The number of digital media outlets completely destroyed in the wake of Facebook's newsfeed purge earlier this year is unknown. We've experienced the devastating effects of their war on journalism at the Banter, and have been brought to our knees after they took roughly 70% of our traffic and ad revenue away earlier this year.
The effects have been so catastrophic that big media players like Vice and Buzzfeed have incurred huge losses. Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti has even floated the prospect of a mass merger between the media giants in order to gain leverage over Facebook and Google.
The scale of Facebook's destruction of the news media is so huge the company will almost certainly never release any meaningful data. Why?
Because despite the cuddly propaganda it has been engaging in recently promising to "bring us closer together" (largely by showing us outdated cat posts from friends and family, and nauseating PR videos), Facebook is a truly amoral, ruthlessly greedy company. It exists solely to enrich itself and by quite literally any means necessary.
The lengths Facebook has gone to in order to maintain its grip on power is truly extraordinary. The company has been subjected to three federal investigations after it was revealed personal information on up to 87 million users was handed over to right wing election data company Cambridge Analytica. And that is just the beginning of it. Recent exposés have revealed the company used its algorithm to destroy competitors, hired PR companies to spread anti-semitic smear campaigns to salvage its reputation, and almost single handedly wrecked journalism to make up for its colossal screw up in the 2016 election.
The company has shown not only a willingness to destroy the news industry, but the basis of civil society itself -- and all in the name of solidifying control over every aspect of our lives.
Facebook is the internet
As a combined force, Google and Facebook control 99% of the online advertising business. Facebook and Google are also responsible for 80% of referral traffic to all publishers online. Furthermore, 70 percent of Americans get their news from Facebook and Google. This means Facebook and Google aren't just on the internet, they are the internet.
With this extraordinary amount of power, Facebook has been uniquely irresponsible. It has betrayed not only the digital media industry by constantly switching algorithms that wipe out publishers' income in any given month, but it has also deceived its user base on a truly insane scale. Facebook has abused its users by selling their data, manipulated their perspective on the world by orchestrating what they see on their newsfeed, and created tools that, as former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya argued, are "ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”
“We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection because we get rewarded in these short-term signals – Hearts and Likes and Thumbs-Up," continued Palihapitiya.
"We conflate that with value and we conflate that with truth, and instead what it really is is fake brittle popularity that’s short-term, and leaves you even more vacant and empty.”
Empty and vacant, so that hopefully you will use Facebook even more.
How we got here
In early 2018, it became clear just how badly Facebook had screwed up in the 2016 election. By allowing Russian spammers to game their opaque algorithm, a mass disinformation campaign took hold in America, tilting the election towards Donald Trump.
By pretending not to be a media company, Facebook washed its hands of spam pages, hackers, and hate groups, and allowed them to grow unchecked during a critical time in American history. Study after study has confirmed the disturbing influence Russia was able to have on the US election through its nefarious use of Facebook, this despite the company being warned multiple times that this was happening, even by President Obama. As Matt Taibbi reported in Rolling Stone:
After Donald Trump was elected in 2016, Facebook — and Silicon Valley in general — faced a lot of heat. There was understandable panic that fake news — be it the work of Russian ad farms, or false stories spread about Barack Obama by Macedonian trolls, or insane conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton and “Pizzagate” — was having a destructive impact, responsible for everything from Brexit to the election of our Mad Hatter president.
Everyone from journalism professors to sociologists to former Facebook employees blamed the social network for rises in conspiracism, Russian meddling and hate speech. “News feed optimizes engagement,” said former Facebook designer Bobby Goodlatte. “Bullshit is highly engaging.”
Politicians began calling for increased regulation, but Facebook scoffed at the idea that it was responsible for Trump, or anything else.
“We are a tech company, not a media company,” Mark Zuckerberg said in 2016. A tech company that delivers media to hundreds of millions of Americans, controls much of the advertising on said media, and decides which said media you see.
After allowing spammers to infiltrate the election, the company's response has been to punish the news business, including reputable outlets that were doing their best to combat the overwhelming flow of fake news on the social network.
What happens next?
Facebook is doing its best to cover its tracks in the wake of this huge breach of public trust and destruction of the news business, but it isn't doing nearly enough. In fact, it is likely making things worse. The company's strategy appears to be as follows:
1. Weed out bad actors by destroying all small publishers (and some big ones). By cutting off their audiences and ad revenue Facebook can ensure only giant corporate conglomerates survive with viable business models.
2. Pretend to care about users by posting propaganda videos and claiming they didn't know any of the abuses were happening.
3. Wait till everything calms down, and in the meantime figure out a new way of extracting money from users.
Facebook pulled out of the news business leaving publishers with next to no alternatives. The company can sustain the losses given they are worth hundreds of billions of dollars and pump money into PR campaigns to make it appear they are taking action.
Of course, they won't do anything meaningful, because the company simply doesn't care. As a report in the Guardian this week outlined, the fact checkers Facebook brought in to ostensibly "fix" their fake news problem are ending their partnership with the social network. Why? Because Facebook was never serious about it in the first place:
Current and former Facebook fact-checkers told the Guardian that the tech platform’s collaboration with outside reporters has produced minimal results and that they’ve lost trust in Facebook, which has repeatedly refused to release meaningful data about the impacts of their work. Some said Facebook’s hiring of a PR firm that used an antisemitic narrative to discredit critics – fueling the same kind of propaganda fact-checkers regularly debunk – should be a deal-breaker.
“They’ve essentially used us for crisis PR,” said Brooke Binkowski, former managing editor of Snopes, a fact-checking site that has partnered with Facebook for two years. “They’re not taking anything seriously. They are more interested in making themselves look good and passing the buck … They clearly don’t care.”
The effect this is having on society as a whole cannot be underestimated. The news industry is vital for the survival of democracy, and without money, there simply won't be one. Rarely has there been a single company responsible for this type of existential threat to the fabric of civil society. But now there is, and there doesn't appear to be any way to stop it.
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