No other organisation in the history of the world has had the impact Facebook has on the news ecosystem. The bland social networking site most of us use to post pictures of dogs and children and to complain at length about other people, has become a critical traffic source for many digital news organisations and the default news source for most of its users. But as we now know from the congressional hearings in October, Facebook is also the conduit for propaganda organisations such as Russia’s Internet Research Agency to try to influence American voters, and maybe even succeed.
The fiery furnace of the post-Trump US has been a hot place for Facebook’s executives. In the US, for better or worse, they are seen as the principal purveyors of fake news, a group of hyper-wealthy founders and investors who have profited from their own sabotage engine. Whatever your view on that, the withdrawal of Facebook from a close relationship with publishers is terrible news.
In a world where there a rising tide of authoritarian regimes build followings and promote themselves through social tools without the mediating layer of the bothersome press, the new gatekeepers take on a mantle of democratic responsibility. Last year when Facebook experimented with its news algorithm changes in six small markets – Guatemala, Slovakia, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Bolivia and Cambodia – news organisations saw their reach tumble by more than half. The Serbian journalist Stevan Dojcinovic wrote a stinging op-ed in the New York Times blasting Zuckerberg for treating fragile democracies as laboratories for his products.
Far more alarming has been the use of social media by the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, to build his own following and then systematically crush his opponents, often using the same tactics as the Internet Research Agency to whip up opposition to his opponents and drown out negative news. Last week as American publishers were worrying about their Facebook traffic, the Filipino “social first” news site Rappler faced closure as Duterte’s financial regulator revoked its licence for accepting overseas money. A technicality is being used to quash press freedom. Both Duterte’s support base and Rappler’s audience were built through Facebook, which has tremendous reach in the country. If the revocation of the licence holds, then Facebook will presumably continue to operate in a country that forbids overseas ownership of media companies.
The middle-aged men of the press must keep pace with seismic social change, or be left behind
The definition of Facebook as a media company and its commitment to the news industry is inconvenient or even damaging to its presence in regimes where press freedom is threatened. Last year in Myanmar, Facebook refused to comment on reports it had marked the Rohingya activist group Arsa as a “dangerous organisation”, while Myanmar’s military and government maintain a strong official presence on the website. Facebook’s attempts to bring millions of people online in poorer countries through its “free basics” programme was one reason for the rapid uptake in Myanmar, but there, as with South Sudan and other fraught political environments, the company’s fumbled policies and half-cocked approach to publishing responsibility is potentially deadly.