Never Mind Fake News­. I'm Tired of Fake Math

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Credit: Illustration by Dan Page for Advertising Age

So you may have seen the recent news that Facebook, according to Facebook, is more essential and dominant and ubiquitous than ever.

Awesome, right?

I'm sorry, what's that? You'd like some specifics -- some quantification? Of course, happy to oblige.

Facebook, according to Facebook, now has 2 billion monthly active users, or "MAUs." Hitting that milestone in late June presented an irresistible opportunity for news outlets around the world to muse about the social network's apparent unstoppability (e.g., USA Today: "Status update: Facebook has 2 billion users. Can it reach 3 billion?") while giving it a fresh forum for spouting its particular strain of techno-utopianism ("Mark Zuckerberg: 2 Billion Users Means Facebook's 'Responsibility Is Expanding'," per Forbes; "Mark Zuckerberg: Facebook can play a role that churches and Little League once filled," per CNC).

Many publications simply quoted Facebook founder Zuckerberg's blandly positive post marking the occasion ("We're making progress connecting the world, and now let's bring the world closer together. It's an honor to be on this journey with you"), but the company also made some of its executives available for (dazzlingly empty) comment. Like Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox, who told TechCrunch, "We're getting to a size where it's worth really taking a careful look at what are all the things that we can do to make social media the most positive force for good possible." (Got that?)

I don't mean to rain on Facebook's parade, exactly, and I don't doubt that it is bigger than huge, but I do want to point out that across all the breathless coverage I didn't see some basic questions asked or answered. Like, what is a MAU, really, anyway? What counts as "active"? What role does automatic log-in play here? And why is MAU even considered a meaningful metric in the first place?

I suspect, by the way, that I count as a MAU, even though I've largely abandoned Facebook. (Besides having developed a rather violent allergy to the Facebook News Feed and all its tweaks and manipulations over the years, I find that these days my circle of friends seems much more active on Facebook-owned Instagram, plus Snapchat to a lesser extent, while fellow media people still seem addicted to Twitter.) But probably, yeah, once a month or so, I'll check Facebook for some directory-like reason (e.g., to try to track down a source) or simply because Facebook made me crack after sending me yet another stalkerish email ("Simon, you have 73 new notifications, 8 group updates, 75 close friend updates, 10 group invites. ... A lot has happened on Facebook since you last logged in").

But given the 2-billion news peg, the media seemed no less willing to also regurgitate stats -- again, Facebook-supplied stats -- suggesting that, actually, most of us are using Facebook pretty much nonstop. Here's TechCrunch again: "People aren't using it less either. In fact, 66% of Facebook's monthly users return each day now compared to 55% when it hit 1 billion. If the teenaged social network isn't as cool to teenagers any more, it's not showing in the big metrics."

For all I know, the user stats that Facebook dishes out are totally, 100% precisely correct and true, and not in the least gamed or massaged. Same thing for other major digital platforms, for that matter. But as a weary media veteran who has been to the rodeo a few too many times, forgive me my doubt -- and my exasperation at the fact that agencies and brands are still so damn trusting of internally reported metrics from platforms. Especially given recent history (let alone the entire history of publishers and platforms ... and human nature).

Just recall The Wall Street Journal's report last September headlined "Facebook Overestimated Key Video Metric for Two Years" (subhead: "Social network miscalculated the average time users spent watching videos on its platform"). Facebook issued an apology at the time, noting, "As soon as we discovered the discrepancy, we fixed it."

But if anyone was satisfied by that explanation, well, please see Jessica Davies' recent Digiday post, "Facebook video ad viewability rates are as low as 20 percent, agencies say," in which she wrote, "After fessing up to a string of measurement errors over the past six months, the social media company has bowed to pressure from ad buyers and started letting third-party auditors check its numbers" -- and gosh, those third-party numbers aren't so rosy.

So somehow here we are in 2017 living the same old cycle -- hype, excessive trust, sudden doubt, then humbling followed by reluctant agreement to allow external auditing -- and it's gotten super tedious.

A key part of the hype, of course, is the core techno-utopian narrative; it makes healthy, ever-expanding numbers seem like not only an inevitability, but a matter of faith.

Do you believe in the glorious, socially connected future? Are you "on this journey" too or not? (The same sort of mentality and hype-cycle factors into the buyer's remorse we're now seeing with Snapchat's current sub-IPO stock price.)

If you're a member of the media, it's hard not to sing along. After all, techno-utopianism is catchy, just like that Tegan and Sara song from "The Lego Movie":

Everything is awesome, everything is cool when you're part of a team
Everything is awesome, when you're living out a dream
Everything is better, when we stick together
Side by side, you and I are gonna win forever
Let's party forever

Or at least until the party ends.

Simon Dumenco, aka Media Guy, is an Ad Age editor-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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