(I’m on a panel at the International Journalism Festival later today, entitled “The capture of traditional media by Facebook.” I’m planning to say some of what you see below. What follows is an early draft of a section of a book chapter, and I’ll be revising it a lot.)
On the cover of this week’s Economist is a photo mashup of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as an emperor. It is a fitting image, given his company’s growing domination of online conversation.
It is also a sign, one of many in recent months, that people in journalism have awoken to a potentially existential threat to the craft, among many other consequences of Facebook’s reach and clout in the information world. At the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, where a Facebook representative stonewalled questions a year ago, more than one panel has been devoted to the issue of how journalism will work if big “platform” companies—especially Facebook—control distribution.
How should we respond? From my perspective, two primary schools of thought have emerged. One is to embrace that dominance, albeit with some unease, and fully participate in Facebook’s ecosystem. Another is to persuade Facebook to take seriously its growing responsibility to help get quality journalism in front of as many people as possible.
Both of those approaches assume that Facebook is too big, too powerful to resist—that we have no alternative but to capitulate to its dominance. But if that is true, the consequences will be disastrous. We will be living in the ecosystem of a company that has repeatedly demonstrated its untrustworthiness, an enterprise that would become the primary newsstand for journalism and would be free to pick the winners via special deals with media people and tweaks of its opaque algorithms. If this is the future, we are truly screwed.
I say: no. Let’s not give up so easily. Instead, let’s resist—and find a way out of this trap.
Before I explain how, let’s offer some due praise. You don’t have to trust Facebook, or approve of its “surveillance capitalism” approach to business, to recognize its staggering brilliance in other respects. The company is loaded with talent, and has become an entrepreneurial icon. It is innovative technically and quick to adapt to changing conditions. And I have no doubt that the vast majority of its employees, and some of its investors, want to do the right thing when it comes to free speech.
But Facebook is also becoming a monopoly, moving closer and closer to what Zuckerberg himself has called his goal—that Facebook should be “like electricity” in the sense of effectively being a public utility that we cannot do without.
And that’s where I’d start in helping journalists, and others, escape from its web. Here’s an early, and therefore rough, draft of the approach I’d suggest:
First, journalists should remember the proverbial first rule of getting out of a hole: stop digging. Sadly, with the advent of Facebook’s Instant Articles, a publishing platform with great allure in some ways, news organizations have abandoned their shovels and brought in heavy earth-moving machinery to dig themselves in even deeper. I’m not saying drop all connections to Facebook right now, but the dig-faster “strategy” is beyond short-sighted. It’s outright suicidal.
Second, journalism organizations should explain to the communities they serve how Facebook operates. Such as:
- Invasion of privacy. The occasional articles we see about Facebook’s latest privacy intrusions barely begin to describe the massive way this company (and other online advertising operations) are creating unprecedentedly detailed dossiers on everyone, and then using this information in ways we can barely imagine. The ubiquitous “Like” button, found all over the Internet, is part of Facebook’s surveillance system.
- Control of speech. Facebook decides what its users will see by manipulating their news feeds. It removes posts based on its puritan approach to sex, and reserves the right to determine what speech is acceptable, period. In America, Facebook’s terms of service overrule the First Amendment.
- Becoming an alternate Internet. Facebook would be delighted if you never leave its embrace. In some countries, where it makes special deals with governments and (often government-controlled) telecom companies, it effectively is the Internet on mobile devices.
Third, journalists should do what they have done many times before when they encountered threats to freedom of expression: ask people with political power to intervene. As Facebook takes on more and more of the trappings of monopoly and utility, we need antitrust officials and others in government to pay attention. Of course, Facebook isn’t the only threat in this regard. The telecom carriers are potentially just as dangerous to speech, given their wish to control how our information moves in the vital part of the networks they control. There’s long list of other threats including pervasive surveillance by government, and for the most part journalists have ignored these attacks on freedom of expression. I said in Perugia last year that journalists need to be activists on these fundamental issues of liberty, and renew that plea here.
Fourth, once journalists have explained all this, they should help the communities they serve take action themselves. This should include technical countermeasures—how to block, to the extent possible, all that surveillance by corporations and government, by using encryption; browser plugins that block the online trackers; and more. Journalists should also tell people how they can campaign for change, such as contacting their elected representatives and regulators at the local, state and federal levels; support organizations that help preserve liberties; etc.
Fifth, journalists should join and support the nascent efforts to counteract the centralization of technology and communications. It’s not practical to ask media people to create a decentralized, federated web that includes social connections as well as standard publishing. This is beyond their expertise. But they should be leaders in the push to get there, and give financial and other help to projects that further the goal. Moreover, they should lobby a key constituency that has taken only timid steps toward saving the open Web: philanthropists and NGOs. Foundations, in particular, need to put their considerable resources behind decentralized platform development, and news organizations can help convince them to do so.
Plainly, some of these strategies will be easier to pull off than others. But we have to try. The alternative looks grim.