It’s safe to say the question of Mark Zuckerberg’s big baby, and its role as a news source, is almost as old as the social network itself. Almost.
Facebook’s relationship with journalism and journalists has been fraught with problems since the two first met in cyber space and realised that they could probably do with trying to work with one another. On the one hand, social media has facilitated citizen journalism and increased the pluralisation of news, assisting the rise in popularity of titles that don’t pay writers, making it very hard for publications that do pay contributing scribes to remain competitive, because it provides access to many more potential readers than if a website could only be found via Google search- organic sharing being the operative word.
At the same time, Facebook is a source of leads for journalists who are looking for breaking news; people on the ground post videos and pictures. It’s perhaps not as highly regarded for this as Twitter amongst reporters, but is essential nonetheless.
Meanwhile, established news brands have seen their readership and viewing figures skyrocket after taking Facebook seriously to reach new audiences. Just look at this article on The Drum, where the editor of Channel 4 News discusses going from comparative international obscurity to 2billion views in 2016 alone, largely thanks to exclusives from Syria the broadcaster shared on Facebook.
The relationship becomes more complicated still when you consider the way Facebook works in today’s landscape. Instant Articles, for example, allow people to access published stories on other websites, without their browser leaving Facebook. The result is they are far less likely to continue to other stories on the same news site than if they had arrived at the first story directly- chances are they will close the screen down and return to Facebook. Publishers are also wary that this reduces the control they have over ads placed next to articles, and in the future Facebook could begin asking for bigger shares of ad profits.
Nevertheless, public response to Instant Articles has been almost entirely positive- faster load times leading to more hits for the page.
The Drum article referenced above also touches on responsibility, and this is where the final straw hits the camel’s back in terms of your ability to truly gauge what’s going on with Facebook and journalism. Facebook has repeatedly stated its position is a platform for other news agencies, not a news agency in itself, yet the proliferation of fake news (which we reported on last month) has been aided by Facebook. Channel 4’s videos from Syria, for example, were frequently stolen from Facebook, had alternative facts, subtitles and locations applied, and reshared with the intention of misleading. So whose job is it to stop that practice?
Last month Facebook announced its Journalism Project, which outlines a number of different proposals and plans. Some of the points are very much designed from a business, rather than moral standpoint. Collaborative development of news products, for example, work to exploit emerging business models, and the support of local news networks. However, there are other areas that are a little, err, grey-er.
Facebook is now conducting e-learning courses on the use of tools for journalists, and has already been running newsroom training for some time. It is now a member of the First Draft Partner Network, designed to guide people on ethics and standards when posting eyewitness content. It is also working to improve ‘news literacy’ with Arizona University, and the News Literacy Project, so expect to see an influx of public service advertisements designed to raise awareness about how people should take the news in very soon.
This feeds into a final point about curbing news hoaxes, and this is something that’s vital for the future of journalism, but also for the future of PR- without a reliable and trusted press, brands will struggle when it comes to effective storytelling, as our MD, Rick Guttridge, waxed lyrical on last month- Fake news is bad for business, here’s why. By collaborating with a third party fact checking service, and looking to disrupt financial incentives for fake news sites, Facebook hopes to reverse the emerging trend that has all of us, at times, guessing whether a new source can be believed.
Fact Check made this video at the end of last year to guide people.
All of this sounds good, but one thing we haven’t seen is a promise to address the financial imbalance between Facebook itself and news media. As per The Drum’s interview with the C4 News editor we have now referenced three times in this post alone, considering how much traffic and engagement those Syrian videos brought to Facebook, the financial gain on the side of the agency that funded and created those reports was negligible. To quote:
“A proper news organisation can’t earn enough money off Facebook to wash its face, it’s a huge distortion.”
In order for the Facebook Journalism Project to truly assist an industry that is currently battling both questions over legitimacy and dwindling resources, the issue of revenue really does need to be addressed for the benefit of both social network (the continued influx of quality, fact-checked information), and the creators of all the content that is rapidly becoming a key reason people spend so much time on Facebook in the first place.