By Frederic Filloux
Facebook had to do something for the news ecosystem. But its
freedom of movement is limited by the structure of its revenue stream. Hence, a
project that blends cynicism and naïveté.
Facebook recently made two significant announcements related to
its news media posture. The first one came on Jan. 6 with the hiring of
Campbell Brown, a former NBC and CNN anchor, as a news partnerships manager.
The second one, on Jan. 11, was unveiling the Facebook Journalism Project.
Regarding the first move, it is actually a good idea to hire a
woman for such a position; it sends the right signal to a profession notorious
for its reluctance to put women in management positions.
That said, to manage relationships with media heads, everyone
expected a seasoned professional. There is no shortage of experienced
individuals with the ability to buttress Facebook's credibility. An anchor
person doesn’t fit that bill. As if it wanted to further emphasize the
shallowness of its hire, Facebook hinted that Campbell Brown won’t deal with
Announcing the Facebook Journalism project carried much more
weight. As explained in a post by Fidji Simo,
Facebook director of product, the project is built on three pillars: "(1)
Collaborative development of news products,” such as new storytelling formats,
initiatives for local news and business models, and hackathons; "(2) training
and tools for journalists’” and "(3) training and tools for everyone,” which
includes an unspecified set of measures against fake news.
Collaboration, journalist training, and tools. Sounds familiar? It
is, almost to the word, Google’s Digital News Initiative mission statement. The
DNI was launched two years ago by the search giant and eight European
publishers. As a representative for one such publisher, I was closely involved
— see my disclosure at the end of this post. Thanks to the DNI, Google has been
able to weave (and sometimes restore) good relationships with many publishers
around the world. Obviously, Facebook Journalism Project is a response to
Google, on both tactical and political (read: geo-political) levels. Facebook
mentions a close relationship with several German publishers that have been at
odds with Google for quite some time. Axel Springer and others keep feeding the
European Commission with negative information on Google's deeds in their field.
Beyond perception, a question lingers: To what extent could
Facebook’s move actually help the battered news ecosystem?
First of all, Facebook needed to do something about news. The
social network faces difficult challenges on two different fronts; one is the
fake news problem to which Mark Zuckerberg and his team responded poorly —
that’s an understatement. The second problem is the publishers’ growing
discontent; they feel duped by what they see as Facebook’s propensity to hijack
their content's economic value. After succumbing to Facebook’s Instant Articles
mirage, publishers came to an unpleasant realization: While audience numbers
were great, the expected generous monetization stream really was a mere trickle
of water. (Last week, for good measure, Facebook cut off subsidies granted to a
small coterie of publishers to produce live videos).
While it is impossible here to sort naïveté from cynicism,
Facebook's Journalism Project contains gems of ridicule. Let’s take two.
According to Fidji Simo’s "exposé,”
Facebook is committed to "Promote News Literacy”
She says "We will work with third-party organizations on how to
better understand and to promote news literacy both on and off our platform to
help people in our community have the information they need to make decisions
about which sources to trust.”
No kidding. If you can wrap your mind around this 42-word
sentence, it'll amount to saying McDonald’s goes low-fat, low-carb, or Monsanto
acquires Whole Foods. Lofty words, unconnected to reality.
One of the "third-party organizations” Facebook will team up with
is called the News
which boasts Facebook support like a badge of honor. They boast that the
partnership will give people the tools to "Learn to navigate sources (…) in a
more skeptical manner”!??
Like it or not (pardon the pun), Facebook sits at the exact
opposite of NLP’s noble idea. Facebook's entire system is built around the idea
of locking its users into a "friendly” environment, totally shielded from any
exposure to content that doesn’t fit their ideas, opinions, beliefs,
affiliations, etc. In the Facebook world, click after click, we all erect and
reinforce such cognitive barriers. This mechanism is at the core of Facebook’s
page-views-hungry business: To reinforce its sustainability, Facebook needs to
maintain its users as long as possible on its services. This is why its
algorithm is designed to avoid exposing a Breitbart devout to a Mother Jones
piece about the origins of Trumpism, and vice-versa.
As a tech-media expert friend of mine said: "Facebook is above all
an entertainment platform. It wants you to remain onboard at all costs. Then,
when it comes to news, if your profile states that you need 20 percent of your
newsfeed filled with information, that’s fine. For someone else, the algorithm
might decide that news is not the best way for the user to be kept around; it
will lower the news proportion to 3 or 4 percent — all carefully filtered.”
Actually, users rarely get more than 10 percent of news items they subscribed
to in their newsfeed simply because news is not the most click-generating item
of a FB feed. I made the whole argument here: Facebook’s Walled Wonderland Is Inherently
Incompatible with News.
Another quirky idea of the Facebook Journalism Project is to rely
on a newly acquired company, CrowdTangle, whose stated purpose is to "provide
critical social media analytics to help publishers around the world measure
their performance on social media and identify great stories.” In other words,
it helps promote and measure journalism à la Facebook.
Here are examples drawn from this remarkable compendium titled
"The Top 10 Local News Post on Facebook in 2016.” Ready?
- "Shelter dog from the Humane Society Silicon Valley changes an
overweight man’s life by helping him to be more active” 920,600 interactions
- "Group of teenage siblings give back to their community by mowing
neighbors’ lawns for FREE” 961,500 interactions
- "Previewing Hallmark’s Kitten Summer Games” 1.05 million
- "Georgia judge talks bluntly with a group of young people about
where their early lives in crime could lead” 1.08 million interactions
- "Is it a dog? Is it a horse? A Nevada couple believes they have
the tallest living dog” 1.17 million interactions
- "Mama dog goes from scared to happy when she’s reunited with her
puppies” 1.45 million interactions.
- "Police officers stand in for little boy’s father on first day of
school” 1.5 million interactions.
Now you can breathe… OK. These are great human (and animal)
stories. They actually move large crowds.
But is it really Facebook's vision of journalism? I mean — sorry for
this outburst of professional conservatism — the kind that educates, opens
minds, helps people make up their own opinion about important issues such as
health care or ISIS, the kind of news that helps people understand complicated
Is THIS Facebook’s vision of a balanced information system?
Frédéric Filloux, is the editor of the Monday Note —
(www.mondaynote.com) a blog and newsletter that covers the business models of
digital media and technology — and general manager for digital operations at
Les Echos, a business media house in France.
Personal Disclosure: At the launch of the Digital
News Initiative early 2015, I represented the Groupe Les Echos, France’s main
business news publisher. As such I was involved in discussions around Google’s
AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) and other projects, along with my colleagues
from The Guardian, the FT.com, La Stampa, NRC, El Pais, Die Zeit, and FAZ.
Together we had numerous discussions — either with or without Google present —
in London, Mountain View, Paris, Madrid, and at the Newsgeist conferences in
Phoenix AZ, and Helsinki. It was a rich, enthralling experience to work with
these people. While I keep a great relationship with my former employer Les
Echos, the publishers just mentioned, and with the Google team, my involvement
with the DNI is now technically over. I’m currently a Knight Fellow at Stanford