Editor’s Note: For another viewpoint see Counterpoint: Facebook’s Political Ad Exemption Policy Is a Danger to Our Democracy
During his recent appearance at Georgetown University, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg summed up the company’s predicament: “Right now, we’re doing a very good job at getting everyone mad at us.”
Taking responsibility for the company’s public perception problem is admirable and a good sign for consumer power at a time when the company is facing government antitrust scrutiny. And the company is making some consumer-friendly changes.
Specifically, Facebook says its adopting a policy of not fact-checking or otherwise limiting most political advertisements, in response to charges of censorship of both far right and far left political content — which, indeed, made a lot of people mad.
The problem is, no matter what it does, Facebook will not be able to appease all critics — which include many members of Congress, academics and journalists.
Following news of the no-fact-check policy, John Stanton, co-founder of the Save Journalism Project, promptly accused Facebook of putting “countless journalists out of work” while “providing a platform for Zuckerberg propaganda.” He believes tech giants like Facebook are sucking up all the reader attention and ad revenue that would otherwise flow to establishment news sources, all the while offering a platform megaphone to the CEO’s own viewpoints.
What Stanton and other critics fail to realize is that Facebook’s hands-off approach to fact-checking is actually a boon to journalists. Put another way, having Facebook fact-check political ads and other primary-source statements from politicians would only exacerbate displacement of journalists. After all, isn’t fact-checking politicians what journalists are supposed to do?
Also, no one should want Facebook to fact-check or limit content. The platform is valuable to users precisely because it offers primarily user-directed content. The company has a big incentive for users to see both what a politician is saying as well as all the subsequent analysis from as many journalists and fellow citizens as possible.
The real source of criticism has much more to do with the complaint about ad revenue. Facebook has, evidently, created a better, more useful platform for advertisers compared to news websites or print outlets.
Yet even there, media companies and journalists are already looking beyond ad dollars and instead finding new ways to bring in revenue. Plenty of news sites offer online subscriptions for valuable content, a funding source that brings an added benefit of making publications beholden to subscribers, not advertisers.
Thriving subscription businesses elsewhere in media, such as video-streaming, show that there is strong consumer demand for commercial-free content.
Journalists are also using their work to generate book deals and contributorships to major TV news networks. The reach of a good journalist is now effectively unlimited. Online services now provide journalists with treasure troves of information at their fingertips.
In addition, the field of journalism is benefitting from new competition from nonprofits and others who previously lacked the ability to reach readers and viewers. Countless hours of informative podcasts and other media are uploaded to platforms daily, most without any semblance or expectation of advertiser support.
Without a doubt, there is a major shift going on in the news media landscape being driven by online platforms. There will continue to be winners and losers. Journalists and others who value the flow of information in a free and open marketplace should be focused on adapting and offering new and better value products and services to readers. Those are the businesses and individuals who will succeed.
The losers will be those who want to use government to somehow prop up politically favored news sources. Actually, if that scenario comes to pass, the real losers will be consumers themselves, who will lose an open, unregulated marketplace for news about public policies that impact their lives and livelihoods.