By Angilee Shah, independent journalist and media entrepreneur
There is no malice in asking news organizations to “meet people where they are” or go where their communities go to build an audience.
Except often that place is Facebook. When news organizations encourage people to go to a Facebook page or group to interact with them, what kind of habits do they build? Consumers might initially interact with the newsroom, but chances are good that they spend much more time with Facebook’s sticky algorithm-driven content. And much of THAT information, the posts that do not come from the trusted news outlet, it turns out, is false.
(Image description: A notebook with the Facebook logo on the cover by Sarah Marshall (CC by 2.0)
Here’s an example: The advocacy organization Avaaz has done a study of health information on Facebook during the pandemic. “Global health misinformation spreading networks spanning at least five countries generated an estimated 3.8 billion views on Facebook in the last year,” they found. The peak of that misinformation came in April, just as the pandemic was escalating and having true information was most crucial. In Facebook’s algorithmic environment, these false posts got multiple times more views than posts by leading health institutions. And Facebook only flagged 16 percent of them in its internal effort to fight disinformation.
What does this mean? It indicates that forces of misinformation are using Facebook’s (flawed) algorithm much better than those that are offering facts — they have no restraints and thus can change their strategies to fit the algorithm’s desires. When we as journalists offer our content on Facebook, chances are high that we are sending people into a space that will overwhelmingly give our communities false information — no matter how good the content we put out ourselves.
Listen: Fadi Quran talks about the Avaaz Facebook study on On the Media.
Nicolás Medina Mora writes in n+1 (in a broader story about immigration that is worth reading in its entirety and then reading again, aloud, to a loved one) about how this plays out in the reporting process:
“I had told him and his guardian that I intended to write an article based on our conversations, but my disclosure, though accurate in a strict sense, obscured the nature of my intentions. What I should have said was that I intended to repackage the boy’s trauma into a digestible narrative I hoped would capture the attention of some hundred thousand internet users, who would then surrender valuable information about themselves to one or another technology baron, who would then reward the website for which I worked with a better starting position in the algorithmic rat race, which would allow the website’s owners to convince a handful of investors to keep funding the company, which in turn would allow my editors to pay me a salary, earn me accolades, and, eventually, if all went well, convince the US government that I deserved to live and work in this country. The boy was for me not an end but a means, and lately thoughts of that nature had been bothering me often enough that I wondered whether I shouldn’t do something else with my life.”
When media funders and foundations with outsized influence on the news outlets that depend on our calculations encourage or reward organizations building audiences on market-driven, VC-seeking, IPO-launching tech platforms, are we truly helping to improve the news environment? What about when we recommend that organizations seek resources from Facebook or Google journalism programs?
A working paper about Google and Facebook’s effect on local news and communities by Pat Garofolo recently published by the American Economic Liberties Project lays it out plainly. Garofolo describes a local news “cataclysm” that “occurred because Google and Facebook monopolized the digital ad market, hoovering up the revenue that used to support the journalism ecosystem.” Here are the cold numbers:
Currently, Google and Facebook receive 60 percent of digital ad revenue. Amazon and several other companies account for another 15 percent. That means every news publication in the country is fighting over, at best, 25 percent of the available ad revenue. In recent years, Google and Facebook have gained nearly all of the digital ad growth.
That these companies are now offering some funds to entrepreneurship and grantmaking programs in journalism is small in comparison to the amount of profit they’ve gained in creating platforms that, often, spread misinformation and eclipse the revenue potential of the actual news content on which they depend.
So here’s the conversation starter: Should we be advising the organizations we work with to seek money and training from Google and Facebook? Should we expect them to go out of their way to format and create content that will be compelling on big-money tech platforms?
Shah’s writing from last month, on a new vocabulary for media funders, was featured in Borealis Philanthropy’s Story Letter newsletter. Here’s a version you can share with your colleagues: Think of these investments and grants as reconstruction and reparations.