“We are a tech company, not a media company. The world needs news companies, but also technology platforms, like what we do, and we take our role in this very seriously.”
– Mark Zuckerberg, August 2016.
Let’s be clear: Facebook is a media company.
To say that, as a mere “tech platform” it is not — nor should — be held to the standard of traditional journalism sites is to ignore a growing reality:
The majority of Americans get their news from social media.
Thus, Facebook must accept its role as a media company and improve its editorial standards.
Facebook and the News
- 1.13 billion people logged on to Facebook daily in June 2016.
- 1 in 5 pageviews in the U.S. occurs through Facebook.
- At 1.49 billion, Facebook has more monthly active users than WhatsApp (500 million), Twitter (284 million) and Instagram (200 million) combined.
Per a 2016 study by Pew Research:
- 62 percent of U.S. adults get their news from social media.
- 66 percent of Facebook users get news from the site.
- In all, 44 percent of U.S. adults get their news on Facebook.
For good or ill, Facebook cannot credibly claim it is not a media company, when a majority of its daily and monthly active users receive news from it.
A large number of Americans get their news from Facebook, particularly as the company highlights “trending news.”
Why does this matter?
Facebook repeatedly censored a classic Vietnam War photo this week because it violated its nudity and child pornography standards.
It was a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph that once graced the front page of The New York Times and has been credited with turning public sentiment against the war:
“The Terror of War” by Nick Ut / Associated Press
To review, The Guardian yesterday reported that:
Facebook decided to delete a post by Norwegian writer Tom Egeland that featured “The Terror of War,” a Pulitzer prize-winning photograph by Nick Ut that showed children – including the naked 9-year-old Kim Phúc – fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam war.
Said The Guardian, “Egeland’s article discussed ‘seven photographs that changed the history of warfare’ – a group to which the ‘napalm girl’ image certainly belongs.”
And yet, not only did Facebook delete the photograph and suspend Egeland’s account, but it also deleted reported posts by other Norwegian editors and journalists who subsequently posted the photo to their accounts in protest.
Facebook’s response was simply: “Any photographs of people displaying fully nude genitalia or buttocks, or fully nude female breast, will be removed.”
While this photo was clearly caught by Facebook’s algorithms, the underlying issue here is that Facebook’s popularity means that its algorithms can exert enormous power.
In this case, massive media outcry over the image’s censorship did push Facebook to reinstate the photo.
Following an inquiry by NBC News, Facebook changed its stance on this particular photograph yesterday afternoon:
“Whereas an image of a naked child would ordinarily not meet the social media giant’s guidelines, said Facebook, in the case of the Trang Bang photo, ‘We recognize the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time. The value of permitting sharing outweighs the value of protecting the community by removal, so we have decided to reinstate the image on Facebook where we are aware it has been removed.’”
But the broader point here is that Zuckerberg and company can no longer pretend that Facebook is not a media company, and — as such – it has a responsibility to exercise editorial control that is in the public interest.
Just as Uber cannot subvert employment laws and fair labor standards by claiming it is a “technology” company rather than a taxi company, so too must Facebook acknowledge that it is a media company.
And the scary truth is, Facebook is now a media company that has more sway over the public discourse than does The New York Times.