Facebook Versus the Media

Facebook found itself in the middle of another media controversy last week. Here’s the New York Times:

The image is iconic: A naked, 9-year-old girl fleeing napalm bombs during the Vietnam War, tears streaming down her face. The picture from 1972, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography, has since been used countless times to illustrate the horrors of modern warfare.

But for Facebook, the image of the girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, was one that violated its standards about nudity on the social network. So after a Norwegian author posted images about the terror of war with the photo to Facebook, the company removed it.

The move triggered a backlash over how Facebook was censoring images. When a Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten, cried foul over the takedown of the picture, thousands of people globally responded on Friday with an act of virtual civil disobedience by posting the image of Ms. Phuc on their Facebook pages and, in some cases, daring the company to act. Hours after the pushback, Facebook reinstated the photo across its site.

This, like many of Facebook’s recent run-ins with the media, has been like watching an old couple fight: they are nominally talking about the same episode, but in reality both are so wrapped up in their own issues and grievances that they are talking past each other.

Facebook Owns Facebook.com

Start with the media. Aftenposten Editor-in-chief Espen Egil Hansen wrote an open-letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that was, well, pretty amazing, and I’m not sure that’s a compliment:

Facebook has become a world-leading platform for spreading information, for debate and for social contact between persons. You have gained this position because you deserve it. But, dear Mark, you are the world’s most powerful editor. Even for a major player like Aftenposten, Facebook is hard to avoid. In fact we don’t really wish to avoid you, because you are offering us a great channel for distributing our content. We want to reach out with our journalism.

However, even though I am editor-in-chief of Norway’s largest newspaper, I have to realize that you are restricting my room for exercising my editorial responsibility. This is what you and your subordinates are doing in this case.

Actually, no, that is not what is happening at all. Aftenposten is not Facebook, and Facebook is not “Norway’s largest newspaper”. Accordingly, Facebook — and certainly not Mark Zuckerberg — did not take the photo down from Aftenposten.no. They did not block the print edition. They did not edit dear Espen. Rather, Facebook removed a post on Facebook.com, which Aftenposten does not own, and which Hansen admits in his own open letter is something freely offered to the newspaper, one that they take because it is “a great channel for distributing our content.”

Let me foreshadow what I will say later: Facebook screwed this up. But that doesn’t change the fact that Facebook.com is a private site, and while Aftenposten is more than happy to leverage Facebook for its own benefit that by no means suggests Aftenposten has a single iota of ownership over its page or anyone else’s.

The Freedom of the Internet

Unfortunately, Hansen’s letter gets worse:

The media have a responsibility to consider publication in every single case. This may be a heavy responsibility. Each editor must weigh the pros and cons. This right and duty, which all editors in the world have, should not be undermined by algorithms encoded in your office in California…

The least Facebook should do in order to be in harmony with its time is introduce geographically differentiated guidelines and rules for publication. Furthermore, Facebook should distinguish between editors and other Facebook-users. Editors cannot live with you, Mark, as a master editor.

I’ll be honest, this made me mad. Hansen oh-so-blithely presumes that he, simply by virtue of his job title, is entitled to special privileges on Facebook. But why, precisely, should that be the case? The entire premise of Facebook, indeed, the underpinning of the company’s success, is that it is a platform that can be used by every single person on earth. There are no gatekeepers, and certainly no outside editors. Demanding special treatment from Facebook because one controls a printing press is not only nonsensical it is downright antithetical to not just the premise of Facebook but the radical liberty afforded by the Internet. Hansen can write his open letter on aftenposten.no and I can say he’s being ridiculous on stratechery.com and there is not a damn thing anyone, including Mark Zuckerberg, can do about it.1

Make no mistake, I recognize the threats Facebook poses to discourse and politics; I’ve written about them explicitly. There are very real concerns that people are not being exposed to news that makes them uncomfortable, and Hansen is right that the photo in question is an example of exactly why making people feel uncomfortable is so important.

But it should also not be forgotten that the prison of engagement-driving news that people are locking themselves in is one of their own making: no one is forced to rely on Facebook for news, just as Aftenposten isn’t required to post its news on Facebook. And on the flipside, the freedom and reach afforded by the Internet remain so significant that the editor-in-chief of a newspaper I had never previously read can force the CEO of one of the most valuable companies in the world to accede to his demands by rousing worldwide outrage.

