News on Facebook: clever people still not (quite) getting it

Six weeks after unleashing a small tornado of criticism for mistakenly taking down a legendary news picture, Facebook’s top honchos have responded to the criticisms they attracted and switched policy.

Their global ‘community standards’ will be adjusted to allow exceptions for ‘newsworthy’ material. So say Justin Osofsky and Joel Kaplan, two Facebook Veeps, in a blog post. This is the key paragraph and the entire description of the tests they will use:

‘In the weeks ahead, we’re going to begin allowing more items that people find newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest — even if they might otherwise violate our standards. We will work with our community and partners to explore exactly how to do this, both through new tools and approaches to enforcement. Our intent is to allow more images and stories without posing safety risks or showing graphic images to minors and others who do not want to see them.’

On the surface, this is fine and I’m glad that Facebook has learnt from its recent experience. But the surface is the problem. If the Facebookers don’t dig under he surface of these brief, bland phrases soon, they will rapidly find themselves up to their armpits in more controversies. Last weekend’s flare-up was a reported internal row over whether or not Trump-supporting posts should be taken down because they qualify as hate speech. At the rate Facebook seems to be thinking about these dilemmas at the moment, there will be plenty more of this to come.

Some of the questions begged but not answered by Osofsky and Kaplan’s short blogpost:

  • Facebook frequently says that is a ‘global community’ for ‘all ideas’. This is to confuse community with coalition. A platform which allows people to exchange and communicate has an obvious potential value. But it does not create a community simply by existing. Communication may, over time and in certain conditions, create community but it does not happen automatically.
  • A platform can be shared by people with radically different ideas. Osofsky and Kaplan acknowledge that ideas about newsworthiness aren’t the same the world over (‘Whether an image is newsworthy or historically significant is highly subjective…‘) but leave it there.
  • Journalism is inextricably entangled with the battle for ideas. Indeed, journalism is a battle of ideas and always has been. It’s first of all a battle of ideas about what journalism should be for and how it should work. Journalism is a platform for ideas which collide, otherwise known as argument. Ideas about how journalism should work alter across both time, space and cultures. (Any Facebooker looking for a quick history of ideas summary could consult the first three chapters of, Out of Print, the book on the right of this post, but needless to say there are dozens of others). How we know what we know is something which will always be contested in all societies; different societies will reach different answers.
  • All this seems to lead to a simple conclusion. At least as far as news goes, Facebook isn’t going to stay one uniform, global community. An attempt to apply its rules to news worldwide hasn’t worked and those rules are now, apparently, going to morph into a patchwork adapted to local ideas.
  • But the cardinal point for Facebookers to remember is that even changing like that will not insulate the network from the battle of ideas. Think now about what that will crop up next. For a start, try defining ‘the public interest’…

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