Tuesday 24 April 2018

Facebook isn't a media company - so don't blame it for Trump

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Is Facebook a media company? No.

Is it the world's biggest distribution system for media? Yes.

What, then, are its responsibilities when it comes to influencing major societal events? Should it be regulated? Should it have to answer for content in the same way more conventional publishers do? Is Mark Zuckerberg the new Rupert Murdoch?

In the last week, Facebook has been accused of swinging the US presidential election for Donald Trump. Some critics charge that its failure to deal with "fake news" sites (mostly favouring Trump) helped put the Donald over the top.

Others say that Facebook must now square up to its role as a "media company" and, if it's not willing to do this, that we should start to regulate it as we do other media companies.

But how clearly are we thinking about this?

In Ireland, do we suggest that Facebook should come under the auspices of the Press Ombudsman? Or the BAI? (Facebook is probably the biggest video broadcaster in Ireland now.)

And if Facebook is a media company, is Twitter? Is Snapchat? Is YouTube?

Current apparatus for adjudicating on traditional media interests seem a little half-baked for an entity such as Facebook.

Part of the problem with this issue is in trying to separate entrenched commercial interests from what's best for society overall. For example, many of Facebook's loudest critics - on this and other issues - are journalists and executives from traditional media companies. By and large, they are simmering with resentment at the way Facebook and Google have captured so much of their advertising income in so short a time period. Facebook, they fume, gets a free ride on the back of media companies' content creation just as such companies face annihilation from the inexorable drain of ad income away to social media companies and search engines. Surely, such critics reason, there must be some justifiable regulatory device to get at Facebook? If it is wielding so much influence with advertisers and society, how come it gets so many free passes on correctional elements?

To be sure, Facebook has some pretty big intrinsic advantages in media law compared to traditional publishers. It largely escapes defamation cases because it has established itself as a mere distributor of opinions and news items, policed by its own users, rather than an original publisher of such content. This is undoubtedly one strong reason why Facebook doesn't want a "media company" tag.

It also has increasing power as to how, when and in what way a publisher's content will reach members of the public. Its controlled algorithms can make or break a news story, opinion piece or feature. Some estimates put Facebook's share at up to 50pc of news consumption in European and US markets. Thus, it has been able to tell media publishers that their stories should now appear in certain formats (such as Instant Articles) to gain larger audiences.

But these are largely the same arguments thrown at Google 10 years ago. Lest we forget, a large number of people were initially outraged at Google's apparent control over the flow of information. Today, we accept Google as a (mostly) benign utility rather than a deliberate actor.

But what of Facebook's 'fake news' problem? What of the thriving industry in sites posting made-up news for ad dollars that game Facebook's distribution algorithms?

During the US election, a Buzzfeed investigation found that the majority of such sites were targeted at Trump supporters. Churned out in Eastern Europe by kids looking for an easy way to earn advertising money, they had names such as USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co and USADailyPolitics.com.

In failing to deal with such fake news sites, angry media critics point to this as evidence that Facebook is more than just a neutral platform, that it is a critical player capable of influencing the most important election in the world.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg attempted to answer criticisms last weekend by claiming (in a Facebook post) that less than 1pc of posts on Facebook contain "fake news", hoaxes or scams. Furthermore, he said that Facebook has systems in place to try and prevent the spread of what it calls "inaccurate information" and "misinformation".

It's possible that Facebook should beef up its algorithms. But challenging fake news sites with a denial of distribution surely has freedom of expression difficulties. If this newspaper publishes a false or made-up story, it can certainly be sued (in a case of harm done to an individual's reputation). But it's fanciful to ask Centra to look through every paper to make sure it is satisfied that all stories are correct before distributing it in its stores.

This is not to glibly conflate a manual distribution model with a digital one. It's simply to note that made-up stories can be hard to detect at the point of publishing. And even if they're obviously false (but perhaps not defamatory) does it automatically follow that they should be censored? Are the same critics calling for an outright ban on the US National Enquirer? Or EU-related stories from the UK's Daily Express?

Facebook is not a media company, nor does it act much like one. We're going to have to get used to its presence in news distribution.

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