Facebook’s News Tab Only Tightens Its Grip on Journalism and Democracy
November 1, 2019
Last Friday, Facebook announced Facebook News, a tab for personalized news articles on the Facebook App. The feature includes content from 200 publishers, such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Politico, and BuzzFeed, some of which Facebook will pay licensing rights to. Each user’s News tab will include a compilation of articles chosen by professional journalists and tailored content based on predicting user’s interests.
Facebook executive Campbell Brown says the new feature positions them as a “champion for great reporting.” But, far from fixing the problem, the News tab only amplifies Facebook’s ability to use its monopolistic power to further distort the news environment and undermine the economic foundations of journalism.
Facebook’s threats to journalism begin with its gobbling up the advertising revenue that news organizations need to sustain their work, as even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has acknowledged in other contexts. “Advertising revenue that used to support journalism now goes to companies like mine,” Zuckerberg wrote in a recent op-ed for The New York Times. This year, that revenue is expected to reach more than $60 billion. How much of that $60 billion does Facebook plan to share with the top publishers on its News tab? About $3 million each, max, or 0.005 percent.
That even giant publishers like News Corp are accepting such a deal shows how all-powerful Facebook has become. As Emily Bell, Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, notes, “When press companies like News Corp surrender their editorial independence—for a relatively small sum…—then it is not really a win for journalism; it’s a sacrifice.”
A recent lawsuit in video ad metrics reveals Facebook’s power to misdirect the entire media industry. In early October, a group of advertisers sued Facebook for inflating the average viewing time for video ads by 900 percent between 2014 and 2016. The advertisers proposed a $40 million settlement for misleading them in how many people actually watched their ads. Beyond advertisers, Facebook’s inflated metrics pushed major media outlets to lay-off reporters and invest in video in an effort to survive. A Nieman Lab report found that sites like Mashable, Fox Sports, Vice, and MTV News made “major editorial decisions and laid off writers based on what they believed to be unstoppable trends that would apply to the news business,” trends that turned out, to be exaggerated.
Facebook’s size undermines American democracy in other ways as well. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, you have to worry that Facebook’s algorithms and editorial decisions are either purposely or accidentally tilting the balance of power against you. Many Republicans have long charged that Facebook favors liberals and mutes conservative voices. Meanwhile, a recent report from Popular Information charges that Facebook executive Joel Kaplan actively intervened to stop Facebook from taking down Breitbart and The Daily Wire posts when the two far-right outlets appeared to break Facebook’s rules on deceptive posting. Regardless of the merits of such claims, the fact remains that Facebook has become such a monolith that even the smallest changes in how it presents and curates information and misinformation now play a giant role in determining who wins and who loses.
At least some members of Congress are starting to understand the threat that Facebook’s size poses. Questioning Zuckerberg last week during a hearing, Congressman Jesús García, D-Ill., said: “You have unilateral control of Facebook, and as other people have said, you act as a government.” Alluding to Zuckerberg’s majority ownership of Facebook, García added, “You aren’t even accountable to shareholders on your board.” “From all that I have heard,” García concluded, “I think Facebook has too much power and is too big. And we should seriously consider breaking it up.”