Why Facebook is public enemy number one for newspapers, and journalism


Read on theguardian.com

Facebook has emerged as newspapers’ public enemy number one. Hardly a day passes in which there is no negative article about the social media website that is luring away “our” readers and advertisers.

In the past couple of weeks, there has been something of an overload of criticism on a range of topics.

There was the blocking of the image of a girl fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam. It generated outrage from, among others, Norway’s prime minister Erna Solberg in the Guardian, Jane Fae in the Daily Telegraph and Dominic Lawson in the Sunday Times (an excellent piece).

Facebook’s tax affairs have come under the microscope. Questions were raised about Facebook’s attack on ad-blocking software (as if that isn’t in the interest of every news outlet). And there have been plenty of critical articles about Facebook’s news feeds, notably its “trending topics” feature.

It is argued that this narrows users’ news agenda by advising (or “telling”) them what to read. Evidently, people are bound to follow the herd. According to a Pew Research Center study released in May, 66% of Facebook users get news through the site.

These choices are made by algorithms, which can monitor users’ interests and then “feed” them what it believes they wish to read while filtering out material they are supposed not to want. This system therefore creates an “echo chamber” or “filter bubble” effect.

So, noted a Times writer in an article on Saturday, “the news on Facebook is what Facebook says it is.”

Although I nodded in agreement I couldn’t help but remind myself that it conveniently overlooked the fact that before the arrival of the internet news in newspapers was what newspapers said it was.

It has always been the case from the dawn of media that the controllers of news outlets – newspapers, TV and radio, online – make choices about what to publish and, more significantly, what not to publish. So is there a real need to be especially concerned about Facebook?

Yes, writes the Guardian’s Jemima Kiss in the latest issue of the British Journalism Review. In her article, “A giant that may eat us”, she contends that the world’s leading social media site is exerting both an “increasing domination of internet advertising revenue and control of a significant part of a critical distribution platform.”

Users “willingly pour endless personal information about themselves into Facebook” and that enables the site “to sell targeted advertising around them.”

By contrast, even the most advanced and successful of newspaper websites are unable to do the same. They can’t compete, she writes, with such sophisticated targeting. Hence the difficulty all are facing in trying to secure enough digital ad revenue to fund their journalism.

Kiss doesn’t develop this single point explicitly. But I will. Facebook’s increasing dominance over advertising is causing the laying off of journalists, the people who produce the news that it transmits to its users.

The logical conclusion to that process is not only the destruction of old media, legacy media, mainstream media, whatever you want to call it, but the end of journalism as we know it.

Before cynics shout about that not being a bad thing (while digital optimists assert that independent, and therefore better, journalism will arise in its place), think of the perils we face without a collective of organised, skilled journalists working for organisations large enough to hold power to account.

The Facebookisation of news has the potential to destabilise democracy by, first, controlling what we read and, second, by destroying the outlets that provide that material.

Kiss cites a Pew Research Center study which found that Facebook is far and away the most popular site for sharing news in the United States.

Turning to the controversy over the control exercised over news choices, she points out that although human editors have been replaced by algorithms, those “robots” are, of course, designed by humans. So decisions on what appears and doesn’t appear is neither neutral nor impartial.

Similarly, by creating news feeds that give people what they are supposed to want, those people rarely, if ever, see material offering a different perspective. (Again, I concede that that may well have been the case in the newsprint world. If you read, say, the Daily Mail or the Daily Mirror every day, are you not locked out from alternative views?)

Kiss argues that Facebook’s newsfeed also encourages “superficial engagement – a like or a share that endorses only the idea of the headline, because the newsfeed offers no incentive to wait, click through and actually read a news story to the end.”

And she is surely on strong ground in questioning the lack of transparency involved in the decisions Facebook makes in creating, and continually tweaking, its algorithms.

She writes: “It is likely that protecting journalism is not a priority for Facebook, where engineers hold the power and the solution is nearly always sought through technology.”

Her conclusion casts the matter in a stark light. Facebook is an undoubted commercial success and it has achieved it fairly “in a competitive open market.”

But, she writes, “journalism is more than just a business – it has a crucial and under-acknowledged social purpose that in this era of instability, isolationist politics and barely scrutinised power and wealth is more important than ever.”

I could not agree more. That’s the mission imperilled by Facebook.