Sep 27, 2016

    Facebook needs to face the facts of accountability

    SO, IS Facebook a tech company or a media company? And does it really matter?

    Founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has no doubts.

    "No, we are a tech company, not a media company," he declared during a recent town-hall event in Rome, Italy.

    "When you think about a media company, you know, people are producing content, people are editing content, and that's not us. We're a technology company. We build tools. We do not produce the content. We exist to give you the tools to curate and have the experience that you want, to connect with the people and businesses and institutions in the world that you want."

    That set off an explosion of rebuttals from, yes, you guessed it, people working for media companies.

    Guardian journalist and academic Emily Bell responded almost immediately: "Zuckerberg may not want to admit it but Facebook is one of the largest and most powerful media companies in the world - and getting larger.

    "He said the company he co-founded isn't a media company because 'we do not produce any content'. Instead, it just builds tools that let users interact with each other, which includes sharing news, he said."

    Another observer put it more simply: "When you gather people's attention and sell that attention to advertisers, you are a media company."

    With its news-feed algorithm that more or less determines what more than 1.5 billion users get to read and see and watch, Facebook holds a very high degree of power - and such power exercises great influence on a publisher's success or failure. In that sense, Facebook isn't just a media company, it's a super-media conglomerate. There are no two ways about it.

    It has also been pointed out that the recent adjustment to Facebook's "trending topics" feature means the algorithm now makes selections that are basically editorial in nature.

    In other words, it has usurped the role of news organisations: Deciding what to present and how prominently.

    Facebook has also paid publishers and celebrities about US$50 million (S$68 million) this year to produce video clips for its platform. If it's not a media company, why has Facebook paid so much money to boost its content?

    One comment from digital media guru Jason Hirschhorn was particularly interesting: "There are a couple of reasons why Facebook is so adamant that it is a tech company and not a media company. One is the risk that it might be forced to pay more attention to issues like free speech and censorship and journalistic integrity than it really wants to, which would be a huge hassle... Tech has stellar valuations. Tech disrupted (the) media model. This is why no co(mpany) wants to be called media. And (why) media sometimes position as tech."

    Brian Stelter, senior media correspondent and host of CNN's Reliable Sources said: "One traditional definition of a media company is 'a company that delivers information to users and profits by selling ads next to the information'. By that definition, Facebook is a media company. Facebook does not produce the information it distributes but it is profiting from the ads."

    He added: "Ethically speaking, Facebook has some of the same obligations hat other media companies have. I believe Facebook has an obligation not to knowingly promote hoax stories as trending topics."

    Washington Post's media columnist Margaret Sullivan, who has written about Facebook's role as a media company, raised a very crucial point: How does Facebook make corrections when stories shared on its platform are plain wrong?

    She told Business Insider: "(Facebook) doesn't have the sort of, 'We got it wrong, and here's our method of correcting' - a Facebook version of an editor's note or a correction. It doesn't exist."

    She insisted that Facebook has a responsibility for the information it disseminates to 1.7 billion users, especially when mistakes happen.

    In the end, it doesn't really matter what Facebook calls itself. It may have started off as a tech company, but there is no denying that it has now also become a media company.

    And with the incredibly powerful moneymaking machine it has created, Facebook will have to face the fact that it must be accountable for all the content being posted and shared on its site.

    The huge user base generates the high valuations and, it goes without saying, with that power comes responsibility - whether you are a tech firm or a media company, or both.