the iconic Vietnam war photo featuring a naked girl after a napalm attack, when it was posted to the site by a Norwegian newspaper.

After that picture was removed from the site, the papers writer was also suspended from Facebook, prompting its Editor-in-Chief to accuse Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg of censorship.

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Trump TV: is his campaign laying the groundwork for the next media empire?

Rumors that Donald Trump has given up on winning the election in favor of a media plan B make sense, but its been tried before with disappointing results

After a long, hot and sorry-looking summer it may look like the game is up for Donald Trumps presidential ambitions. But thats only if you believe the tycoon-turned-presidential candidate is actually running to win the White House.

Trumps poll numbers have slipped as the American election departs the local primary circus and enters the national campaign. Trumps trademark combination of bombast and braggadocio trounced his Republican opposition, and still draws crowds at rallies, but the polls suggest Trump has alienated the wider electorate he needs to win the presidency.

And according to an increasingly popular theory in media circles, thats exactly how he wants it. Trump, so the hypothesis goes, has given up on winning the presidential race and is now simply priming the pump for an upcoming media venture for the alt-right demographic, as the Trump-loving alternative to mainstream conservatism is now known. Fox News is old hat say hello to 24/7 Trump TV.

Ever since Trump declared he was running for president, skeptics have sensed this was all a vanity campaign aimed at building his brand. The recent reshuffle of Team Trump has only fuelled speculation: Roger Ailes, Fox Newss disgraced former chairman, is now advising Trump while he fights off accusations of serial sexual harassment (charges Ailes vehemently denies). And earlier this month, Trump appointed Steve Bannon, Goldman Sachs banker turned film-maker and former chairman of the self-identified alt-right Breitbart News website, as his campaign CEO alongside veteran pollster Kellyanne Conway as his campaign manager.

The media certainly thinks its spotted the upcoming twist. What if Trump and Breitbart could team up, raise some money from outside investors, and bring aboard some of the television executives who built Fox News? asked the New Yorker last week. Vanity Fair recently reported Trump is looking to monetize his audience through a possible mini-media conglomerate. The New York Times reported this month that Trump and his son-in-law, New York Observer publisher Jared Kushner, have been mulling over a media holding. CNNs chief media watcher Brian Stelter recently reported: What he might wanna do is launch a new television channel, or launch a new giant website, a new subscription service, he might be thinking about a media enterprise.

I think hes definitely working to cement his brand with an audience, said NPR media reporter David Folkenflik.

Theres certainly room out there for a Trump media brand. As Fox News expert and New York magazine writer Gabriel Sherman told the Guardian recently, the landscape is shifting in rightwing media thanks to Ailess fall and Trumps rise. Fox was this amazing unifier of all the strands of conservatism together [Now] its kind of a Lord of the Flies situation where everyones trying to kill each other.

As Trumps dysfunctional, bare-bones campaign continues to come up short in the polls, a media plan B makes sense. His alt-right base is too small to win an election, but big enough to make him some money afterward.

But this is a plan that has been tried before, and with less than impressive results.

The most obvious forerunner was Sarah Palin, seen by many as Trump 1.0. Here was another rightwing outsider who, after the 2012 election, attempted to cash in on her stardom with the Sarah Palin Channel, a digital network run with the web-based TV company TAPP.

Palin charged $10 per month to ride the straight-talk express, with sub-channels including New Life TV recharge your relationships and grow closer to God Live with Joan Lunden a vibrant community for womens wellness and breast cancer patients and survivors and K-Love TV Christian Rock, Inspiration, and Family Values.

The lineup failed to find an audience and by 2014 the Sarah Palin Channel was racking up a mere 36,000 views a month, considerably less than many gardening blogs. The URL now leads to, the home of her political action committee that raises money for conservative candidates.

Not far behind Palins debacle, and also produced by TAPP, was The Herman Cain Channel launched by another Republican presidential wannabe who briefly rose to national prominence. CainTV died in 2013 but then came back as a low-grade news blog framed by ads plugging Cains books and radio shows. CainTV delivers it all in an Informed, Inspirational, and INtertaining way, goes its slogan. It too has failed to evolve into the conglomerate the former pizza magnate had likely envisioned.

Finally, and perhaps most ominously for Trump, theres the demise of conservative radio and TV star Glenn Becks post-Fox News venture, The Blaze. If anyone was likely to pull off a digital media empire targeting the audience of (relatively) young, pissed-off, conspiratorial conservatives, it should have been Beck.

The former Fox host wanted to engineer a fresh news channel from digital beginnings, a scrappy upstart with enough populist appeal to challenge the mighty Fox brand with none of the legacy costs of mainstream media. What he produced was significantly less than that, and its been bleeding money and staff for years. The Blaze laid off 40 employees in April, as traffic and advertising revenue continued to wither away.

The legacy of new media ventures further to the left is equally awful: onetime Democratic presidential candidate and vice-president Al Gores CurrentTV failed spectacularly, burning money to attract an audience it could neither find nor hold. It was taken over and rebranded by the deep pocketed Al Jazeera network in 2013, but after three very expensive years Al Jazeera America closed in April.

Trump would certainly argue he could do better. But building a media empire isnt as easy as burning down a political campaign. It requires serious money and a long-term strategy. These are not major turn-ons for the man who brought you 12-months of Trump Steaks and less than a year of Trump-brand water.

You gotta remember that Trump doesnt want to spend a lot of money on this, said Folkenflik. It costs a ton of money. Murdoch had to pay cable providers to put Fox on.

Even if Trump does commit to a more upscale venture, who would have the vision to run it? Ailes seems like an obvious choice until one considers that hes a 76-year-old in legal trouble and visibly poor health; and he wouldnt be able to start until his noncompete agreement with Fox News expires at the end of 2018. Still, even pushing 80, its hard to imagine him mellowing with age. He has scores to settle with James and Lachlan Murdoch, sons of his former mentor and partner Rupert, who were always looking to knock him off his throne.

I think Ailes would love a chance to once more stick it in the eye of the establishment and the Murdoch sons, Folkenflik said. But also, its not just that hes not a young man anymore, its that hes not in good shape. Hes not gonna be the guy in charge.

Meanwhile Bannon, like so many other Trump campaign officials, is in the midst of public and embarrassing scandals, dealing with allegations that he violated Floridas voting laws and reports of domestic abuse.

Still, those charges may not matter to Trump, who is already happily defending and working with Ailes despite his issues. And they certainly dont matter to Trumps base, who tend to dismiss charges against Trump and his campaign as PC thuggery and liberal media bias.

The final decision lies with Trump; he may jump at the chance to make a TV channel in his image, or he may just license his brand and let someone like Bannon or an Ailes-led brains trust take the reins. Trump loyalists like Fox News star Sean Hannity who makes enough money from his radio career to leave his perch at Fox News could possibly sign up to join a new splinter cell. Or maybe Trump will simply complete the marriage between his campaign and Breitbart News and put some money into an alt-right shop thats already doing well.

If the Trumps dont make it to the White House, the family patriarch may indeed start a new media conglomerate. But business history, not least Trumps own business history, suggests a low-risk, low-grade propaganda house rather than a sprawling new cable empire. As his buddy Ailes has no doubt warned him, talk is cheap but news is expensive.

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