Mark Zuckerberg rolled out Facebook’s highly touted news tab on Friday, saying he hopes it “honors and supports the contribution journalists make to our society.”
But the Facebook CEO’s paean to great journalism comes with a set of serious questions about whether Facebook as a whole can overcome accusations of spreading inaccurate news, anti-conservative bias and dealing irrevocable institutional damage to journalism.
Industry watchers say the news tab may do little to change the imbalance of power between the tech giant and media organizations. And critics fear that, much like Facebook’s signature platform itself, the tab will be plagued by misinformation and accusations of bias.
Here’s a look at the biggest pitfalls facing Facebook and the media organizations that have signed on with the social network:
Paying publishers probably won’t lower the antitrust heat
Facebook has struck deals with an undisclosed number of publishers to pay licensing fees ranging up to more than a million dollars a year to host their content, according to multiple reports. The agreements create a rare trend: cash flowing from a tech giant into the news industry. (Full disclosure: POLITICO is among the news partners.)
For years, leaders in the news industry have spoken out about how Facebook and Google’s dominance in digital advertising has starved media organizations of ad dollars, once a reliable source of revenue. And more recently, that dynamic has featured in separate antitrust investigations into the company at the state, federal and congressional levels.
But early signs suggest Facebook moving to open its pocketbook for the news industry isn’t likely to appease regulators and legislators probing the company.
“While it’s encouraging to see that Facebook is taking the threat they pose to news publishers seriously, it’s clear that that this is not nearly enough. It’s not even close,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), whose House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee is investigating possible anticompetitive conduct by Facebook and other tech giants.
Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the top Republican on House Judiciary, added, “We will have to see how it is executed and whether it addresses the antitrust issue that burdens community publications.”
Hal Singer, an antitrust scholar and a senior fellow at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy, said the cash infusion does little to change what he called an exploitative relationship between platforms like Facebook and the publishers it is now paying for content.
“The mere fact that you have a positive payment doesn’t mean that that payment reflects the true contributions of the news publishers,” said Singer. “I know that this headline does wonders for Facebook because it seems to put to bed the issue of exploitation of newsmakers, but to an economist, it does not.”
Facebook deciding who’s trustworthy is already inviting trouble
To power its news tab, Facebook has partnered with a wide array of reputable news outlets, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Condé Nast, ABC News and Bloomberg, among others, according to multiple reports.
But the company quickly came under fire Friday for tapping as one of the launch partners Breitbart, the famously pro-Trump right-wing news site. The decision reignited concerns that the company is unwilling to crack down on right-leaning sites that peddle misinformation out of fear of being accused of political bias.
“Should FB use their terrifying power as an intermediary to make Breitbart disappear? No. Should FB pay them and intentionally amplify their disinformation? Definitely no!” tweeted Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer.
The controversy over Breitbart’s inclusion reflects the risk of inflaming political tensions that Facebook is incurring by introducing the news feature. Launching without any conservative partners would have likely fueled anger from the right, as Republicans from President Donald Trump down accuse Facebook and other social media sites of unfairly stifling conservative viewpoints.
But bringing them into the fold invited rebukes from critics like Stamos and Angelo Carusone, president of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters, who in a statement called the move “yet another illustration of Mark Zuckerberg catering to white nationalists and right-wing extremists.”
Zuckerberg declined to address Facebook’s decision to include Breitbart during a New York launch event for the news tab on Friday, but the tech mogul stressed the importance of including differing political viewpoints in its pool of trusted publishers.
“I do think that part of having this be a trusted source is that it needs to have a diversity of, basically, views in there,” he said. “So I think you want to have content that represents different perspectives but that complies with the standards that we have for this.”
Suffering local news outlets may be iced out
Facebook said Friday the initial rollout will “showcase local original reporting by surfacing local publications from the largest major metro areas across the country,” including New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. And the company plans to eventually bring in smaller markets, drawing on an existing service it runs for identifying and promoting local news, “Today In.”
But putting major commercial hubs first could leave behind smaller cities and rural areas, whose press outlets have been hit hardest by Facebook and Google’s dual dominance over the American digital advertising market, said News Media Alliance CEO David Chavern.
“Most of the news ecosystem is left out, including most local publishers in the world, and that is the most stressed part of the news publishing business,” said Chavern, whose trade group represents roughly 2,000 newspapers across the U.S. and Canada.
News industry leaders have long linked the decline of local news in the digital age to the rise of Facebook and Google. The companies together account for a massive portion of the U.S. advertising market but until now haven’t shared the spoils with the news outlets that get linked on their social network and search engine, respectively.
Smaller publications also have less leverage to directly negotiate lucrative deals with Facebook, said Chavern, whose group has lobbied Congress to write an antitrust exemption into federal law to let publishers band together to collectively hash out deals with platforms.
“Even among the largest publishers, Facebook has vastly more leverage and power than any single news publisher,” he said.
Facebook is creating a new data trove — with new privacy risks
Facebook’s new feature will give it fresh access to information about what news items its users click on and how they consume journalism.
During Friday’s debut event, Zuckerberg was pressed on how data collected from the news platform might be used to fuel the company’s advertising business. But he deflected the question, saying simply that Facebook is not “selling data” to advertisers.
“We don’t give data to advertisers, so that’s not changing here,” he said.
But that argument is unlikely to satisfy critics in Washington, who have scrutinized Facebook’s data-sharing arrangements amid a string of online privacy mishaps, most prominently the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The controversies have helped whip up calls for Congress to set new restrictions on how tech companies collect, use and share consumers’ personal information online.
“There is a lack of trust now with how Facebook treats user data, and they have to be very careful knowing that that concern is there,” said Charlotte Slaiman, senior policy counsel for public interest group Public Knowledge.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine