For the next couple of days, Mark Zuckerberg will testify before Congress in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

There is no doubt the most needling and awkward moments of the Facebook founder’s testimony will be reported by the press. After all, it’s going to make electric watching and reading to see one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs be brought back to earth with a bump.

But this obvious reporting will probably be met with a somewhat troubling sentiment that I’ve noticed coming from the influencers of LinkedIn, or various conference stages of late.

It’s the claim that newspapers are ‘out to get’ Facebook, because it has eaten up all their advertising revenue and sent them into commercial turmoil. The incentive to report on Facebook’s problems is apparently a monetary one and the old media’s revenge is going to be made in column inches.

This sentiment is regularly met with conference audience nods and hundreds of LinkedIn likes. Unfortunately, it is wrong. Wrong because editorial in media companies doesn’t really operate like that, wrong because it absolves Facebook of accountability and wrong because it simplifies a complicated issue in a multitude of confused ways. It is dangerous because it makes a fantasy of how the editorial and advertising ecosystem really operates. It is worth discussing each of these problems in the detail that they deserve - away from the 140 characters of social media. 

Editorial doesn’t really operate like that

It all sounds so simple and rational. Each morning editorial get together with a representative from advertising, who tells them which stories from the last day did well (and thus monetised), and which didn’t. Furthermore, this advertising person will tell them the commercial agenda. “Coca Cola pulled out of a six figure deal last week, we should rough them up,” or “The Guardian won that pitch I thought we were better than them on, we should dig up some dirt on their newsroom practices.”

Put like that, it sounds quite ridiculous, if not entirely fantastical. But, I can assure you, it is fantastical. In all my experience in media companies, I cannot remember a single time when a commercial representative was in a meeting or conference with editorial plans being specifically debated in tandem with advertising needs. For example, “Advertiser X wants you to cover that like this.” There are limited examples of this church and state divide being breached, but it is not in any way common (and it is itself a scandal if it does). Either I am suffering from a distinct form of selective amnesia after a decade, or this just isn’t a done thing.

We might forget that newspapers are in fact not particularly rational economic enterprises. They don’t really trade on the rules of business that we’d normally think of. It is not a rational trade off between ‘Write 10x of X and we shall made £X’ – news reporting would cease to function if this was so. Furthermore, it is difficult to really comprehend a widespread strategy of press negativity funnelling advertising revenue away from Facebook and back to newspapers or news networks. There are plenty of other ways for companies to buy media, after all. 

So, to start with, we can rule out the simple notion that newspapers are out to get Facebook for commercial reasons: editorial don’t discuss advertising revenue as a matter of strategy, and newspapers are not rational commercial enterprises in any case.

Who is really covering the story?

There is also a serious problem with the perception that ‘newspapers’ are doing most of the reporting of the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook story. A quick overview can show how this doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The outlets reporting in the greatest detail are Channel 4 and The Guardian, who broke the story, The New York Times, and BuzzFeed. Only two of them have a newspaper. That said, that group of companies is also well known for their progressive web presences, which makes defining them as old media at all somewhat difficult anyway. Indeed, The Guardian, with a daily circulation of 152,000 in print vs 150m+ monthly unique browsers online, has rather more clout on the web.

BuzzFeed certainly never had any problem with Facebook taking revenue from them. Indeed, that company pretty much exists at its current scale because of Facebook. Yet BuzzFeed News has been rightly hounding Facebook for years about the presence of fake news and the out of control nature of information dissemination within the platform. It has also gone to town in its detailed reporting of Facebook’s latest problems.

This blanketing of ‘the media’ as some sort of racket with a subversive goal lends itself to the uneasy falsehood of the ‘fake news media’ - constantly battered home in Donald Trump’s tweets. It implies that nothing coming from the established press can ever be done for anything but commercial incentives. That in itself is particularly worrying for what people hold to be real.

