The politicising of Facebook: can the social network go on being both a news-source and a source of news?
Late September 2017, and a reality television President becomes embroiled in a publically-posted exchange with the founder of the World’s largest social media site. The spat is indicative of the growing politicising of Facebook, which began as a Harvard University version of Hot or Not and has grown to become the ultimate global barometer – and now also arguably influencer – of public opinion. The immersion of the site into the world of politics is amplified by Mark Zuckerberg’s own growing profile. The Facebook CEO has this year embarked upon a campaign style tour of the United States, being photographed in all sorts of politician-like poses including being hard at work on a Ford factory assembly line.
For the media industry, the growing prominence of Facebook has been raising concerns for some time. A platform that sits as a curator of public opinion, but also has apparent aspirations to be thought of as a media company within its own right, will always walk an uneasy tightrope when it comes to press impartiality. Indeed as Facebook’s response to the latest round of controversy surrounding fake news and questionable advertising practices shows, the platform itself is well aware of these issues:
“The 2016 US election was the first where evidence has been widely reported that foreign actors sought to exploit the internet to influence voter behaviour,” wrote Elliot Schrage, vice president of Facebook Policy and Communications, in a post published – somewhat ironically – in the Facebook newsroom. “We understand more about how our service was abused and we will continue to investigate to learn all we can.”
As Facebook sets about tackling its own issues, the wider implications of such a huge global site being simultaneously pulled into media and politics rings out around a traditional media industry that has itself not been free of accusations of fake news in recent months. So just where does Facebook’s position sit within the traditional industry? Will the site continue to be marred by accusations of political influence and press bias? And if so does increasing scrutiny around the editorial and advertising practices of Facebook represent an opportunity for more traditional media establishments to re-establish themselves as the primary sources of news and wider media.
Jasper Jackson is digital editor of the New Statesman, a UK political and cultural magazine that has been published since 1913. Prior to this he was the assistant editor of the Media Guardian and editor and chief analyst for The Media Briefing. Jackson is well placed to analyse Facebook from a combined media and political point of view. We began by asking him if he believed that Zuckerberg did indeed hold political aspirations, and more generally if the very algorithms on which Facebook functions create – by default – the potential for media bias:
“Quite separate questions really,” said Jackson. “It’s difficult to assess Zuckerberg’s political goals, and he would probably argue that he isn’t really part of the political sphere at all. As we traditionally conceive politics I think that’s actually true. But while he isn’t a political actor as such, the decisions he and his employees make about Facebook are shaping the world in which politics – from the campaigning and organising of political groups to the discourse between individuals – takes place.”
“Is the platform itself independent? Sure, it’s not dependent on anyone else. Bias? Well, its algorithms will of course have a bias, partly as a result of the initial coding decisions taken by Facebook engineers, but perhaps more significantly because it trains itself on the data that is put into it. It accentuates human behaviours, often feeding into the worst impulses. It’s a little like our love of fatty, sugary foods. Behaviours that made sense in the situation in evolved in can be deadly when transplanted to a different environment.”
When asked if this potential for bias has the ability to further damage the image of the wider media industry, Jackson re-emphasised the way that Facebook can amplify certain behaviours.
“It accentuates certain negative incentives that media companies have long been exposed to – the lure of salacious headlines, too-good-to-check stories, polarisation, celeb gossip over hard news, etc. And it also creates new ones – curiosity gap headlines, pivoting to video. So in that sense it’s dangerous for media companies, yes.”
For those seeking to uphold editorial truth in an age of user generated content, the core focus for traditional news and current affairs outlets has been to strengthen industry integrity. Earlier this year FIPP spoke to three industry insiders about the increased scrutiny of the global press, and the painstaking steps being taken by editors and journalists to maintain journalistic integrity and reporting on facts. We asked Jackson is he felt he had a responsibility, particularly in writing for a publication like the New Statesman, to call out the unsubstantiated stories being spread across social media?
“Yes. As a media journalist it was a core part of my job, and that continues as digital editor of the New Statesman. For a start it’s pretty obvious that many of those negative incentives created by social media distribution and the ad market have led to publishers, both old and new, abandoning basic principles of good journalism for either commercial or political ends. One of the reasons I got into the business was because I think it’s important people make decisions based on the best information possible – calling out false stories at least pushes back against some of the poor quality or deliberately misleading info out there.”
“There is also a pretty obvious selfish reason. One of the things that differentiates the New Statesman online from many of its competitors is a belief and adherence to some of the principles of good journalism, i.e. checking your facts, trying not to twist events to fit a narrative, disclosing interests when they are relevant, etc. Highlighting poor reporting in other places, and trying to explain to people why it is poor, helps emphasise that we have higher standards.”
