Facebook and the press: The transfer of power

Photo by Jared Wilbanks (Flickr)

Journalism’s business crisis is well known, but in the wake of the US presidential election it is increasingly obvious that the true existential crisis for journalism is its lack of influence. Fake news, a decline in trust, and plunging revenues are all proxies for a loss of influence and impact over public opinion and policy. But influence, like energy, is only ever transferred, never destroyed. And the reluctant recipients of the displaced influence once enjoyed by the press are technology companies, which now command not just the dollars but the attention of the global audiences they serve.

Without Twitter and Facebook to amplify the diminished messages of news outlets and individual journalists, most published news would feel very much like shouting into the wind. Facebook in particular, which is currently the exoskeleton of the news industry, has recently made minor adjustments to its policy in regard to journalism that nevertheless represent an enormous philosophical shift for the company. Exercising economic power for Facebook is second nature, but in terms of how it exercises influence, the company is still in the novitiate.

 

Influence, like energy, is only ever transferred, never destroyed.

 

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Since before Trump eclipsed all other news, Facebook had been changing its own role as a news source in surprising and significant ways. Both Facebook and Twitter are tightening the way they edit and present the top stories of the day on their platforms. Facebook is turning its trending topics into a reflection of what is important rather than what is individually interesting and is changing its algorithm to promote posts on the News Feed that are “authentic” and aren’t “spammy.” Twitter, meanwhile, has consolidated its “moments” aggregation under a new Explore tab that pulls together live video, trending topics, and the packaged news feel of Moments. In part, these are competitive moves; but for Facebook, they are the start of an acknowledgment of how the debate over information quality in the wake of Trump’s election is driving internal decisions around news.

Philosophically, the difference between saying that Facebook sorts trending subjects against personal preferences versus broader interest is enormous. It was exactly this tension of “who chooses” that last year led to Mark Zuckerberg holding a pre-emptive and misguided meeting with editors of right-wing news organizations, after one former employee revealed that a human curation team had “down-weighted” right-wing sites. It is entirely possible that Facebook will also reverse the policy of “no human hands touched this news” and start hiring “curators” (or editors).

There are ultimately sound commercial reasons for being open and nonpartisan. It keeps your consumer net wide if you are the kind of place that can show footage of refugees at your developer conference as an empathetic emblem of connection (as Facebook did) and still have Peter Thiel on your board. Established news organizations are well aware of this imperative. The staunch objectivity of many metropolitan newspapers grew out of a desire to retain maximum bipartisan readership.

 

As networks that organize, monetize, and disseminate information, or ‘content,’ their role in informing citizens, shaping debate, gathering data, and collaborating with or resisting government could not be more highly charged.

 

The most visible point of friction for many tech companies, most notably Facebook and Twitter, remains their role in editing the public sphere. What comes next is highly significant for both platform companies and publishers. Can the new platform companies that publish and edit the public sphere remain politically neutral? Maybe when party politics are less polarized this is possible, but under the current administration, where policies represent a real departure from the mainstream, the aspiration comes under enormous strain.

In the wake of Trump’s executive order on refugees and immigration, the technology industry’s forced march into expressing its values and ideologies stepped up a gear. As a result, we also see how far the evolution of the concept “every company is a media company” has progressed. Uber broke the taxi strike at JFK and Lyft gave $1 million to the ACLU; Airbnb offered free accommodation to those left in limbo, and Netflix’s Reed Hastings was decidedly un-chill in describing the orders as “un-American.” The New York Times published a recent piece about how Google is, in Trump style, “aggressively wooing” the Republican Party–though its founder, Sergey Brin, showed up to protest at San Francisco Airport as a “private individual.” Jeff Bezos of Amazon remained silent, but then he doesn’t have to say anything in person, as he owns The Washington Post.

Does this mean we can expect technology companies to become more active in their support for–or even to become part of–the free press?

On Sunday morning when the president tweeted his routine disapproval of a media outlet, this time the “failing” Times again (having ricocheted between calling it a “jewel” and an entity on the brink of “folding”), his statement drew much less attention. Not just because it is a tired routine, but because more urgent things were happening in the news. Twitter was alive with reports from airport protests, journalists and lawyers swapping tips, and information on those detained. Constitutional law was being explained; senators were being pressured in real time to respond; and protesters were organizing through Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other forums.

 

Journalism is struggling with how to operate without influence. Facebook, having taken that influence, is grappling with how to exercise it.

 

Now into that war zone stride the potentially much more powerful platforms, which are beginning to more clearly identify as (nonpartisan) publishers. The stance of a Mark Zuckerberg or a Sergey Brin is going to be a crucial factor in how this develops. At the moment, their words and actions are carefully chosen. Their power is great and so is their concern over regulation. As networks that organize, monetize, and disseminate information, or “content,” their role in informing citizens, shaping debate, gathering data, and collaborating with or resisting government could not be more highly charged.

The public anxiety journalists have expressed over their own role in “how to cover Trump” could be read as a proxy for the broader concern about a lack of influence over narrative and events. Journalism is struggling with how to operate without influence. Facebook, having taken that influence, is grappling with how to exercise it.

Will this shift in responsibilities and internal priorities at Facebook, Google, and others extend to a more defined role in supporting a free press? It seems likely, if not definite. Watch this increasingly crowded space.

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Emily Bell is Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.