A few clues to how Facebook should think about news

Among the mainstream online/print news media, anxiety about Facebook has turned to aggression. The attacks are the product of fear.

Facebook is a large enough corporation to generate headlines almost every day. But the row over the social network taking down a historic, and still powerful, picture taken in 1972 during the Vietnam War handed the pundits who worry about the future of journalism a golden opportunity.

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-11-50-23Facebook was beaten up for good reason: taking the picture down was idiotic and asking for trouble. But the ferocious aggression is not about Facebook’s failure to tell the difference between kiddie porn and a legendary piece of photojournalism. It’s about Facebook hoovering up advertising revenue which once went to pay for newsrooms.

A great many journalists aren’t thinking straight about Facebook (notable exception here). In an attempt to clarify, this post is in the form of advice to Facebook. That’s because I don’t think sniping at Facebook is working (although I’ve had a go at its executives before now myself). Least of all do I think that publishers can seek protection from social news distrbutors from governments. With the distribution of news now decoupled from the organisations which generate news, power now lies with the distributors. Facebook’s daily news audience is at least 600,000 people and growing; it’s the most popular news-sharing site in America.

When power is asymmetric, the initiative lies with the greater power, in this case Facebook. I’m also assuming that there might be, embedded somewhere in Facebook’s clumsy, tech-driven corporation, people who’d like to handle news better.

Eight pieces of advice for Facebook:

1. Ignore the debate about whether you’re a ‘media’ company. You can make a perfectly arguable case that you aren’t: you don’t make documentaries, you don’t write stories. You’re just a platform. Posing this question is like asking how to make moonbeams out of cucumbers: nothing to do with the real issue.

2.  Accept that, whether ‘media’ or not, you do have responsibilities. Democratic, civic, moral, editorial (whatever) responsibilities for the information which passes through your traffic management system. Like it or no, big social networks are part of the ‘infrastructure of free speech’. In other words, you have a role (and therefore responsibilities) in what people know and how they know it. By the way, the ‘infrastructure of free speech’ phrase was coined by Professor Jack Balkin of Yale. Useful guy to consult if you haven’t talked to him already.

3.  You’ll reply that you already meet your legal responsibilities for content and they vary all over the world. Not enough. Your informational power requires a measure of accountability and transparency. Your failure to think fast enough about this has got you into trouble and it will get worse. Think harder about ways to tell, share and debate more of what you do, sooner. You’re already admitting mistakes more promptly.

4. Stop being afraid of ideas. You can’t avoid being involved in the accelerating battle of ideas about algorithms, information power, governance, law and journalism. You are at the heart of this debate whether you admit it or not. You have bright people with deep knowledge of most of these: get them out into public discussion. Don’t pretend that ideas about democracy, information and values don’t clash and collide; they do.

5. Aside from the odd monstering along the way, you will not only be better understood, but you will learn. Look at Google’s experience in the past dozen years. Once, Google denied it had anything to do with news or the media; it was, Googlies said, just a technical platform. Then along came someone new at the top (Eric Schmidt, I guess) who said to his senior colleagues something along these lines: ‘This stuff about how we’re nothing to do with the media? It’s bullshit. Change the approach.’ Some people say ‘you need an editor’ but even editors use guidelines to help their teams be both useful (to society) and consistent. Guidelines express and enforce priorities among values. And take seriously the discussion over people living in ‘filter bubbles’: if real research shows that the nonsense of the Trump campaign is being believed because of social networks….

6. You will have to abandon the silliest of your ideas: that all information is equally valuable. The ability provided by digital technology to acquire and share unprecedented amounts of information is a truly extraordinary advance. But the claim, implied by much Facebook marketing and self-defence, that all information is of equal value is foolish. I do not want Facebook to give special rights to journalists or journalism, but I do want you to understand how not to interfere with the circulation of information which should be known in the public interest. You may be told that to use such a yardstick is ‘elitist’. Ignore this. Journalism says: ‘I know this and you should know it too’. That is an inherently unequal transaction and could be described (however wrongly) as ‘elitist’.

7. Yes, this agenda might all distract the company from some other objectives. It will be worth it in the end.

8. Don’t expect to be popular. You are eviscerating the business model of much-loved news brands. Get used to it.

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