It’s not just editorial that has come under fire in the social media age. Advertising too, has endured greater scrutiny. Earlier this year, a number of high-profile brands pulled their advertising from YouTube, after messaging appeared alongside extremist content. More recently, Apple announced anti-tracking updates to its latest round of software, making it harder for advertising networks to retarget web-users accessing sites through the Safari internet browser. With the likes of Facebook, Google, and now retargeting networks coming under greater scrutiny, does this again represent an opportunity for traditional media outlets?
“In short, no,” said Jackson. “Primarily because for the bulk of advertisers the scale and ability to target based on the huge amount of data available from Facebook, at very low prices, will outweigh any concerns. Unlike, say Breitbart, Facebook can argue that it is not directly creating hateful messages. That combination of its commercial draw and plausible deniability make me doubt this will create many problems for Facebook’s advertising business.”
“I think there’s certainly a space for us to accentuate the reasons we should be trusted amid a sea of bullshit. But I don’t think that requires stepping away from search or social. Obviously these routes that people come into contact with your journalism have their problems, but they also offer you not just huge reach, but also an ability to reach people when they are in different frames of mind. Someone coming to your site directly (or reading your magazine/newspaper) is actively choosing to do that specific action, which is great.”
“But why shouldn’t you also be part of someone’s day when they are working out what their friends think and are talking about on social media? Or trying to find out information about a specific topic via search? One of my biggest challenges is trying to balance all those competing ways of reaching people, but I don’t think the answer is to completely withdraw from any one area.”
As the advertising side of the industry shows, it is not just Facebook that has felt itself dragged increasingly into the political sphere in recent months. Twitter recently announced that it had found 201 accounts linked to the same Russian activity that was found on Facebook. There are those who believe, and are actively discussing on the platform itself, that there are now more fake Twitter accounts than there are real ones. From a political point of view this represents a particularly worrying development, as the enthusiasm and inspirational side of social that helped give rise to real-world events like the Arab Spring, could now just as easily have been hijacked by those wishing to do harm to democracy and free speech.
We asked Sunny Hundal, the renowned UK Political Commentator best known for being the founder and editor of The Liberal Conspiracy, and previously a writer for national UK newspapers like the Guardian, Independent, and Financial Times, if the media was experiencing a time of unprecedented challenge due to new technologies?
“I think the media is going through an extremely turbulent time,” said Hundal. “Mostly because technology has allowed a flood of new competition. When people with vast Twitter or Facebook followings can talk to people directly, what is the point of the media? Unless the industry can answer that question properly, it will die. Google and Facebook are sucking in most of the advertising money precisely because the traditional media hasn’t been able to justify its existence in this new world.”
Specifically on the question of Facebook’s position as a reputable and unbiased news outlet, Hundal is critical of some of the decisions that have been made by the platform along the way.
“Facebook’s missteps on dealing with hate, with fake news and terrible moderation has certainly hit its credibility as a platform for getting the news. There’s no doubt that its algorithms are biased, but I think one day we’ll look back and laugh at the idea that people got their news through Facebook. I believe the company is killing its own product by making so many mistakes.”
“More generally, when we think about fake news on the web, I call out fake news not just as a journalist, but as an activist and a citizen. Fake news and rumours only make people more fearful and spread hatred. That’s an active poison in our society, and I wanted to challenge it not just because I believe in the truth, but because I’ve seen the impact these lies can have.”
When asked about the changes going on at industry level, Hundal admits he is apprehensive about the current industry’s ability to adapt to future change, but sees a place for traditional news brands in the future media-tech landscape.
“In terms of the industry, I don’t think the traditional media can go ‘back to the basics’ – the world has changed too much for that. But I definitely think there is space for them in the new ecosystem, providing they can make a case for themselves, as individuals. But the mentality of the entire industry is so 1990s, that I don’t think it can change fast enough to survive. Not in its current form anyway.
At the time of writing, there were about 153,000,000 references listed for Facebook on Google News. Just think about that for a moment. The increasingly go-to source for news and current affairs is itself one of the most written about entities in the world today, and one of the highest ranking on rival news aggregator, Google. When the storyteller becomes the story, in a similar way to the developments we are seeing in US politics right now, impartiality and press independence are on shaky ground. From a wider industry perspective, the key to retaining trust and integrity is for more traditional outlets to call out fake news and false reporting wherever they see it, and continue to create a quality product based on facts.
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