The New Gatekeepers

Backlash after Facebook says it plans to lump news stories in with political ads

May 21, 2018

Facebook is trying to be more transparent about political ads, as a way of dealing with the outrage over Russian trolls using the network to try and influence the 2016 election. But its attempts are causing friction with news outlets. Why? Because as it was originally designed, Facebook’s new policy would require any advertising of a political nature to be verified and placed in a public database—including ads used by publishers trying to promote their news stories.

These ads are in most cases just regular posts linking to news stories, which publishers pay to promote or boost so that they appear in the feeds of users. And as with so many things involving the giant social network, the proposed solution to this problem raises more questions than it answers.

The News Media Alliance, an industry lobby group formerly known as the Newspaper Association of America, sent the social network a letter last week complaining that its move would amount to what NMA Chief Executive David Chavern called a “fundamental mischaracterization of journalism.” Lumping the news in with advertising from political groups would have the effect of “dangerously blurring the line between real reporting and propaganda,” Chavern writes in a blog post. The group’s letter goes on to say:

This treatment of quality news as political, even in the context of marketing, is deeply problematic. You are forcing publishers to make a choice between labeling that is fundamentally counter to who we are and what we do, or to walk back our presence on a dominant platform for news consumption and discovery. This will have the effect of elevating less credible news sources on Facebook, the exact opposite of your stated intent.

Since the initial statement from Facebook—in which the company said that “all ads on politics and issues will be in a searchable archive, including news content”—the social network has backtracked somewhat, with Head of News Campbell Brown saying that the company “recognizes that news stories about politics are different and we are working with publishers to develop the right approach.”

But how exactly the social network plans to do that remains to be seen. How will it decide which publishers are exempt from the requirement?

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This issue runs across a number of Facebook products. Brown talked with CJR recently about a related problem the company is having, namely how to determine which news publishers and media outlets are “trusted” or are of “high quality,” and therefore are worthy of being included in the News Feed even if their engagement levels don’t mandate it.

The Facebook VP in charge of the News Feed, Adam Mosseri, also spoke at a recent CJR event in San Francisco about how the social network plans to try and determine trust, and how sensitive a topic it is for Facebook.

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.