When it comes to the news media, big tech companies are realizing that if you can beat them, rule over them. Earlier this week, Facebook’s billionaire CEO Mark Zuckerberg embodied this philosophy in his announcement to subsidize publishers who feature “high-quality news” on the social network platform, seeking to “potentially have a direct relationship” with the journalist watchdogs of the world.
The conflicts of interest are simply as clear as day. Facing censorship demands from political partisans across the west, Zuckerberg revealed to the German publishing house, Axel Springer, that Facebook is currently considering a “dedicated news section” where hired curators and journalists would from “broadly trusted” outlets will gatekeep information for the general public.
“It’s definitely something that I think we should be thinking about here because the relationship between us and publishers is different in a surface where we’re showing the content on the basis of us believing that it’s high-quality, trustworthy content,” Zuckerberg said during the conversation. “We’re coming to this from a very different perspective than I think some of the other players in the space who view news as a way that they want to maximize their revenue. That’s not necessarily the way that we’re thinking about this.”
“We talked about the role quality journalism plays in building informed communities and the principles Facebook should use for building a news tab to surface more high-quality news, including the business model and ecosystem to support it,” he continued. “Users who want more news content can do that, [where we] potentially have a direct relationship with publishers to make sure that their content is available if it’s really high-quality content.”
Who will decide the content’s quality exactly?
Big Tech’s masters of the universe, of course, alongside their administrative underlings expected to take orders from the top-down. We’re also expected to ignore Facebook’s repeated flip-flops on whether it considers itself a neutral platform or a journalistic publisher, evidenced through the contradictory claims the site has provided to Congress, interviewers, speeches, and the high-profile court testimonies where the site argues their publisher status exempts them from data-privacy regulations under the First Amendment.
“So — which are you?,” once asked Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) during Zuckerberg’s congressional hearing last year, after the Cambridge Analytica scandals fallout. “Are you a tech company, or are you actually the world’s largest publisher? Because I think that goes to a really important question on what form of regulation or government action, if any, we would take. You said you’re responsible for your content. Which makes you kind of a publisher, right?”
“We view [Facebook] as a tech company, because the primary thing we do is build technology and products,” Zuckerberg replied. “I agree that we’re responsible for the content, but we don’t produce the content. I think that when people ask us whether we’re a media company or a publisher, my understanding… is do we feel responsible for the content that’s on our platform. The answer to that I think is clearly yes, but I don’t think that’s incompatible with [what’s] fundamentally at our core, being a technology company where the main thing that we do is have engineers and build products.”
The distinction is important since social media companies, such as the Facebook platform, are protected under Section 230 of the infamous Communications Decency Act — which grants full legal immunity for content posted by social media users on the basis these are supposedly neutral platforms. Media publishers are under a different kind of immunity — the freedom of the press via the First Amendment. These positions decide whether Facebook is a neutral tech utility, which requires egalitarian protections for all users, or whether it’s a partisan media actor, responsible for its own potential defamatory and malicious actions.
Facebook seemingly want all the protections in the world, arguing it’s big and bold enough to demand the right to both have its cake and eat it too while demanding we ignore its 67% market share of the big tech industry. Combining these statuses grants immunity to data-collection laws, the liberty to practice unfair editorial tactics by the administrative team, the ability to produce news content through direct funding, all the while remaining completely unresponsible for things published to their site, particularly by third-party actors, under this perversion of free speech values.
Following the anti-climax of the Russiagate scandal, where the long-awaited Mueller Report came with no new indictments against Trump campaign officials the basis of Krelim “collusion”, will Facebook penalize outlets such as BuzzFeed and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow for pushing the false narratives and fake “bombshells” often forced to be retracted? Will these outlets automatically earn enough trust to be on Facebook’s payroll? What exactly are the criteria to be on this payroll? Or is it simply hush-money to build Facebook as a bigger media empire?
Fears of Facebook unfairly combating independent media isn’t unfounded. In October 2018, our report showcased how the platform removed 800 profiles for the alleged spreading of “misinformation,” “spam” and conducting unspecified “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” These websites included Nation in Distress, Reverb Press, Reasonable People Unite, The Resistance, Right Wing News, Snowflakes, Filming Cops, and the Free Thought Project. While the site claimed these were “Russian bots”, all were American platforms pushing stories both against big government, big business and looking into the merits of Facebook’s actions in Russiagate. The editors shouldn’t expect a paycheck for their reports anytime soon.
The social media giant has rightfully destroyed its credibility as a tech platform, a media publisher and a private entity as a whole. Why should users expect a group of Facebook-hired editors and journalists to hold power accountable when their income is support by the powerful themselves? It’ll likely manifest in submitting to the will of Facebook and their aligned neoliberal priorities, like when they took down Telesur, the left-leaning news outlet based in Venezuela, just when the US is suggesting a takeover of one authoritarian government in favor of their own. Facebook reversed this decision after a public backlash but failed to explain why it occurred.
The Intercept reported of Facebook often meeting with Israeli government officials to “delete the accounts belonging to certain Palestinian activists” or their sympathizers last year, demanding the deletion by order of the law if it failed to do so voluntarily. Telesur also has reported on the Israeli conflict with Palestine — and it wasn’t too favorable of their officials. A journalist for the Israeli news outlet +972 Magazine tweeted that Facebook is still punishing independent news sites for publishing content that “could be a negative experience” for users, though has failed to define what this means.
Why should an American platform take the word of one foreign government when it’s supposedly fighting this behavior from Russia? Does “negative experience” prevent someone from producing this “high-quality news”? Or are these removals just the intended result of bribing the news? Should a monopoly hold this much power? Or is a decentralized breakup, divesting these payments away from the watchdogs, necessary for reestablishing our healthy democracy?
Thanks for reading! This article was originally published for TrigTent.com, a bipartisan media platform for political and social commentary, truly diverse viewpoints and facts that don’t kowtow to political correctness.
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