Facebook faces lawsuit over juicing viewer numbers
This week, just prior to the start of the Rip Curl Pro Portugal, the WSL switched off live viewing on their app. Fans who wanted to watch the webcast on mobile could no longer view it via WSL's own application, instead they had to go through Facebook.
The move is one more step in a full transition away from the WSL website so the league can fulfill their obligation to Facebook.
You'll recall that back in January the WSL inked a deal with the social media behemoth to host all their webcasts throughout 2018 and 2019. It's the third move by the WSL since it bought pro surfing in 2013: first they ran webcasts on YouTube, then Neulion, and now Facebook Live.
Facebook was seemingly a good fit for the WSL. Over the last two years digital media has undergone a 'pivot to video', with Facebook convincing online publishers that video was the next goldrush. Said Mark Zuckerburg in 2016: "We’re entering this new golden age of video . . . I wouldn’t be surprised if you fast-forward five years and most of the content that people see on Facebook and are sharing on a day-to-day basis is video.”
Following the 'pivot to video', media companies subsequently fired teams of writers, hired teams of video producers who created and uploaded clips to Facebook. And the Facebook algorithm loved them. The viewing metrics were astonishing.
For the WSL, who've been plagued by questions over live audience numbers, it was a no brainer. Facebook provided good cover around their viewing numbers. There's no independent auditing mechanism, and the metrics themselves are nebulous; they sound impressive but are hard to understand.
Since the 'pivot to video' began some observers have questioned the validity of Facebook's metrics. Who's to say they're not pumping the numbers to lure more publishers onto their platform and sell more ad space?
Today those doubts took an offical turn with news of an upcoming lawsuit against Facebook. The plaintiffs allege Facebook knew as early as 2015 that they were overestimating video metrics and did nothing about it. Specifically it was around video autoplays in Facebook's newsfeed. The plaintiffs said the inflation of the metrics ran from 150% up to 900%.
If it's proven, the news will have far-reaching effects in the media world. Online publishers reshaped their organisations to service Facebook's metrics, but it's now possible they were being manipulated. If Facebook is found guilty it'll be a shallow victory for the teams of writers and editors made redundant. A troubled industry thrown into further disarray by alleged corporate chicanery.
Where this leaves the WSL, who are throwing their lot in with Facebook, is anyone's guess. However, if FB are found guilty you can take those webcast metrics with an even bigger grain of salt than you already are.