We might take heed of Paul Farhi, writing in The Washington Post, Dear reader: Please stop calling us ‘the media’. There is no such thing. In which he writes:

“Lumping these disparate entities under the same single bland label is like describing the denizens of the ocean as “the fish.” It’s true, but effectively meaningless.”

Facebook has got too big, and it’s out of control

The traditional press’ main responsibility to democracy is to make sure that the powerful are held accountable. For instance, this is why The Telegraph led its investigations into MPs expenses or the football for sale scandal, which led to England manager Sam Allardyce losing his job. Despite the cynical view, these ‘stings’ are not there just so people will buy more papers – investigative journalism is a grisly commercial reality. A lot of investigations don’t go anywhere and they very often don’t sell more papers. 

Traditionally, investigations are likely to focus on the authority of politics and government – after all, they ultimately rule over us. But in recent years, we have come to an uncomfortable reality – the waning of the state, and in every direction the growth of hugely powerful tech platforms that we will almost certainly encounter every single day – often for several hours. In some cases, it has been argued that these are monopolies.

Working in digital marketing and media, it is so easy to praise the power and success of tech companies, but never take heed of uncomfortable realities. Facebook is massive. It employs 25,000 people yet connects with 2 billion people on a daily basis. In the last quarter of 2017 it collected nearly $13 billion in revenue. It is the biggest social network in the world, owns the next biggest, and owns the world’s single biggest messaging service.

One might hope that with such great power came an acceptance of great responsibility – as Peter Parker was told. But we have had little of it. Facebook has previously downplayed its role in the spread of fake news, failed to notice Russian interference in the US election and not taken the appropriate measures to ensure Cambridge Analytica had deleted improperly acquired data. These, collectively, are serious problems.

One specific example where Facebook's dark side is so obvious, yet hasn’t been discussed in much detail anywhere else, is the appalling state of the Facebook pages comment system. Go on the comment threads of any news page, or political party, and find something that would normally be considered unacceptable in real life – or certainly printed in a newspaper. A whirlpool of polarised hyperbole and anger, where the first and angriest is voted up into full view, despite a lack of truth in the expression. 

Yet Facebook acts without responsibility because it is the user’s expression and the company’s page – and not them as the technological enabler. This is a sentiment technology platforms have got away with for too long - in copyright issues, in hate speech and suggestions that high time spent on the platforms is entirely down to the user’s preference. 

Facebook has acted badly, and continued to act badly, and only now after scandal after scandal has there been a story that has affected enough people directly that people are starting to question – is Facebook really on our side? The reporting of these issues is not about advertising revenue; it’s that it is the right time to be asking such questions, after a decade of unbridled growth and absorption of human attention.

'Us vs. them' digital dogma

I will conclude on the point of what I have come to define as ‘digital dogma’. This is a pervading feeling that people who have made a success out of digital media will defend it at all costs and make simplistic 'us vs. them' points to further this aim. Somehow, we should get rid of the shackles of the old and firmly embrace the new. I have come across this wisdom repeatedly, and it will keep happening. Take the following examples:

  • Content marketing is more effective than advertising (c.2012)
  • Bitcoin will make you richer than the stock market ever could (late 2017)
  • Social media is better than established media (last five years at least)

These all sound strange in isolation, but that is so often what social media posts lambasting the old ways can boil down to. Let’s not forget that social media, in its limited characters lengths (and an extended character limited on Twitter is still pitiful) is extremely bad with the delicacies of expression. Thousands of Likes later, this nuance-stripped sentiment is hitting viral levels.

The reality of the situation is much more nuanced. I’d argue, don’t believe the hype and simplicity. It is important to understand the non-commercial realities of news media before jumping to conclusions; that Facebook has simply not met the responsibilities expected of it, and that we are aware of the wider complexities of the media landscape that social media rarely lends to. We’ll all be better marketers for it.

James Carson

Published 10 April, 2018 by James Carson

James Carson is a media and content strategy consultant and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.

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