I stopped listening in on Facebook’s quarterly earnings calls more than three years ago. As usual, that November day, the company was reporting huge revenue growth and obscene profits. It brought me up short when CEO Mark Zuckerberg opined that personal social shares — his example was a family video of trick-or-treaters — were superior material to “public content,” like news. Really?
Returning after a long absence last Wednesday for the latest on Facebook, I found that little has changed. Once again, revenue growth and profits — $11.2 billion for the last quarter of 2020, up more than 50% from the same period in 2019 — were astounding.
Trick-or-treating did not come up, but with slightly different wording Zuckerberg seemed again to be saying that he views political discourse as pollution in the otherwise pleasant stream of the social network’s feeds.
I mention this as context at a time when Facebook’s culpability for spreading conspiracy theories and allowing the Capitol insurrectionists to coordinate their plans are receiving sharp scrutiny. Plus there are again stirrings of antitrust action against Facebook and the big platform companies.
For years now, the News Media Alliance has had at the top of its agenda, as a lobbyist for newspapers, a proposal to let the industry negotiate collectively with Google and Facebook and get compensated for use of their content.
That strategy is complicated, though, if Zuckerberg would be just as happy to toss or bury not just the QAnon looniness but what any journalist would consider vigorous civic dialogue.
Here is some of what he said in the earnings conference call:
There are a lot of groups that we may not want to encourage people to join even if they don’t violate our policies. So for example, we stopped recommending civic and political groups in the U.S. ahead of the elections. And we’re continuing to fine-tune how this works, but now, we plan to keep civic and political groups out of recommendations for the long term and we plan to expand that policy globally. …
This is a continuation of work we’ve been doing for a while to turn down the temperature and discourage divisive conversation and communities. Along these same lines, we’re also currently considering steps that we can take to reduce the amount of political content in News Feed as well. We’re still working through exactly the best ways to do this. …
One of the top pieces of feedback that we are hearing from our community right now is that people don’t want politics and fighting to take over their experience on our services.
Zuckerberg offered some qualifiers. Users who want to join an argumentative political dialogue group can do so — just not with a Facebook recommendation. And, at least nominally, he and the company are all for freedom of expression.
But clearly, by declaring war on divisive discourse, Facebook has stepped onto a slippery slope.
Conservative groups have been crying censorship over the past week as Facebook’s ban on political advertising was applied to advocacy of a recall petition directed at California Gov. Gavin Newsom (a long shot in a heavily blue state).
Late last year, Facebook appointed a 20-person “oversight board,” an international group of lawyers, journalists and political leaders. The board is a sort of court of appeals, hearing complaints that Facebook has been overzealous in taking down and banning content. The company chose to make the board’s rulings binding.
Ominously as a check on its calls, in the first set of rulings, the board resolved four of five cases in favor of the complaining groups.
The company’s too-little-too-late actions against election conspiracy theorists and hate speech are drawing congressional attention. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has indicated she wants hearings on a broader antitrust initiative to curb the big platform company’s monopolistic behavior. The House, in a 450-page study led by Rep. David Cicilline, (D-R.I.) already made that case last fall.
Facebook and Google’s success in selling local digital advertising and harvesting data for ever more exact targeting of ad messages notoriously has had a devastating effect on the business model of news outlets. But the damage has not been quantified.
(Separately, the company sponsors the Facebook Journalism Project, a philanthropic initiative. Poynter’s fact-checking units have been among the beneficiaries of its grants.)
The Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general have their own antitrust actions. This week, a West Virginia newspaper company filed yet another related lawsuit.
The end game for news companies would be for them to get paid for content whether by government directive or in a preemptive concession by Google and Facebook. Such a negotiating framework has been approved in France and is under consideration in Australia, though the platform companies are deploying familiar pushback strategies of delaying and/or dropping news content (i.e. taking their marbles home).
I would love to see success — a flow of money, pocket change to Google and Facebook, that could stabilize the finances of news enterprises. But I continue to worry about a hardball carrot-and-stick stance.
Is that threatening to take away content that Zuckerberg and Facebook seem to not particularly want in the first place?