With great power comes great responsibility – Ben Parker, fictional character who got it right.
I don’t often write op-ed pieces for this blog. I tend to focus on what I like and think can be improved in the sites and apps that I use. This time, I want to say a few things about Facebook and the media.
The short: Facebook, it’s time to take your head out of the sand and face your role in keeping democracy alive in this country.
It is said that the press is the watchdog of democracy. It is the role of the press to
- “report on those in power through what we call watchdog journalism;
- report on the public’s needs, impressions, and wants;
- provide reassurance and even panic prevention by shedding light on critical events.”
Traditionally, that’s what newspapers have done. They might have filtered their stories through their personal beliefs but in general, they built a reputation reporting the all the news that was fit to print and there were different news outlets to cater to those diverse beliefs. There was a stable, viable business model for the press: readers paid for the paper, and thus the content, and advertisers paid to reach those readers.
Until the internet came by in the 1990s and decided that content should be free, let’s all vie for eyeballs. The newspapers tried to adapt but lost revenue by losing subscribers, losing brands who wanted to reach other audiences and advertised elsewhere, and to other sites that took over classified listings. Yet they tried to adapt, created awkward paywalls, and continued to try and create a stable, profitable business model again so that they could continue being the watchdog.
Then social media came along, with a bright and shiny message of friendship and sharing. Facebook believes that everyone is trying to be good. Its mission is “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.” Rainbows, right?
But guess what matters to them? Politics, government, and politicians. So Facebook users started sharing news articles from various sources, some more credible than others. And somehow, Facebook became a place where 44% of Americans get their news. This raises two huge issues:
- What gets seen. Instead of worrying about what to report and how to report it objectively, the press now has to optimize its content for what they think people would like to see. Headlines become clickbait because that, well, gets the clicks. Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm is its well guarded secret and it alone decides what gets seen by whom.
- What gets written. If the clicks and ensuing views are only generated by a certain type of article, then that is the topic that will get written about in the future. It’s hard to ignore that income in the interest of staying alive financially.
Yet those two issues are not the only part of the decision making process in a professional newsroom. They also have to compete with other sources for those clicks. Leveling the journalistic playing field might seem democratic but it is not a good thing. It means that sites with extensive newsrooms and journalists that deeply research and conduct interviews when writing a story are on equal footing with a blogger like me, who might or might not research their posts. Worse, they might not even report the truth.
And that, sadly, is what happened throughout this campaign. Facebook decided that news is no longer their priority and declared time and time again that Facebook was not a media company. One low in a series of lows was a fake article that gained traction and views from a paper that doesn’t exist that reported on a murder that didn’t happen. Vox summed it up earlier this week in a great post with some good steps Facebook could take: “the point is that more than a billion people now rely on Facebook as a major source of information about the world, and right now Facebook is serving them poorly. It needs to embrace its status as a major media company and find ways to improve the average quality of the news stories it recommends to its users.” To which Facebook eventually responded: “we understand there’s so much more we need to do, and that is why it’s important that we keep improving our ability to detect misinformation. We’re committed to continuing to work on this issue and improve the experiences on our platform.”
Facebook, listen up. It’s not just false information. That’s part of it. It’s making established newsrooms from all sides of the political spectrum compete with a group of teens from Macedonia who are in it for the advertising income. It’s putting the very watchdogs of democracy in an an unsustainable and untenable position. They will eventually die, either right away, or a slow death, laying off the most respected journalists and cutting down research to a bare minimum to compete. We, as the largest democracy on earth, need them alive.
Step one: realize that there is a problem, that the sacred newsfeed algorithm that might work great for baby and wedding photos might not be working for news. That the basic assumptions about how users share information and why they share it may not apply here. The most viral share is not the most important one.
Step two: build a diverse team of experienced editors to, well, edit. To make decisions outside the algorithm. Understand that those decisions are necessary and that sometimes you will need to sacrifice engagement.
With great power comes great responsibility. Get on it, Facebook.