We will begin our editorial as the late David Carr ended one of his own, “the Facebook dog is loose, and he’s acting more friendly than hungry. But everyone knows that if the dog is big enough, he can lick you to death as well.”
Carr, in his column for the New York Times, “Facebook Offers Life Raft, but Publishers Are Wary,” was echoing the concerns of many media publishers about the behemoth that is Facebook — boasting 890 million daily active users as of December 2014 and the second-largest driver of Internet traffic.
Facebook is a massive resource for all media publishers worldwide. Sites like Buzzfeed and the New York Times are receiving fewer of their daily views internally, instead receiving clicks from articles shared to or by their social media followers — the New York Times reported a drop from approximately 160 million daily home page views in 2011 to 80 million in 2013 in an internal review.
Why would users feel the need to actively frequent more than a handful of media sites? Social media companies have long-boasted their ability to bring the daily diet of information to your figurative front door.
Facebook is such a force to be reckoned with that content drivers have moved away from search engine optimization and toward social media optimization over the past few years — dictating content based on what plays well on social media platforms. Hint: it is often bright, shiny and with a headline that reads something like “you would never believe what this duck did when it saw some bread.”
Facebook has proven proficient in this strategy, using targeted marketing more accurate than most drone strikes, newsfeeds tailored by democratic algorithms and well-designed user interfaces on both mobile and desktop.
Many publishers enjoy their relationship with Facebook — the platform drives views and views drive ad revenue — but their growing dependency on the platform is a protracted concern.
As many of the unnamed publishers said in Carr’s article, Facebook has their neck in a noose; they’ve just been gracious enough not to tighten it. Well, at least until now.
An ongoing problem for Facebook has been the news sites that its algorithms often link to. They are frequently clunky, ad-infested, click-baity Franken-sites that feast on clicks and appear high on newsfeeds. Their design is diametrically opposed to the suave, slick platform that Facebook aspires to be.
So how do you get around this issue? Stop relying on external sites to do their job and cut out that annoying middleman — begin hosting the content yourself. Facebook recently announced their intention to do just that with news content.
The New York Times reported last week what Carr predicted: Facebook is holding talks with half a dozen media companies about hosting news content natively on Facebook — a plan that the New York Times is amusingly a part of.
This furthers an internet-age monopoly.
Facebook has done something similar before by encouraging publishers to use their video platform instead of posting links to videos from their external sites. In addition, their algorithms prioritize content that uses their video player.
This move, first with video and now with news, turns them into a vampire of content — controlling the flow of news for monetary gain.
Of course, Facebook would give participating parties a slice of their revenue, which will undoubtedly boost bottom lines. This is also a boon to users in the short term, as it will be more user friendly and provide a more seamless route to a healthy news diet.
This is their power to control the flow of information.
Newspapers and networks like Fox News and MSNBC have made it their business to control the flow of information to indoctrinated viewers. Facebook is not quite so obviously noxious. The issue is about latent potential, not active malice.
Facebook is not going to indulge in Orwellian-type censorship — as a typical millennial organization, they know there is no benefit in these types of machinations. In all likelihood, they will not dictate the type of content that the cooperating news organizations will create — instead allying themselves with content producers that reflect the news diet consumed by their user base.
Our fear is less focused on the cooperating parties and more on those who refuse this deal. Some will see the loss of autonomy as not worth the increase in revenue. They will not want to join this new kingdom, even if the king seems benevolent.
So what happens to them? It seems likely, by looking at Facebook’s video strategy, that their algorithm will give preference to native news content — damaging, intentionally or not, other news medias’ ability to promote their content on Facebook.
Any good capitalist would ask why doesn’t Facebook have the right to privilege its own content?
Facebook currently plays too large of a role in the dissemination of news and the success or failure of media outlets. These changes eerily parallel the net neutrality controversy; Facebook has the ability to give priority to affiliated content and good reason to do so.
Will Facebook become an empire with every news organization bending to their knees, hailing its reign because their other choice is death? We can safely say no. Will they change their algorithm to a less-democratic form? Maybe not. The point is not what they will do, but what they can do.
Facebook’s increasing role in information has been a concern for some time. This recent development will hopefully raise a few more red flags and remind people just because a king is giving free bread to the ducks every Thursday does not mean he can’t decide whether they live or die.