These two realities are inescapably intertwined, and as a writer who almost certainly would have never been given an inch of space in Aftenposten, I’ll stick with the Internet.

Facebook is Not a Media Company

One more rant, while I’m on a roll: journalists everywhere are using this episode to again make the case that Facebook is a media company. This piece by Peter Kafka was written before this photo controversy but is an excellent case-in-point (and, sigh, it is another open letter):

Dear Mark, We get it. We understand why you don’t want to call Facebook a media company. Your investors don’t want to invest in a media company, they want to invest in a technology company. Your best-and-brightest engineers? They don’t want to work at a media company. And we’re not even going to mention Trending Topicgate here, because that would be rude.

But here’s the deal. When you gather people’s attention, and sell that attention to advertisers, guess what? You’re a media company. And you’re really good at it. Really, really good. Billions of dollars a quarter good.

Let’s be clear: Facebook could call themselves a selfie-stick company and their valuation wouldn’t change an iota. As Kafka notes later in the article Facebook gets all their content for free, which is a pretty big deal.

Indeed, I think one of the (many) reasons the media is so flummoxed with Facebook is that the company has stolen their business model and hugely improved on it. Remember, the entire reason why the media was so successful was because they made massive fixed cost investments in things like printing presses, delivery trucks, wireless spectrum, etc. that gave them monopolies or at worst oligopolies on local attention and thus advertising. The only fly in the ointment was that actual content had to be created continuously, and that’s expensive.

Facebook, like all Internet companies, takes the leverage of fixed costs to an exponentially greater level and marries that with free content creation that is far more interesting to far more people than old media ever was, which naturally attracts advertisers. To put it in academic terms, the Internet has allowed Facebook to expand the efficient frontier of attention gathering and monetization, ruining most media companies’ business model.

In other words, had Kafka insisted that Facebook is an advertising company, just like media companies, I would nod in agreement. That advertising, though, doesn’t just run against journalism and other professionally-produced content: it runs against baby pictures, small businesses, cooking videos and everything in between. Facebook may be everything to the media, but the media is one of many types of content on Facebook.

In short, as long as Facebook doesn’t create content I think it’s a pretty big stretch to say they are a media company; it simply muddies the debate unnecessarily, and this dispute with Aftenposten is a perfect example of why being clear about the differences between a platform and a media company is important.

The Facebook-Media Disconnect

The disconnect in this debate reminds me of this picture:

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Ignore the fact that Facebook owns a VR company; the point is this: Facebook is, for better or worse, running a product that is predicated on showing people exactly what they want to see, all the way down to the individual. And while there is absolutely editorial bias in any algorithm, the challenge is indeed a technical one being worked out at a scale few can fully comprehend.

That Norwegian editor-in-chief, meanwhile, is still living in a world in which he and other self-appointed gatekeepers controlled the projector for the front of the room, and the facts of this particular case aside, it is awfully hard to avoid the conclusion that he and the rest of the media feel entitled to individuals’ headsets.

Facebook’s Mistake

Still, the facts of this case do matter: first off, quite obviously this photo should have never been censored, even if the initial flagging was understandable. What is really concerning, though, was the way Facebook refused to back down, not only continuing to censor the photo but actually barring the journalist who originally posted it from the platform for three days. Yes, this was some random Facebook staffer in Hamburg, but that’s the exact problem! No one at Facebook’s headquarters seems to care about this stuff unless it turns into a crisis, which means crises are only going to continue with potentially unwanted effects.

The truth is that Facebook may not be a media company, but users do read a lot of news there; by extension, the company may not have a monopoly in news distribution, but the impact of so many self-selecting Facebook as their primary news source has significant effects on society. And, as I’ve noted repeatedly, society and its representatives may very well strike back; this sort of stupidity via apathy will only hasten the reckoning.2

  1. It should be noted that this is exactly why the Peter Thiel-Gawker episode was so concerning. []
  2. And, I’d add, this is exactly why I think Facebook should have distanced itself from Thiel []