Holtzman: Facebook’s identity crisis continues to endanger business of media

Rachel Holtzman, Op-Ed Contributor

On January 4, Mark Zuckerberg posted his personal challenge for the year: “fixing” Facebook. In his nine-paragraph post, he attempted to address problems of abuse that runs unchecked on the platform, anxiety about advertising algorithms and fears over technology centralization, which motivates Facebook to “take power from centralized systems and put it back into people’s hands.”

But it seems, according to Zuckerberg, the way to solve Facebook’s problems is to simply let Facebook be Facebook. Allow the platform to police itself, invest in new technology and continue to build upon its outsized share of money and resources — without any accountability for the problems it’s created.

2017 was a year of reckoning for Facebook, as public opinion brought the company’s board to task for issues ranging from fake news distribution and discriminatory ads, to its refusal to disclose personal information collected by the platform and a culture that actively resists any kind of government regulation. Facebook is financially successful, yet insular, resistant to making changes that may cost it control. With its unprecedented, practically unhindered influence on the Internet and state of global business, this has wide-ranging implications for everyone, from journalists to entrepreneurs. Unsure of its purpose and unwilling to cooperate, Facebook has lost journalists their viewership and profits, making the digital and political spheres increasingly toxic.

Publishers tried to turn Facebook clicks and views into revenue for their companies by “pivoting to video.” Beginning in 2016, news organizations laid off fact checkers and reporters, hired video producers and spent their time chasing clicks from Generation Z. Unfortunately, those clicks never went to the proper site and stayed on Facebook, giving the platform the largest cut. For new media, the results have been disastrous. When tech and gaming publisher Ziff Davis bought Mashable for $50 million — just 20 percent of its valuation during VC funding rounds in 2016 — it had to lay off 50 employees. Local news fared even worse, unable to generate the views or engagement it needs from Facebook in order to keep up. While BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti has shrugged off the disaster and pinned it solely on media companies, many publishers have said behind the scenes that attempts to work with Facebook almost always stall or fail.

Zuckerberg’s New Year’s post falls flat because instead of opening up, he makes the case that Facebook alone can fix it. However, Facebook’s Band-Aid solutions to revenue problems make clear that the company needs more transparency and collaboration.

Experiments from the Facebook Journalism Project such as Instant Articles, which were supposed to boost subscriptions to news sites, got lost in the video push. Publishers aren’t a monolith, but many suffered as a result of sudden tune-ups and changes to the news feed algorithm.

Last October, Facebook split news feeds in six countries — Bolivia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Serbia, Slovakia and Sri Lanka — into personal and professional sections. When newspapers in these countries saw their views dive by up to two thirds, they discovered that Facebook’s new algorithm sent their articles to the professional side, ensuring they wouldn’t be seen.

Ultimately, this is not a problem that can be smoothed over by a New Year’s resolutions post or a clever ad campaign. It requires a fundamental values shift at Facebook: putting the public good above dollars and cents. Last fall at an Axios conference, Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg stated that Facebook is a platform, not a media distributor or a public utility. It’s not necessarily wrong of her to say so: like Zuckerberg, Facebook has no idea where it stands in the fight to preserve journalism or serve the public good. However, it means that reporters covering stories in an ever-divided world may continue to fight against Facebook without ever seeing results.

Although Facebook’s dedication to innovation at all costs has allowed it to dominate Silicon Valley and everyday life, it must eventually confront the consequences of its failure to meaningfully support journalists. Until the company stops dragging its heels, it’s up to us to support fact-driven media and demand clear solutions.

Rachel Holtzman is a Medill senior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.