Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently denied that his company is a media company, which no doubt came as a surprise to many people who have gotten used to thinking of it that way. “No, we are a tech company, not a media company,” he said during an event in Rome.
But is that description accurate? Not really.
Zuckerberg may not want to admit it, but Facebook is one of the largest and most powerful media companies in the world, and getting larger. He said the company he co-founded isn’t a media company because “we do not produce any content.” Instead, it just builds tools that let users interact with each other, which includes sharing news, he said.
But is creating content the best way to define whether a company is a media company? Not even close. To take just one recent example, The Huffington Post didn’t create much of its own content in the early days, before it hired a reporting staff. Users created blog posts and HuffPo distributed and made money from them via advertising.
Despite that, the Huffington Post was clearly a media company. In the same way, Facebook (FB) takes advantage of content created by its users—users who in many cases are publishers and news outlets. It distributes that content and makes money from it through advertising.
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In the current media landscape, control over distribution has become almost as important as the actual creation of content, and that has given Facebook a huge amount of power.
Most of that power is expressed through the company’s control over its news-feed algorithm, which ultimately determines what content gets shown to which users. With more than 1.5 billion users, a single algorithm tweak can make the difference between success and failure for a publisher.
As a number of observers have pointed out in the wake of Facebook’s recent changes to its “trending topics” feature, the choices that are made via the algorithm are fundamentally editorial—what to show and what to hide, what to make more prominent and what to make less prominent. That’s what news organizations used to do.
Not only that, but Facebook is paying publishers and celebrities an estimated $50 million this year to produce video for its platform, which also clearly makes it a media company.
The social network may argue that it doesn’t tell its publishing partners what they should be creating for that money, but the fact that it is pushing video—and that its algorithm clearly favors certain kinds of video content over other kinds—helps determine what gets promoted.
Does Facebook need humans to decide what’s trending? Watch:
Despite this, Facebook has consistently refused to admit that it has any journalistic responsibilities. Its argument continues to be that the algorithm is simply a reflection of its users’ desires, as though algorithms aren’t created by human beings.
There are a couple of reasons why Facebook is so adamant that it is a tech company and not a media company. One is the risk that it might be forced to pay more attention to issues like free speech and censorship and journalistic integrity than it really wants to, which would be a huge hassle.
Another reason is that tech companies are valued much more highly by investors than media companies, which also helps explain why some media startups, including BuzzFeed, have also tried to argue that they are tech companies. But just saying it doesn’t make it true.