This week in Argentina, Facebook proudly informed that it had closed an agreement with Chequeado, a local fact-checking outfit, in order to fight fake news. The agreement, which was actually announced by Chequeado and isn’t mentioned in any official Facebook press releases, came as a shock to every major news organisation in the country, particularly as it came days after the Chequeado team spent three days with representatives of most media outlets at the Google-backed Newsgeist conference, and just 48 hours before a private, high-level meeting between Facebook’s Regional Director for the South Cone, Joao Adao, and the media industry group ADEPA. The shock had to do with the fact that not a single publisher was consulted regarding how they would fight fake news, an epidemic that was propagated and monetized by Facebook, and that the company founded by Mark Zuckerberg had equated professional journalists with content farms, trolls, bots, and amateur content creators. On Friday, Perfil, along with some of Argentina’s most influential media organisations—Clarín, La Nación, and Infobae—walked out of the Facebook meeting in protest. Not that it will change much. We also promised to sue them, where Perfil has already taken the lead by formally accusing them of copyright infringement and violating anti-trust rules by exerting monopoly power.
Facebook, and Google, hate journalism. They hate having to deal with pesky reporters that constantly question their good intentions, as they despise responding to inquiries regarding how little they pay in taxes. These aggregation platforms don’t understand why the world’s major media organisations see them as enemies, despite generating an audience of billions that have access to publishers’ content with just a click. The US$150 billion in advertising revenues they collectively bagged last year are well deserved, even if that means thousands of journalists across the world are losing their jobs and complaining about it. Even worse, Zuckerberg and the Google guys (Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt) are sick and tired of the phenomenon of fake news, which their algorithms haven’t been able to robotically eradicate, and they don’t even consider themselves or their platforms responsible for allowing such things as voter manipulation and the intrusion of foreign powers in the 2016 US Presidential elections.
Can’t they take the money and just go away, they probably think, after having spent some half a billion dollars in journalistic programs, academic research, and media partnerships in the past few years, as Columbia Journalism Review’s Mathew Ingram laid out in a great piece titled “The Platform Patrons: How Facebook and Google became two of the biggest funders of journalism in the world.”
Obviously, they don’t understand journalism, and this simple fact is derived from the philosophy underlying Facebook, Google and all information aggregators that believe in replacing humans to optimise processes. The world’s biggest search engine and the world’s largest social network were born in the age of the internet, and they generate their usefulness by leveraging their more than two billion users (probably many more) in order to effectively deliver information. This means that the system must be free for the user (the more of them, the bigger the network effect), and it translates into an advertising-based business model by virtue of being free, as The Starchery’s Ben Thompson explains in a series of posts (“Tech’s two philosophies” and “The moat map”). Computers are much better than humans in processes that are scalable and require split-second processing of a boatload of data, such as delivering search results or suggesting a possible friend or event based on previous preferences. This is also what makes them extremely efficient platforms for advertisers.
What they’re definitely not good at are things like journalism, where a socio-political interpretation of context makes the difference between publishing the Pulitzer Prize-winning black and white picture of a naked nine-year-old girl after a Napalm attack in Vietnam and considering it child pornography. For Facebook and YouTube (which is owned by Google), information is a commodity, whether it’s a brilliant piece of journalism or a cat meme, and its value is derived from its capacity to retain the user’s attention. That’s why after watching several Donald Trump rallies on YouTube, the platform will begin to suggest white supremacist videos in an increasing order of extremism. The same thing happens after watching a lot of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders videos, only with conspiracy left suggestions, as techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufecki explained in a brilliant Ted talk last year. “It’s like you’re never hard core enough for YouTube,” she told the audience, noting the persuasion architecture developed to increase ad click-through rates has now spilled over and, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal proved, is being used for political purposes with ominously powerful results. “The structure of that architecture is the same whether you’re selling shoes or whether you’re selling politics, the algorithms do not know the difference. The same algorithms set loose on us to make us more pliable for ads are also organising our political, personal, and social information.”
For journalism, information can never be a commodity. Our job is to sift through and dig out the most important pieces of information, connect the dots using journalistic discretion—read, human—, and present it to the audience in order to help societies form opinions. Sometimes, what we consider the most important isn’t what the audience wants to read, yet we still put it on the front page. So, when Facebook and Google spend half a billion dollars over three years, or 0.001% of their collectively revenue, to foster healthy journalism on their own terms, we should consider what University of Virginia media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan told Ingram: “The British Empire wanted trains in Kenya and India to run well, too. So their concerns are sincere, but the effect is more often than not a deeper immersion in and dependence on these platforms.” If Facebook and Google are really concerned about fake news and journalism, they should consider returning all of the ad money they made serving users disinformation campaigns and hate speech, and not try indoctrinate journalists.