What should Facebook (et al.) do for news?

Jeff Jarvis, Tanit Koch, Jennifer Lee, Rasmus Nielsen, Jay Rosen, Craig Silverman

The scale of Facebook’s reach and influence across the global is unrivalled in human society.

But Mark Zuckerberg and his team at Facebook have struggled to control the forces they’ve created. Adapted from the model of Newsgeist discussions ‘What can Google do for news’, Jeff Jarvis led a panel of leaders within the journalistic and tech community to examine how Facebook can contain the forces it has created.

After Mark Zuckerberg’s recent testimony in front of U.S Congress, Jay Rosen, a media critic and journalism professor at New York University, found Zuckerberg’s description of Facebook as “highly idealistic” as “astounding and disturbing [given the extent to which] idealism has created disasters in the modern world.”

There has been much discussion over which ideals drive Facebook and Zuckerberg’s agenda. Craig Silverman, the media editor of Buzzfeed News, pointed out that Facebook has so far been unable to live up to the values by which it has defined itself. Giving the example of ‘giving people quality stuff that they can engage with and make their lives’ better, Silverman expressed his conviction clear that Facebook has not yet found a way to enforce these values. Jennifer 8. Lee, who has worked in innovation, hacking and publishing, agreed that the culture in Silicon Valley, including Facebook, struggles to value qualities which cannot be quantified numerically. “Unless you can measure it, they struggle to know how to care about it.”

Within this culture, Facebook is experiencing an inherent tension over whether its organization has a ‘descriptive or prescriptive mindset’; whether the users determine the content they consume, or whether Facebook has developed an editorial approach to its organization.

Facebook, Google and Twitter have all faced similar accusations of running their platforms with editorial judgements whilst branding themselves as impartial platforms. Given that the same tools used to galvanise the Black Lives Matter movements has also given momentum to movements within the far-right,the journalist community are concerned about the spread of misinformation; Silverman pointed out that in developing countries, “misinformation is literally killing people.”

These platforms are also exposing journalists to an unparalleled amount of online vitriol, and the panel insisted that their founders need to take responsibility for protecting figures in the media. Tanit Koch, the former director of Bild, pointed out that “if a company isn’t able to take down a very crude death threat to a journalism within 24 hours”, its editorial mindset needs to be brought into question.

Rosen agreed that Facebook needs to employ more people to take the decisions that are already being made on the quality of news and information shared on its platform, but more consideration and responsibility. To Rosen, this could take the form of hiring an Editor-in-Chief ‘to make the editorial judgements which are already being made by Facebook and its policies.”

There was also pressure for Facebook to redistribute the proportion of the wealth it generates from advertising revenues, which formerly subsidized journalism. Rosen suggested this take the form of a licence fee, similar to the BBC in the UK.

Despite the tension between platforms and publishers, Rasmus Nielsen from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism insisted that the media and the tech industries need to learn how to work together. He described a vision of a collaborative body between the two industries akin to the EU and the UN, “not as a political organisation’, but as a vehicle for discussion, ‘“to civilise conflict”.

“The future of every journalist under 60 depends on this working out”, Nielsen continued. As subscriptions to social media rise and those to journals drop, Facebook still offers an opportunity to partner with news organisations to spread accurate and diverse information. Nielsen urged Facebook and organisations like it, “However tempting it is for platforms to walk away from news, please don’t.”

Olivia Konotey Ahulu