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Does Facebook have a duty to the news or to journalism, and if so what is it?

July 7, 2015, 7:14 PM UTC
Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg Hosts Summit
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer of Facebook.
Bloomberg Bloomberg via Getty Images

As Facebook takes on a larger and larger role as a platform for journalism, the debate continues to heat up over what its duties or responsibilities are towards the media industry—or if in fact it has any at all. The deal that the giant social network has cut with a number of media partners, including the New York Times and the Guardian, is that it will help make their articles look better if they are published directly through its mobile app under the “Instant Articles” program. In return, Facebook agrees to give those outlets a share of the revenue generated from the advertising around those articles.

This seems like a fairly straightforward business deal: Media companies get better distribution and a better mobile interface, and they get either 70% or 100% of the advertising revenue, depending on whether they sell the ads or they let Facebook (FB) sell them. But the arrangement has raised all kinds of difficult questions about whether it is actually a Faustian bargain—one that provides a much greater long-term benefit for Facebook than it does for the media outlets that provide the content.

One of the questions at the center of this debate is whether Facebook has any kind of responsibility to the news or to journalism. In a piece he wrote for Medium, CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis tried to tackle some of these issues, and he splits it into two related questions: 1) Should an informed society be part of Facebook’s mission? and 2) Does the company bear any kind of civic responsibility for the news?

When it comes to #2, Jarvis seems to be arguing that Facebook does have a civic responsibility for delivering the news. Since the social network is in the position of being “a critical distribution channel,” Jarvis says—and will also soon be a key supporter of news organizations, both in terms of audience and revenue generation—then “certain responsibilities fall on its shoulders.” He turns to a recent lecture by Emily Bell of Columbia University to list these responsibilities, which include:

“Making sure news is accurate, which seems pretty basic; being accountable for it if it is not accurate; being transparent about the source of stories and information; standing up to governments, pressure groups, commercial interests, the police, if they intimidate, threaten or censor you. Protecting your sources against arrest and disclosure. Knowing when you have a strong enough public interest defence to break the law and being prepared to go to jail to defend your story and sources.”

This is a great list if you happen to be a newspaper or some other journalistic organization, but what are the odds that Facebook agrees that it bears some or all of these responsibilities, or that it has any duties whatsoever? I honestly don’t know, but my hunch would be that Facebook probably believes it has one over-arching duty, and that’s to generate as much revenue as possible for shareholders.

Is Facebook prepared to do the work required to make sure all of the news it publishes is accurate? Or to protect journalists from arrest and disclosure? Or to stand up to governments and commercial interests if they try to intimidate or censor the content on the network? In the past, the company has shown that it is more than willing to bend to the requirements of foreign governments who want certain content removed, and it deletes or hides content all the time based on its own interpretation of what users and brands want to see. How are journalists going to convince it otherwise?

In his essay, Jarvis is arguing that the media industry should enter into a kind of Peace Talks accord with Facebook, in order to convince the company that it needs to uphold certain journalistic principles—and that it needs to give media companies data about their readers, and other features and benefits, as opposed to just sharing advertising revenue. But what possible incentive could there be for Facebook to do any of this? The social network is the one holding all the cards.

In answer to the first question that he poses, whether informing the public should be part of Facebook’s mission, Jarvis says his answer would be no—but the main reason he says no is that a yes answer implies the social network might eventually decide to start creating its own news, by hiring journalists, rather than being beholden to media partners. This would be bad, Jarvis says. But bad for whom?

“If the answer were yes, then that would mean Facebook might be driven to hire its own reporters and editors and make its own content. In our discussion, Emily said she would welcome the platforms paying for journalists. I get her point: She’s asking who will pay for the work we do. But I say that creating its own news content would put Facebook — like Google and the other platforms — in channel conflict with the news ecosystem.”

Having Facebook become a media entity that reports and distributes its own news might be a disastrous outcome for existing media companies, but that’s not to say Facebook wouldn’t decide to do it anyway, if that was going to achieve its central goal of appealing to as many users as possible, and generating as much revenue as possible. In fact, the argument that it shouldn’t do this just brings us back to the central problem: Why should Facebook care about the news? And even if it does care about the news, in the sense that it wants content, why should it care about media companies?

Behind all of Jarvis’s questions are a series of assumptions, including a) The social network sees an informed public as a valuable or worthwhile goal, and b) It believes it has some duty or responsibility to treat media companies fairly, or to fulfill whatever journalistic role they believe it needs to take on. But it’s not clear that any of those assumptions are actually true. And it certainly doesn’t follow that the company would be interested in devoting its resources to helping existing media companies figure out how to adapt, or how to develop new technology, or how to make use of the data it has.

Jarvis says that when it comes to platforms like Facebook, media companies have to “build bridges, or we will be left as islands.” But even that assumes that the platforms in question are interested in having bridges. What if it turns out to be a bridge to nowhere, or the land owner changes the terms of the bridge deal and it suddenly becomes a toll road?