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Zuckerberg in denial about Facebook’s media company status

Facebook’s refusal to see itself as a media company speaks to broader issues about how the company is becoming a traditionally diversified conglomerate.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg admitted this weekend that “there is more we can do” about the controversial spread of ‘fake news’ during the US presidential campaign. He still challenges the idea that the slew of fictitious cyberslurry that polluted various members’ feeds had any real influence on the result, but it’s a start.

However, Zuckerberg is sticking to his position that neither Facebook nor social media generally has the same editorial responsibilities as mainstream media in terms of what is promoted on a site – in Facebook’s case, it’s via the News Feed.

It’s not surprising that I disagree strongly here as a professional journalist who works for a number of outlets that apply broadly identical standards for accuracy and ethics. More to the point however, as the Pew Research Centre has noted, 61 per cent of millennial Americans get their news primarily from Facebook, and 66 per cent of its members use the site for at least part of their daily consumption. Surely, such reach and influence do imply a considerable responsibility to more than just us hacks.

My point here, though, is that in addressing the ‘fake news’ issue – and particularly in the comments section below his original post – Zuckerberg has now undermined his own argument. He has done so in a way that not only once again raises the question of Facebook as a like-it-or-not media company, but also how it generally presents itself to the world.

In answer to one commentator, Zuckerberg wrote this specifically:

“News and media are not the primary things people do on Facebook, so I find it odd when people insist we call ourselves a news or media company in order to acknowledge its importance. We are also serious about building software for companies, but we don’t call ourselves an enterprise software company. And we are serious about building planes to beam Internet access, but we don't call ourselves an aerospace company. We care deeply about all these things. We are a technology company because the main thing we do across many products is engineer and build technology to enable all these things.”

Reading that, some of you may already see where I’m going to take this.

From Zuckerberg’s point of view, he is describing ‘a technology company’, and to some degree that is fair enough. Yet it is equally fair to say that he is describing a Facebook evolving from its original base in social media to become an increasingly diversified conglomerate.

The progress of its development is actually fairly traditional. It is adding competences around its original platform that are taking it into a number of different industries. They may be associated with its primary social media ambitions, but they are different, and each has its own social and regulatory requirements.

Facebook is not alone in following this model among corporations that have successfully evolved beyond what we once called ‘Web 2.0’. Amazon and Netflix have become major investors in content. Google has moved into areas such as home automation and automotive. Alibaba is reckoned to now be one of the world’s leading investors in robotics. And so on.

Decades ago, industrial giants such as General Electric (GE) grew in very similar ways. There is nothing new in this, nor is it something we should be afraid of. It is simply one of the common dynamics seen at the top-end of a capitalist system.

What we should fear – and this applies more widely than whether Facebook is willing to accept its role as a leading media company – is when Zuckerberg’s kind of rhetoric is used to rewrite the rules, customs and core practices of any business into which a powerful conglomerate expands. Disrupt such businesses, yes – that is the heart of innovation. But not to the degree that you ignore the responsibilities that will always be within them.

Certainly Facebook’s industrial precursors did come to understand and accept this. In one particularly germane example, consider again the case of GE.

By various twisting routes over its history, it came to be the owner of US television network NBC. It exited that business in 2011, but until then, GE was the ultimate owner of some of America’s largest newsgathering and current affairs outlets stretching across not only terrestrial TV, but also cable and online news service with MSNBC, founded ironically with Microsoft.

Notwithstanding an extensive amount of left-leaning commentary within the MSNBC section, GE still expected NBC to apply appropriate editorial standards to all of these operations. At the time, GE actually made most of its money from financial services, but that did not lead it to deny or negate the fact that it was in the media business.

I can see perfectly decent reasons why Zuckerberg wants us to view Facebook as different from the multinationals of yore. There are some big structural and technological differences. Yet some things remain constant. Mark, you are an editor, as well as an aviator, coder and even virtual reality maven – though perhaps you should recruit a few people with a bit more experience.

In other words, stop trying to fake it. We’ve been here before and the evidence is not on your side. You've told us as much yourself.

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