How would you classify a company that:
- distributes news and information to billions of people every month?
- is a major source of news and information for a large chunk of those billions of people?
- runs ads against that content, generating billions in revenue every quarter?
- is paying content creators ranging from the NFL to Insider to make original video programming that streams to mobile devices, computers, and connected set-top boxes?
- is funding and producing its own original television shows?
Most would call that a media company. And most would expect that media company to adhere to the standards, safeguards, and rules that all media companies do.
Facebook, which does all of the above, will not concede it’s a media company.
On Thursday, Facebook’s COO told Axios editor Mike Allen that Facebook is not a media company, a classification the company has avoided for years. The renewed questions about the company’s role in the intersection of tech and media come as the debate around fake news and fake Russian ads on the platform heat up. The UK is already considering regulations that would treat Facebook more like a media company, for example.
But Sandberg deflected, pointing to the fact that Facebook is run by technical workers and engineers. In her view, the company doesn’t produce news content, therefore it can’t be a media company.
“At our heart we’re a tech company,” Sandberg said when Allen asked if Facebook was a media company. “We hire engineers. We don’t hire reporters. No one is a journalist. We don’t cover the news. But when we say that, we’re not saying we don’t have a responsibility. In fact we’re a new kind of platform… as our size grows, we think we have more responsibility.”
That’s an incredibly narrow view of what a media company is. Sandberg’s definition of a media company seems to be a news organisation that hires journalists and producers to make news content. But media companies are broader than that. They curate content. They distribute it. The generate ad revenue from it.
A company like Facebook, which distributes media and makes money off it by selling ads is, by definition, a media company. Sandberg is right to point out that Facebook’s size means it has a massive responsibility to distribute accurate information. But she’s wrong to deny it serves many many of the functions of a media company.
It doesn’t matter that computers or algorithms or engineering geeks are making editorial decisions. They’re still serving the editorial functions of a media company. In fact, Sandberg said earlier in the interview that Facebook was serving an editorial role by showing users related articles to news stories they see their News Feed and hiring fact-checking organisations to vet some content.
She’s also wrong to say Facebook doesn’t hire journalists. The company hired former NBC anchor Campbell Brown in January to head up the company’s news division and work with other journalists to maximise their use of Facebook’s platform.
There are numerous reasons why Facebook would be reticent to admit it’s a media company. It could harm its sky-high valuation, which is currently at about $US500 billion. That’s a tech company valuation, not a media company valuation. It would also open Facebook up to regulatory rules in the US and other countries that it would rather avoid.
But the abuse on Facebook’s platform, from fake Russian ads to fake news spreading as recently as last week’s Las Vegas shooting, show a greater need for Facebook to start acting like the media organisation that it is. The sooner Facebook admits that, the better.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.