Social Media is Media

By now, we’re preaching to the choir: social media is media, and it’s time Facebook and others take editorial responsibility for the content they distribute.

Many have long stood in opposition to Facebook’s lax content policies, but these dissenters’ message gained national attention last week after the results of the U.S. presidential election surprised… well, the entire world. After a storm of finger-pointing and rampant speculation, Facebook has emerged with a target on its back. The Next Web, Vox, Buzzfeed, Scientific American, Forbes, NPR—they’ve all lined up to throw tomatoes at Mark Zuckerberg, who continues to deny responsibility for the distribution of fake news through his platform.

Now, forget the election. Let’s talk about some hard truths, both for today’s journalists and for Zuckerberg.

(1) 62 percent of U.S. adults get at least some of their news from social media. 44 percent of U.S. adults get news specifically from Facebook.

(2) The rise in clickbait headlines and headline A/B tests (ever notice an article’s headline changing every few hours?) are evidence of news outlets pandering for clicks on social sites. BBC, The New Yorker—everyone does it now, not just Breitbart.

(3) The New York Times, a crippled media giant, anticipates more downsizing, both in staff and scope of content, as advertising revenue continues to disappear. Print is simply not the future of news distribution.

From Vanity Fair: As the print-advertising business continues its decline, the [New York Times] has tried to make up for the deficit through digital subscriptions, native advertising, and live events. When evaluating these strategies, it’s worth remembering how much smaller the Times is as a business than it used to be. According to a Times spokeswoman, in 2014 the New York Times Media Group generated just over half the advertising revenue it did in 2002. The organization now generates more revenue from its subscribers than its advertisers.

Clearly, whether Facebook wants to be a leading news distributer or not is a moot question at this point; it is already used by millions of people as a news source, even if the company didn’t intend it. 

Regardless of who won the presidency last week, there is a forgotten note in all this talk over the future of journalism and Facebook's power to influence political events: what’s actually at stake in the war against fake news is the preservation of the historical record. Without professional journalists, the kinds who make careers in the newsrooms at the New York Times or Washington Post, we risk losing our very history.

It’s true that a single piece of fake news distributed along with the real news seems harmless enough and can easily be debunked with some light investigation. After all, given an isolated piece of fake news with no other sources to confirm the story, a historian could easily discredit its source. But when a wave of interconnected false news is distributed alongside real news, it becomes harder to distinguish the real world from the fabricated one. Those blurred lines will only seem murkier over time.

Some will dismiss this argument. It seems farfetched that future historians will one day mine Facebook content, or socially shared content at all, to reconstruct the Election of 2016. But, as more print journals fall and more news content is web-only, the internet will be the the most logical place to turn for first-hand accounts. Even if historians were to look to broadcast news, anchors often broadcast tweets or read aloud from public posts. Social media has entered our historical record; that truth is inescapable.

So, what’s a $360-billion de facto leader in media distribution to do?

As a technology company rather than media company, Facebook has long argued it is not responsible for the content its users publish. That viewpoint is protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which prevents platforms like Facebook from being sued for libel or defamation over content published by its users. Facebook’s announcement this week of standards to ban phony news sites from its advertising network simply doesn’t address the bigger picture: If social media platforms are, in fact, the future of news distribution, are the historical record for the future, what real steps can their executives take to enact higher content standards while granting individual users freedom of speech?

The spirit of the law was to explicitly extend individual freedom of speech to online communities hosted by third parties. But when the platform itself directs certain “trending” content to users via algorithms, exactly whose freedom of speech is infringed if, for example, Facebook limits what businesses can self-identify as “news?” or what content its algorithms distribute to others?

In my opinion, the Facebook fake news scandal has been a long time coming. Let’s learn from it and stop fake news now, before there’s cause for another nationwide outcry.

If you’re looking to do one thing, an action with which you can effect change today: buy a subscription to your local newspaper. Hey, it’s the holidays! Buy one for all of your friends and family. There’s no such thing as free news, so stop griping about the paywall and cough up the cash for quality, responsible journalism.

And, if you’re building a social app and looking for a second thing to do: take the time to put responsible content standards in the first version of your application. Don’t be the next Facebook; be better.

Photo Credit: Will Steacy