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Flipboard, the media curation app that organizes news into a magazine format, has long balanced algorithms and human curation. We catch up with its chief executive Mike McCue, who was formerly president of Twitter, as he explains what other services could learn from his app – particularly after a long-term weaponization of news saw rioters storm the Capitol.

Mike McCue has long been in the business of making digital content more readable. In 1989 he launched Paper Software, aiming to ”make using a computer as easy as using a piece of paper”. It was 30 years later that this idea was fully realized when Flipboard hit the iPad in 2010 as a centralized news source organized by interest and geography. In 2020, it dug deeper into local news and video with Flipboard TV. It also developed new ways to curate stories with Storyboards. It even almost hit a profit despite the downturn.

But while the app kept doing what it always did, the world around it changed.

Engagement

Flipboard boasts more than 100 million monthly users, many of whom use it as a trusted news portal. Content from 4,000 publishers is organized across 30,000 topics. An internal team also amplifies the day's best stuff. This combination has made it the fourth-highest traffic driver for publishers on mobile and tablets.

As it was for many, 2020 was a year of record engagement. The news felt bigger, with the pandemic, racial violence and political turmoil shook our foundations. Meanwhile, we had to adapt to the small things, like working from and staying at home. McCue notes that hard news and interest-led content both spiked. 

”A significant amount of learning that happened in 2020 and many are now a lot smarter. You don’t see fake news or toxic views on Flipboard. The mob doesn’t rule on Flipboard. We have user voices, but they’re quality, respectful and educational.”

On the engagement front, it was a big year, but Flipboard was supposed to strike a profit in 2020. Advertising spend stalled. 2021 started slow too. “There wasn’t really a lot of long term planning, even in January. Do you really want to be running a campaign when democracy is falling apart?”

But even in the week following the inauguration, McCue saw advertisers jump back into action. The outlook's picking up. Advertisers like Microsoft serve display ads to a tech-savvy, engaged audience. Others, such as REI, have a lot of content to share and approach it more like a publisher. “They have the same tools as the New York Times,” he says.

Working with publishers

With the dissolution of the third-party cookie, publishers want to own their audiences and provide advertisers with deeper insights. Flipboard drives all its traffic to the publishers. It doesn’t host their content like Facebook did with native video. It lets publishers own that audience relationship, and app analytics is built to help them grow that audience.

“It is vital that platforms aren’t weakening publishers. Maybe they’ll make some money and drive awareness in the short term. But ultimately, in the long run, if you as a content creator don’t have a direct relationship, you won’t survive.”

And that brings him to perhaps Flipboard’s closest rival, Apple News. ”It doesn’t do that. It’s a black box. Publishers don’t even know who its users are. It’s a huge issue.”

For years, publishers have been in flux with the platforms that drive their traffic. Meanwhile, social media has generally shrugged their responsibilities as publishers. The Facebook and Google algorithms, for example, have been criticized for the quality of information they drive.

There’s a difference with Flipboard, McCue says. “We did not shy away from putting journalists in charge of the algorithms. We don’t shy away from that as a tech company. People have finally woken up to realize this is the way.”

Riding the algorithm

McCue calls for more collaboration on curtailing the spread of lies, propaganda and hate, before ”well-intentioned” but likely ineffective legislation comes in. 

He uses privacy regulation GDPR as an example. ”All it did was entrench the bad guys and make it really hard for the small guys to do business.” For instance, there are fears the dissolution of the third-party cookie in favor of a more privacy-centric approach will favor Google as the world’s most used web browser and search engine. “The big guys are like, ‘we're cool, put up all the barriers you want because we have our users and we share information within all of our apps’.”

And then there’s freedom of speech, particularly with the removal of Donald Trump from numerous platforms when he was deemed to be inciting the violence at the Capitol in January. Should tech companies have the power to punt off bad actors, even if he is president? It depends on whether you think Facebook is a public forum where everyone is entitled to scream their views or a private pub where trouble-makers can be banned. 

McCue believes Donald Trump should have been kicked off of Twitter four years ago, saying he’s been “violating the rules” this whole time. He acknowledges that Trump’s tweets were newsworthy but believes the “troll and chief’s” presence on the platform empowered more trolls. There was a 73% decline in misinformation on Twitter after Trump’s removal, according to one study.

Social media is a superpower, says McCue. Just like driving a car is a superpower when compared with walking. ”With the car, I can get somewhere a lot faster, but I can’t just drive the car as fast as I want, or over whatever I want. There are rules and if I violate them, I lose my license.”

He says the same is true for social media. Like driving, it is a privilege, not a right. ”Those spouting lies and hate well should not be able to be magnified by the algorithms.”

And that brings us back to Flipboard’s policy, that ”algorithms should only magnify quality sources”. This could be decided by a ”small number of trained journalists” who understand what a news source is. Regardless of political leaning, they are chosen by reporters who are real people, who correct errors and don’t publish hate speech.

For the likes of Facebook, moderation is its oft-cited issue. As a user-generated content site, as well as a news destination, it has a lot to juggle. It seems incapable of removing low-quality news sources that spark much of the toxic discourse on the site – particularly when it is among the most engaging content.

“You don’t have to hire an army of 1,000 moderators. You just need a few people picking out the good sources for the algorithms to amplify. Fake news and hate has a thumbprint. It spreads at a different level to normal content. You can see it immediately shoot up in the analytics.”

He says these are not ”hard problems” to solve and just require ”will, focus, and principles”.

He concludes by admitting that Flipboard is imperfect, but even with a ”seriously small team” it doesn’t have a product ”riddled with hate speech and porn”. Tech companies need to make judgement calls about what they allow on their platforms, he says. ”Algorithms and tech need to be balanced with judgement and principles”.

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