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How Popular Information’s Judd Legum holds Facebook’s feet to the fire
And why it's so damn hard
If there’s such a thing as a newsletter legend, Judd Legum is one. The founder and one-time editor-in-chief of the Center for American Progress’s Think Progress news site, Judd has, since 2018, been writing the enormously influential newsletter Popular Information.
Judd focuses on holding the powerful to account, and I was eager to talk to him because I’m really trying to understand how people are forcing huge, difficult-to-change technology companies to change. Judd’s done that. But Judd also got honest about what he’s discovered about the limits to that power.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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In tomorrow’s special edition, we’ll talk about Judd’s.
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Scola: What is Popular Information? What does it exist to do, and how does it do it?
Legum: At this point it’s really centered around accountability journalism. A lot of times that focus is on corporations, but also politicians and any other entity that holds some power or sway. I really focus a lot on trust, trying to identify sources of information that are under-scrutinized or that I could look at in a new way. So that's what I'm casting around trying to find — whether that's FEC reports, the Facebook ad database, lots of different things. And then, starting from that base, you can then expand and develop sources and other places to get information.
That's generally the path I take. Start with the information, iteratively report it out, and then try to build up sort of sourcing and other places to get information that you can't do through, you know, Internet research.
“Sometimes stories are written off, as, you know, ‘This is the way things are done, this is the way things work…’ I think that is something probably that I'm a little bit more willing to do than other folks.”
Why aren’t existing news organizations or advocacy groups doing that work?
In the campaign finance space, there's so many great reporters and all sorts of outlets. So I don't really mean this as a criticism. But I do think sometimes stories are written off, as, you know, ‘This is the way things are done, this is the way things work.’ So I think, until we asked all these companies if they were going to continue donating to, you know, Steve Scalise and the other Republicans who voted against certification, probably most of the reporters just thought, ‘Well, of course, they're going to keep donating to them, and how could they not donate to that they always donate to everyone.’
It’s just kind of saying, Okay, well, it's always the way things have done, but why don't we still ask and raise the point about what's happening? I think that is something probably that I'm a little bit more willing to do than other folks.
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I’d love to talk about the work you’ve done on tech companies. What do you think of as your greatest hits, where you wrote about something and something changed?
I think the work that I did on the Daily Wire and how they operate on Facebook was important. I'm not sure how much how much change resulted from it exactly. But at least it exposed this idea of setting up pages that purport to be something other than they are, of using ads to manipulate the algorithm and shady partnerships to juice your numbers. I think that that's been that's been important.
What really got traction was when the Facebook ad database launched and looking at how Facebook was enforcing it. Ultimately that led to Facebook announcing that they were not going to be applying their standards to politicians and political parties, which became a big issue for them. Did anything change as a result of that? I don't know. Maybe. It’s unclear.
There's been some interesting networks of pages that I was able suss out that were that were being operated abroad, some of them were pushing pro-Trump messaging. It wasn’t some sort of foreign-influence operation. It was people realizing that’s how you make money. That’s actually very critical to the way I view the platform. It’s just that that kind of content does well, and people realize that all around the world.
Given the impact of your reporting, I’m struck by you saying that you’re not sure much ultimately changes at Facebook as a result. Are tech companies maybe just not capable of being shamed?
I think it's very difficult. Partly it’s just the size. I’ve got, you know, x-thousands of people who are subscribed, so if one of them gets upset [with him and Popular Information], that could go either way. But Facebook has two billion users. So if hundreds of thousands of them get upset by something you write, even if you have some extremely viral hit, that might not even register.
It’s a rounding error.
It’s not even a rounding error. It won’t get to the level of things they start rounding. So I think that’s part of it.
But I do think there have been places where they’ve definitely made changes that can help around the margins. For instance, after that first Daily Caller piece, Facebook now has a thing we’re you have to verify who owns a page. It’s very small print. And they did take some Trump ads down that I reported on.
I think that’s mostly because they’re concerned about their business, their regulatory risk. That’s probably the biggest leverage point — if you can get people thinking about their problematic behavior, they might get concerned that that they might be subject to some sort of regulatory action. But it’s very tough.
“I actually feel very conflicted about Facebook reporting, especially, because I feel like every day I could find ten examples of them not enforcing their vaccine policy or whatever… I almost feel like a Facebook employee.”
I recently did an event with [New York Times media columnist] Ben Smith where he said that he thinks about writing about tech companies the same way he thinks about writing about any other corporation. Does that track?
I think of them a lot differently. A lot of a lot of my work is trying to kind of figure out the end user and how they interact with the company, and using that as a place to create some kind of interesting dynamic.
And the dynamic is just so much different with tech companies because for the most part you don't really pay them money, so you've got to like think about it differently. And they have all sorts of different kinds of incentives. They're also just much bigger in a lot of ways, and people have much more frequent interactions with them than virtually any other company.
I actually feel very conflicted about Facebook reporting, especially, because I feel like every day I could find ten examples of them not enforcing their vaccine policy or whatever. And Facebook would probably review them and take them down.
In some ways, I feel like that’s important, because I know it’s a very important communications vehicle. But on the other hand, I almost feel like a Facebook employee. At that point, I’m not really doing reporting. I’m just, like, being a content manager.
I think it’s so big that figuring out how I can create some way of reporting something that’s not just completely irrelevant — like, I can hold them accountable for these ten posts, but that’s not really going to make any difference. So it’s a struggle.
When we were in more of a political season, that kind of gave me more focus. It was sort of like, ‘Okay, well, politics is going on here, so I'm gonna kind of focus on these actors and how they're doing.’ But now it's unclear who’s moving the needle and what would be useful. So I need to think about that, and kind of figure it out.
Man, I was hoping you knew.
[Laughs] I don’t really know. I feel like I had a much better sense of how to get at things that were important when we were in an election season. I mean, I still have been doing stuff, but I don't feel like I necessarily have the thread.
“I think all the way up until 2016, Democrats kind of just viewed Facebook as simpatico with their worldview and a force for good in most ways, and their job was to support them and to support their growth.”
Why do you think politicians in the U.S. don’t do more to create change within these companies? Is it a money thing? Or the control over how we communicate?
I actually don't think it's a money thing, because relative to their overall scale, they’re relatively minor players.
I think for a while on the left Democrats were really deluded as to the role they were playing in politics. I think up until 2016, Democrats kind of just viewed Facebook as simpatico with their worldview and a force for good in most ways, and their job was to support them and to support their growth. I think 2016 changed that, but it's been a very slow process. And I don't think it's gotten to the point where there's a lot of, you know, strategic thinking about how you would go about it.
That’s why it’s become very challenging for me to cover them. With voting rights stuff, I can say, okay, these corporations are supporting the politicians who were doing these voting restrictions. If they would just stop doing that, well, something would happen.
But I don't know what Facebook and Twitter and Google need to stop doing. It's like they need to stop pretty much everything — the whole system. Their whole existence is tied up in the problem. Like, GM making cars is not necessarily the problem. But it's the whole operation of the companies that, I think, distorts the political information that people get.
One think I’d like to understand more is how the algorithm works. I still don’t get how, like, Western Journal and Dan Bongino can do better with an aggregated story than the New York Times can be even with a salacious scoop that you think, ‘Okay, this is really going to rocket around,’ and it doesn’t as much. I think if I was able to understand that…
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