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Facebook – Another Moral Dilemma

By Francis G. Coleman, CBIS (retired after 32 years)

A Pew Research study revealed that social media is king when it comes to the news. In the US, 72 percent of millennials read the news via their Facebook, Twitter feed, and other social networking sites. Only 21 percent of people aged 50+ do the same. The older generation predominantly consumes news via their television.

Unilever CMO Keith Weed warned in a speech in March 2018 “that trusted brands could not afford to be associated with social media platforms that fail to safeguard users’ privacy.” He also said, “Across the world, dramatic shifts are taking place in people’s trust, particularly in media. We are seeing a critical separation of how people trust social media and more ‘traditional’ media. In the US only less than a third of people now trust social media (30%), whilst almost two thirds trust traditional media (58%).”

Mark Zuckerberg - Courtesy Politico - GreenMoney Journal
Photo courtesy of Politico

In the fall of 2017, I wrote an article for GreenMoney suggesting that Facebook was in the midst of a moral dilemma, based on a business model that sustains itself by removing as many privacy barriers to access its members’ data as was possible, within the context of what was legal and what the market permitted. Shortly after that article, Facebook’s roof began to leak.

In March 2018, we became aware of a massive breach (80-90 million uses) of its privacy agreement, by Cambridge Analytica. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, spent quite a bit of time doing damage control, most notably before a Congressional Committee in the fall of 2019.

Shortly after that cycle of damage control, Zuckerberg appeared before a technology forum to discuss “Facebook News”, a now formal initiative to launch a “news” portal as part of its ecosystem. Facebook already enjoys the fact that it is a primary news source from it main feed. Now it has developed a “Facebook News” tab that is being tested in various markets.

And thus, we are now at the second saga of Facebook, an attempt to capitalize on the rise of social media as a primary news source for younger generations of Americans. The interesting thing is that they do not call themselves a news outlet, but a news ‘platform.’ That is a subtle but meaningful distinction as it relates to the issue of their responsibility for the news that finds it way onto its ‘platform’.

Here are some high level characteristics of the ‘news platform’ that are intriguing to me:

News will be optimized according to the infamous Facebook algorithm, which is a black box within a black box and not understood by many outside of Facebook.

Facebook will source its news from a variety of traditional sources and will pay some of those sources (distributors) for content. It is not clear how the payment system will work and whether those who are paid will have a preferred status for their news.

Facebook will cover Facebook. Their news will include direct news about Facebook. What’s the likelihood that this news will be negative? Many critics suggest they should refrain from being a source of news about themselves.

Facebook is loath to make judgments about the nature of certain political content (key difference between being an outlet and a platform), which is what leads to there being no or few filters applied to lies and deception, a continual problem for them.

Facebook’s Founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg has been clear that he is not likely to exercise any control over certain political speech. “Our policy is that we do not fact-check politicians’ speech. And the reason for that is that we believe that in a democracy it is important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying.”

So what does all this mean and why should it concern you and me? I mean this is Facebook, the place where we put the cute pictures of pets acting in adorable ways, or of our children being precocious at just the right moment, or even the fantastic food we’re having in this moment. Why can’t we just let Facebook be Facebook?

Well if Facebook just wanted to be Facebook, the human connection portal that enriches our social lives with friends and family, then that would be fine. But Facebook doesn’t just want to be that. Facebook wants to be the centerpiece of our lives, that which delivers everything we need: connections, news, products, ideas and thoughts. And it wants to do that on its own terms, constrained only by the limits of its algorithms.

Here are the concerns that we all should be paying attention to, as Facebook embarks on this new initiative:

• We may be too far down the road of the absolute politicization of news to turn back. But to suggest that any entity defining itself as a news organization IS a news organization and equal weighting their contribution to news content is a dangerous precedent. But that seems to be Facebook’s approach when it identifies Breitbart as a valid source of news to be shared, even conveying “preferred partner” status on the outlet.

• While it denies this fact, Facebook is a gatekeeper. It doesn’t want to be perceived as one, because it would then be required to make judgments about what gets our attention and what doesn’t. So Facebook and other social media platforms profess to be utilitarian conduits, simply providing access and letting us make decisions about whether what we get is worth it by the amount of time we spend with it or by our clicks on it. But Facebook and its peers ARE gatekeepers. The purpose of their algorithms is to rank information in a way that prioritizes its appropriateness to us based on its ranking of our preferences. That is gatekeeping.

• Facebook does not want to be a news outlet, because it does not want the responsibility of deciding what news appears and what doesn’t. Once it calls itself a new outlet and labels those involved as journalists, then it would have the responsibility of establishing some rigor around what it reports and how it reports. That is a responsibility Facebook doesn’t want; and why not? Because that puts it in the middle of the fight around what constitutes news. All Facebook wants is content; content they can monetize.

And so where do we go from here? It is clear that the marketplace is pushing back somewhat against Facebook in a number of ways. These are the ways that are most impactful:

• Employees of Facebook, in a letter sent to senior executives were clear: “Free speech and paid speech are not the same thing.” At a minimum, Facebook will have to act like a news outlet for this work. It cannot allow paid speech to be acceptable if it does not meet certain standards. Like a news outlet, it will have to start fact checking political speech, ads and other news, to regain a sense of credibility.

• Facebook will have to begin recognizing that news needs to come from reasonably credible sources and it has to do so in a way that does not have it take sides. In doing this, it means establishing criteria for this designation.

So another moral dilemma for Facebook. First was the erosion of privacy concerns for the purposes of monetization and now they are having to address their desire to monetize news on their platform.

Can anyone say MeWe?

 

Article by Francis G. Coleman, former Vice Chair at CBIS an investment advisory firm that provides investment services to the Catholic institutional market. After 32+ years at CBIS, Frank announced his retirement effective December 31, 2019. The views expressed here are his personal views.

Faith & Investing, Featured Articles, Impact Investing, Sustainable Business

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