Facebook, its CEO keeps assuring us, is not in the media business.
“We are a tech company, not a media company,” Mark Zuckerberg told students at a university in Rome over the summer. “We build the tools; we do not produce any content.”
That Zuckerberg felt the need to clarify is telling: In August 2016, Facebook did look very much like a media company, content production notwithstanding.
That resemblance is about to get even stronger. On Jan. 11, Facebook announced the Facebook Journalism Project, a program that aims to “establish stronger ties between Facebook and the news industry,” product director Fidji Simo wrote in a press release. Initiatives will include product development, journalist training, promoting news literacy, and curbing fake news. In short, Facebook—again, not a media company—has created an entire project around doing things that media companies do.
While details of the project are still fuzzy, Facebook has made clear that these initiatives will largely be handled at arm’s length. To offer training for journalists, the social network is partnering with at least seven different media organizations, including Poynter and the Knight Foundation. To promote media literacy, Facebook will work with “third-party organizations.” To curb fake news, the company has conscripted “third-party fact-checking organizations” that adhere to Poynter standards.
Facebook has long had a fraught relationship with news outlets, many of which grudgingly depend on the social media giant for the bulk of their traffic. The company’s image also soured last year after it was widely criticized for spreading fake news ahead of the US presidential election, and for fostering “filter bubbles” that increase political polarization.
A charitable reading of Facebook’s journalism project is that the company has few journalists on staff (though it recently hired cable veteran Campbell Brown to manage news partnerships) and would prefer to let the experts handle its media efforts A less charitable one is that Facebook remains determined to dodge the media-company label, and all the liabilities that accompany it.