The Facebook journalism project is nothing but a much-needed PR stunt

Facebook exists to entertain.
Facebook exists to entertain.
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam/File Photo
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Facebook had to do something for the news ecosystem. But its freedom of movement is limited by the structure of its revenue stream. Hence a project that blends cynicism and naïveté.

Facebook recently made two significant announcements related to its news media posture. The first one came on Jan. 6 with the hiring of Campbell Brown, a former NBC and CNN anchor, as a news partnerships manager. The second one, on Jan. 11, was unveiling the Facebook Journalism Project.

Regarding the first move, it is actually a good idea to hire a woman for such a position; it sends the right signal to a profession notorious for its reluctance to put women in management positions (for a stunning dataset on the subject, read the “Status of Women in the in the US Media”—PDF here).

That said, to manage relationships with media heads, everyone expected a seasoned professional. There is no shortage of experienced individuals with the ability to buttress Facebook’s credibility. An anchor person doesn’t fit that bill. As if it wanted to further emphasize the shallowness of its hire, Facebook hinted that Campbell Brown wont’t deal with content.

Announcing the Facebook Journalism project carried much more weight. As explained in a post by Fidji Simo, Facebook director of product, the project is built on three pillars:

  1. “Collaborative development of news products,” such as new storytelling formats, initiatives for local news and business models, and hackathons
  2. “Training & Tools for Journalists”
  3. “Training & Tools for Everyone,” which includes an unspecified set of measures against fake news.

Well. Collaboration, journalists training, tools… Sounds familiar? It is, almost to the word, the Google’s Digital News Initiative mission statement. The DNI was launched two years ago by the search giant and eight European publishers. As a representative for one such publisher, I was closely involved—see my disclosure at the end of this post. Thanks to the DNI, Google has been able to weave (and sometimes restore) good relationships with many publishers around the world. Obviously, the Facebook Journalism project is a response to Google, on both tactical and political (read: geo-political) levels. Facebook mentions a close relationship with several German publishers that have been at odds with Google for quite some time. Axel Springer and others keep feeding the European commission with negative information on Google’s deeds in their field).

Beyond perception, a question lingers: To which extent Facebook’s move could actually help the battered news ecosystem?

First of all, Facebook needed to do something about news. The social network faces difficult challenges on two different fronts: one is the fake news problem to which Mark Zuckerberg and his team responded poorly—that’s an understatement. The second problem is the publishers’ growing discontent: they feel duped by what they see as Facebook’s propensity to hijack their content’s economic value. After succumbing to Facebook’s Instant Articles mirage, publishers came to an unpleasant realization: while audience numbers were great, the expected generous monetization stream really was a mere trickle of water. (Last week, for good measure, Facebook cut off subsidies granted to a small coterie of publishers to produce live videos).

While it is impossible here to sort naïveté from cynicism, Facebook’s Journalism Project contains gems of ridicule. Let’s take two.

According to Fidji Simo’s exposé, Facebook is committed to “Promote News Literacy”:

We will work with third-party organizations on how to better understand and to promote news literacy both on and off our platform to help people in our community have the information they need to make decisions about which sources to trust.

No kidding. If you can wrap your mind around this 42-word sentence, it’ll amount to saying McDonald’s goes low-fat, low-carb, or Monsanto acquires Whole Foods. Lofty words, unconnected to reality.

One of the “third-party organizations” Facebook will team up with is called the News Literacy Project which boasts Facebook support like a badge of honor:

News Literacy Project image
Image: News Literacy Project

Read the purple box: “Learn to navigate sources (…) in a more skeptical manner”!?? Like it or not (pardon the pun), Facebook sits at the exact opposite of NLP’s noble idea… Facebook’s entire system is built around the idea of locking its users into a “friendly” environment, totally shielded from any exposure to content that doesn’t fit their ideas, opinions, beliefs, affiliations, etc. In the Facebook world, click after click, we all erect and reinforce such cognitive barriers. This mechanism is at the core of Facebook’s page-views-hungry business: to reinforce its sustainability, Facebook needs to maintain its users as long as possible on its services. This is why its algorithm is designed to avoid exposing a Breitbart devout to a Mother Jones piece about the origins of Trumpism, and vice-versa.

As a tech/media expert friend of mine was telling me this week: “Facebook is above all an entertainment platform. It wants you to remain onboard at all costs. Then, when it comes to news, if your profile states that you need 20% of your newsfeed filled with information, that’s fine. For someone else, the algorithm might decide that news is not the best way for the user to be kept around, it will lower the news proportion to 3 or 4%—all carefully filtered.” Actually, users rarely get more than 10% of news items they subscribed to in their newssfeed simply because news is not the most click-generating item of a FB feed. I made the whole argument here.

Another quirky idea of the Facebook Journalism Project is to rely on a newly acquired company CrowdTangle, whose stated purpose is to “provide critical social media analytics to help publishers around the world measure their performance on social media and identify great stories.” In other words, it helps promote and measure journalism à la Facebook.

Here are examples drawn from this remarkable compendium titled “The Top 10 Local News Post on Facebook in 2016.” Ready?

  • “A shelter dog from the Humane Society Silicon Valley changes an overweight man’s life by helping him to be more active” —920,600 interactions
  • “A group of teenage siblings give back to their community by mowing neighbors lawns for FREE” —961,500 interactions
  • “Previewing Hallmark’s Kitten Summer Games” —1.05 million interactions
  • “A Georgia judge talks bluntly with a group of young people about where their early lives in crime could lead” —1.08 million interactions
  • “Is it a dog? Is it a horse? A Nevada couple believes they have the tallest living dog” —1.17 million interactions
  • “Mama dog goes from scared to happy when she’s reunited with her puppies” —1.45 million interactions
  • “Police officers stand in for little boy’s father on first day of school” —1.5 million interactions

Now you can breathe… OK, these are great human (and animal) stories, they actually move large crowds.

But is it really Facebook’s vision of journalism? I mean—sorry for this outburst of professional conservatism—the kind that educates, opens minds, helps people make up their own opinion about important issues such as health care or the danger of ISIS, the kind of news that helps understand complicated social questions?

Is THIS Facebook’s vision of a balanced information system?

Personal Disclosure: At the launch of the Digital News Initiative early 2015, I represented the Groupe Les Echos, France’s main business news publisher. As such I was involved in discussions around Google’s AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) and other projects, along with my colleagues from The Guardian, the FT.com, La Stampa, NRC, El Pais, Die Zeit and FAZ. Together we had numerous discussions—either with or without Google present—in London, Mountain View, Paris, Madrid, and at the Newsgeist conferences in Phoenix AZ, and Helsinki. It was a rich en enthralling experience to work with these people. While I keep a great relationship with my former employer Les Echos, the publishers just mentioned and with the Google team, my involvement with the DNI is now technically over. I’m currently a Knight Fellow at Stanford University.