There is no one in the world more important to the future of journalism than Mark Zuckerberg. That should make anyone who cares about journalism very afraid.
Speaking to a group of reporters on Tuesday, Zuckerberg laid out a new program in which users would rank news outlets by trustworthiness. Facebook will then use that data to make changes to its News Feed, which has been overwhelmed by fake news in recent years. Back in January, Zuckerberg had said such a program was necessary because Facebook “struggled with ... how to decide what news sources are broadly trusted in a world with so much division.”
Facebook is, in other words, laying the responsibility on users for what appears on the News Feed. Combined with a recently announced “audit” that will address criticism that the social network suppresses conservative voices, Facebook’s latest moves point to a larger problem that’s bigger than fake news: Zuckerberg, desperate for conservative allies, has bought into the argument that mainstream news is fundamentally biased.
“I do think that in general, within a news organization, there is an opinion,” Zuckerberg told reporters. “I do think that a lot of what you all do, is have an opinion and have a view.” Zuckerberg, according to The Atlantic’s Adrianne LaFrance, said Facebook was a platform with “more opinions.” These opinions allow users to select those they find to be the most convincing. “It’s not about saying here’s one view; here’s the other side. You should decide where you want to be.”
As LaFrance writes, this is an argument that’s hostile to the idea of professional journalism: Zuckerberg is close to saying that The New York Times and your InfoWars-linking uncle are roughly analogous. He has consistently argued that Facebook is intent on knocking down the kinds of barriers that were once enforced by gatekeepers like the Times, all in a bid to connect people—an inherently good thing, in his view.
But the issue here is not with opinions, it’s with facts. The problem with fake news is that it introduces false facts into the news ecosystem, which then influence public opinion, which then can affect the outcomes of elections, and all of a sudden Donald Trump is running the country. Trustworthy institutions are ones that use verifiable facts, not ones that have won a popularity contest.
Furthermore, Facebook doesn’t really make people connect with one another across once-impermeable borders. Instead, they sort themselves into groups that reinforce their own narrow viewpoints—sometimes doing so with the aid of fake news that panders to them. Given this dynamic, there’s no reason to believe that users will be able to discern what’s “trustworthy,” but instead will rate sites that reinforce their priors. Zuckerberg is finally acknowledging that Facebook is, at least in part, a media company, but there is nothing in this pilot program that would actually elevate important, fact-based stories.
That’s because Facebook has been skittish ever since a 2016 Gizmodo report revealed that Facebook employees curating its “Trending Topics” suppressed conservative sites like The Daily Caller and Breitbart. Conservatives screamed bloody murder and Facebook ended up firing all of the curators who worked on “Trending Topics” and replacing them with algorithms—a move that had disastrous consequences. Republicans have since turned this issue into something of a crusade, arguing that tech companies are biased against them—the farce that was last week’s Diamond and Silk testimony before the House Judicial Committee was, in some ways, a culmination of this argument.
In truth, Facebook’s news curators were doing their job by suppressing these stories, which are often poorly sourced or reliant on partisan spin. Suppressing Breitbart, which is sloppy and racist and often flirts with fake news, is a good thing if you really care about highlighting stories that will make your users more informed about the world.
But that’s not what Zuckerberg cares about. The decision to allow users to rank news sites by trustworthiness proves that. And this general apathy about journalism is underlined by Facebook hiring former Senator Jon Kyl, a Republican, to lead a group that would “examine concerns about alleged liberal bias on Facebook, internally and on its services.” The group would be tasked with gathering feedback from conservative groups and to “advise Facebook on working with these groups going forward.” The group is entirely made up of conservatives, including members of the Heritage Foundation.
Inviting a bunch of mainstream media–hating ideologues into the room is generally not a very good way to investigate a problem. Facebook is punting, encouraging its critics to set policies for it. These policies will have wide-ranging implications, and not just for news. When conservatives have been reprimanded or suspended from social media services it has often been for spreading misinformation or for harassment. Diamond and Silk have turned these incidents into branding opportunities, claiming they were censored. If these changes mean that Facebook will be even more lenient to conservatives, particularly those who abuse the service to spread misinformation, its fake news problem will get even worse.
There are two reasons why Facebook would expend so much time and energy catering to conservatives. The first is that it very much wants to be a site for people of all political persuasions—for everyone on earth, for that matter. Conservatives whining about their treatment on the site is a real threat to the company. But more importantly, Facebook feels that it needs Republicans to head off regulatory fights. It dodged a bullet in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but there’s no reason to believe that it will next time, given that Democrats are increasingly embracing antitrust policies and are more broadly concerned with Big Tech’s pernicious cultural and economic effects. By getting the Heritage Foundation to write up a bunch of policies, Facebook is hoping to win friends that can help Zuckerberg out the next time he is hauled before Congress.
Facebook is skirting the fundamental question before it, which is just how it should deal with the fact that it has become the easiest place to widely share misinformation on the internet. Real work on that subject would require expertise—and input from across the political spectrum. But real work isn’t what Zuckerberg is interested in.