Facebook is a social network. Facebook is a conglomerate (it owns Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus VR). Facebook is a hardware company. Facebook is a software company.
Facebook is many things. For instance, it’s also a media company.
This is the only description of Facebook, however, that makes CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg bristle.
“We’re a technology company. We’re not a media company. When you think about a media company, you know, people are producing content, people are editing content, and that’s not us. We’re a technology company. We build tools. We do not produce the content. We exist to give you the tools to curate and have the experience that you want, to connect with the people and businesses and institutions in the world that you want.”
That’s Zuck speaking during a Facebook town hall event held this week, after being asked about Facebook’s role in media.
The actions of Facebook tell a different story.
- Facebook’s 1.7 billion users voraciously consume news through Facebook’s social network. It’s a major driver of traffic to publications small and large (including this one).
- Up until last Friday, Facebook paid for a team of over 20 people to curate and maintain its “Trending Topics” section. If that sounds an awful lot like an editorial team, that’s because it’s an editorial team.
- Facebook makes editorial judgments about what kind of violence it will allow in videos. For instance, when Diamond Reynolds took to Facebook Live, she livestreamed the shooting death of her boyfriend Philando Castile at the hands of police in a routine traffic stop. Facebook initially removed the video, though it was explained as a glitch (the video was back online an hour later).
- Facebook is outright bankrolling media producers like The New York Times, BuzzFeed, Vox, and Business Insider to create content for its Facebook Live video service.
- Facebook changed how its News Feed system works earlier this summer, with the intention of tamping down so-called “clickbait” pieces in favour of more traditional Facebook content (pictures of babies, for instance).
Facebook’s reluctance to accept its role as a news company has led to some messy gaffes.
First, there was the report by Gizmodo that the section of Facebook curated by an editorial team had a liberal-leaning slant. That resulted in a reprimand from Congress and Zuck having to make nice with Conservative leaders.
When Facebook fired the staff that ran Trending Topics and revamped the section last week, there was another gaffe pretty much immediately: a top trending topic all weekend was (false) news that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly was being fired. Because Trending Topics was left to algorithms without any editorial oversight, no one was there to shut down the mass spread of false information before it happened.
And how did Facebook fix the issue? By simply removing it, never mind the hundreds of thousands/millions of people who read it and believed it. Facebook may not think it’s a media company, but as a major distributor of news — likely the world’s largest — it still faces the same responsibilities that a media company does.
What is a media company in 2016, anyway?
“One traditional definition of a media company is ‘a company that delivers information to users and profits by selling ads next to the information.’ By that definition, Facebook is a media company,” CNN senior media correspondent and “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter told Business Insider in an email exchange. “Facebook does not produce the information it distributes, but it is profiting from the ads.”
Stelter’s been covering media for years, first on his own site, then at The New York Times alongside the late David Carr. Now he runs a CNN show on Sunday mornings named “Reliable Sources,” which focuses on media.
“Ethically speaking, Facebook has some of the same obligations that other media companies have,” he said. “I believe Facebook has an obligation not to knowingly promote hoax stories as trending topics.”
This is why it’s such a big problem that Facebook refuses to acknowledge itself as a media company: it shirks ethical responsibility in doing so. Not just a big problem for me, a guy who works in media, but for you, a Facebook user. Facebook refusing to accept it’s a media company means it can, say, perpetuate a false report that a prominent news anchor is being fired when she isn’t.
In November 2014, Rolling Stone published a report titled, “A Rape on Campus.” It was discredited in follow-up reporting, and ultimately retracted by the venerable magazine. There was (justifiable) outrage at the false claims in the piece. There was (justifiable) outrage that Rolling Stone had allowed a piece full of false information to be published. How long until Facebook finds itself in the same situation, promoting a false story to billions of people that has the potential to harm?
“[Facebook] doesn’t have the sort of, ‘We got it wrong, and here’s our method of correcting.’ — a Facebook version of an editor’s note or a correction. It doesn’t exist,” Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan told Business Insider in a phone interview. “It would have to rise to an incredibly high level before there would be some sort of action…and I don’t even know what that would be. But a note from Mark Zuckerberg about something? That’s just not going to happen on a regular basis.”
Sullivan knows a thing or two about media criticism. She served as the New York Times Public Editor for four years, a role that’s essentially internal critic. Her current job is focused on the larger world of media, and she’s written about Facebook’s role as a media company before. She said that Facebook has a responsibility when it comes to disseminating information to 1.7 billion people, especially regarding mistakes.
“I do think that there is a responsibility. When you’ve disseminated that information, there ought to be a way to say, ‘Well, we got that wrong. Now it’s down and it wasn’t true to begin with.’ But, from what I can tell, there is no way of communicating with the Facebook audience in that way,” Sullivan said.
Indeed, Facebook has no “Public Editor” or “Ombudsman” role, no one to make sure that what you’re seeing isn’t straight up false. As Stelter put it, “Facebook makes echo chambers louder. But the company doesn’t seem motivated to tamp down the noise.”
The company prides itself on “getting people the stories that matter to them most,” not on getting people stories that are factually accurate. That’s a crucial difference, and one that has huge potential impact on what you see.
So, yes, Facebook is a technology company. It’s also a news company, and one that has larger reach than any other news company on the planet. It’s time to own that.
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