Facebook is great for checking up on friends and receiving birthday reminders. But the recent addition of a news tab is bad for users and the journalism industry, as it places more power in the hands of a tech giant, while taking away power from media organizations and consumers.
With its news tab, which launched Oct. 25, Facebook has greater control over what news content users see and what publishers appear on users’ feeds.
Although Facebook claimed in a company statement that it released this feature because journalism “plays a critical role in our democracy,” it’s more likely that CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants to try to beat Twitter at its own game: polarizing users by distributing selective information.
People share news stories on Facebook all the time. The problem with the news-tab feature, however, is that people could begin to use Facebook as their primary or even their only source of news. With the feature, Facebook has consolidated social updates with news stories from hand-picked outlets, which makes for a hazardous mix.
Facebook now pays an undisclosed number of publishers licensing fees of $1 million or more a year. This creates a new layer of tension between the business and news sides of media companies where cash is flowing from big tech to the news industry.
It also allows Facebook to decide what outlets are trustworthy.
Facebook has already partnered with the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, ABC News, and Bloomberg News – all of which write for a left-leaning audience. The more the Times and other large publications cater to Facebook users, the more money these outlets can make. Of course, publishers should satisfy the desires of their readers. But they don’t need to sacrifice their journalistic integrity to do so.
In recent years, conservative commentators and journalists have accused Facebook of spreading inaccurate news and having an anti-conservative bias. For these reasons, Zuckerberg met with with many conservative journalists and commentators like Tucker Carlson, Matthew Continetti, Hugh Hewitt, Ben Shapiro, and Byron York prior to launching the news tab in order to design a program that wouldn’t exclude right-wing views.
Consequently, Facebook has disclosed to the public that it chose to partner with one right-wing outlet, for the time being. Of all the right-leaning news outlets, Facebook chose Breitbart, the pro-Trump news site many conservatives don’t take seriously because of its support for extreme right-wing thinking and association with conspiracy theorists, like Alex Jones.
Although a team of journalists will select “today’s stories,” algorithms will determine which of those news stories pop up on a user’s feed. It’s possible that a story from Breitbart will never appear on a liberal’s feed. If it does, however, the liberal will see only the most extreme form of right-wing thinking and assume that everyone on the perceived-right thinks that way.
The news tab will have five key features according to Facebook: today’s stories, personalization, top sections, your subscriptions, and controls. Each feature holds the key to more disinformation.
Due to the profit-driven nature of businesses, it’s likely that the team of journalists choosing “today’s stories” will choose popular stories from left-leaning media outlets that will earn Facebook the most money per click.
Earning money isn’t a bad thing — except when it drives political agendas of biased journalists.
The “personalization” feature is “based on the news you read, share and follow.” But what Facebook should have said is that this will prevent users from seeing anything that might challenge the way they understand the world. “We want new forms of journalism in the digital age, including individual, independent journalism, to flourish. So we will continue to expand the algorithmic selection of stories driving the majority of Facebook News,” said Campbell Brown, Facebook’s vice president of global news partnerships, and Mona Sarantakos, product manager for Facebook News, in a company statement.
Finally, the “controls” feature allows users to “hide articles, topics and publishers you don’t want to see.” Similar to Twitter, Facebook gives users the ability to reject certain stories or news outlets. Although the news tab aims to help users explore “a wider range of their news interests,” this feature reduces the variety in stories people can experience. Liberals can block Fox News and conservatives can block CNN.
Facebook may think it’s doing everybody a favor by combining relationship statuses with the latest update on the impeachment inquiry. The reality is that Facebook is meddling with consumers’ access to news stories, contributing to the infection of misinformation across America.
Julia Mullins is a junior studying politics and the City News editor for The Collegian.