Member preview

Image Credit: Book Catalog/Creative Commons

Facebook Is A Media Company And It’s Time We Started Treating It Like One

Facebook’s been taking it on the chin in recent weeks, and rightly so. Its cavalier attitude towards its user data has been a sticking point for privacy advocates and consumer groups for years.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal—and the recent CubeYou revelation—following on the heels of the company’s half-hearted attempts to stem its “fake news” problems just re-enforced people’s belief that CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, was not just indifferent to privacy concerns, but tacitly approved of the promiscuous reselling and redistribution of our lives to, not even the highest bidder, but just about anyone who could use it for good or ill.

The media smells blood and is moving in on its quarry. Prior to Zuckerberg making his big Congressional debut on Tuesday, April 10, he made the rounds and test drove his “mea culpas” in the press and on his platform. As Europe implements privacy safeguards, not just on Facebook, but for the other tech giants like Google and Twitter, the drumbeat for regulating the leviathan grows stronger on U.S. shores.

But what part of Facebook would or should be regulated? Facebook is now the Swiss Army Knife of social media platforms: Instant messaging, email, travel guide, restaurant reviews, payments, product promotion, community center, photo studio, art gallery, broadcaster and publisher.

Everything Facebook does is driven by its consumption, analysis and redistribution of all the data we the users contribute, unwittingly or otherwise.

Facebook’s dissemination of fake news was a product of its ravenous thirst for personal data; its algorithms working overtime to quite literally give the people exactly what they wanted, whether true or not.

As Facebook ascended, the already fragile economic ecosystem of publishers slid faster into decline. First clipped by Craigslist, then gutted by search engine optimization, Facebook stepped in to offer mass distribution, while still taking the cream of the ad revenue in return for relatively paltry page views.

Facebook is indeed broken—when Zuckerberg coined the “move fast and break things” motto, I’m sure the Facebook revenue model wasn’t on top of his list of things to break. But as federal and state lawmakers, media critics and economic analysts attempt to define what those regulatory measures should be, they must first make the effort to define what Facebook truly is beyond what Zuckerberg wants the public, and regulators, to believe.

Facebook is a platform. When I hear this statement, it makes my blood boil. It buys into Facebook’s passive-aggressive PR push it has adhered to since it first courted and convinced news organizations and content creators to give their life’s work away for nothing at all or for mere pennies on the dollar.

Bullshit. Facebook is NOT a platform. In the context of Facebook, the word platform is now Orwellian; it offers the promise of opportunity for everyone it touches to have a voice, to connect and to share, but what it does is make people give up control of their lives at an often-unknowable expense.

Facebook is a Publisher. Make no mistake. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. (Or in this case, a Zuck.)

Facebook is a Media Company. The sooner Zuckerberg admits to that and the sooner Congress and consumers acknowledge it, the better.

According to The Atlantic, over a 12-month period in 2014, most major news organization, both legacy and digitally native, saw social media sites replace their sites as the main point of entry for the news consumer. “Traffic from home pages,” wrote Derek Thompson, “dropped significantly across many websites while social media’s share of clicks has more than doubled, according to a 2013 review of the BuzzFeed Partner Network, a conglomeration of popular sites including BuzzFeed, the New York Times, and Thought Catalog.”

Facebook makes money taking content—the creativity of almost every person or business on its “platform”—stripping it of its precious data—age, gender, sexuality, politics, religion, fears, doubts, what we love, what we hate—and monetizes it for the benefit of Facebook and Facebook alone.

That’s what media companies and publishers do. However, traditional media companies at least admit that’s what they’re doing up front. Whether it’s network television, cable, cinema chains, print newspapers and magazines or digitally native news and content websites, publishers sell their consumers identities to the highest bidders for the best revenue returns.

The difference between Facebook and traditional publishers? None.

Yet by repeatedly selling the idea that Facebook is nothing but a mere vessel, a virginal conduit, a platform for images and ideas that would never sully itself with something as mundane as actually “creating content” it has perpetrated one of the biggest frauds of the digital era.

For more than a century, the U.S. Federal Government has regulated new and emerging media. The Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Radio Commission and the Federal Communications Commission all grew out of the need to ensure that unfair business practices could be monitored and contained, to monitor for fraud and for the free exchange of ideas in a fair and open manner.

Not perfect, no, but the combination of government oversight and attempts by the media to regulate its own behavior, aided by strong libel and slander laws, helped give publishing legitimacy and allowed consumers, by virtue of transparency, to decide which news organizations and publications were legitimate or not.

Facebook’s fake news problem was not an issue for the company when it could be easily monetized. Facebook basically profited off sowing discontent and falsehoods while acting as a megaphone for the enemies of a civil society, whether domestic or foreign—all the while not claiming responsibility for the very content being published on its platform.

Push has come to shove for Zuckerberg and Facebook. It’s time for Congressional leaders, publishers, privacy groups and private citizens to demand Facebook be treated as any other news and media organization.

Implementing something akin to the European Union’s General Data Protection regulation (GDPR) would be a start. Like the Obama Administration’s earlier attempt, the Consumer Bill of Rights, the GDPR gives the consumer some degree of control over their personal data after it’s been collected by the likes of Facebook or Google.

Writing in the Irish Independent, Ardi Kolah, Executive Fellow and Director of the GDPR Transition Programme at Henley Business School concisely summarized the regulations:

“1. Lawfulness, fairness and transparency — personal data must be processed lawfully, fairly and in a transparent manner.
2. Purpose limitation — personal data must be collected for specified, explicit and legitimate purposes and not further processed in a manner that’s incompatible with those purposes (with exceptions for public interest, scientific, historical or statistical purposes).
3. Data minimization — personal data must be adequate, relevant and limited to what’s necessary in relation to purposes for which it is processed.
4. Accuracy — personal data must be accurate and where necessary, kept up-to-date. Inaccurate personal data should be corrected or deleted.
5. Retention — personal data should be kept in an identifiable format for no longer than is necessary (with exceptions for public interest, scientific, historical or statistical purposes).
6. Integrity and confidentiality — personal data should be kept secure.
7. Accountability — the data controller should be able to demonstrate and in some cases, verify compliance with the GDPR. Businesses and organizations should check that all policies, processes and procedures are in place and that this delivers the seven data protection principles.”

This is a start, but it’s only one part of the equation. Facebook needs to be treated as the media company that it is and fall under the guidelines and auspices of both the FTC and the FCC.

But will a wildly deregulated FTC or FCC under the current administration really do anything? In 2011 Facebook was reprimanded by the FTC for allowing personal data to be scraped even after its users had changed to more private protective settings. Sound familiar? That’s because we’re back here again with the Cambridge Analytica and CubeYou uproar.

In her recent, brilliant piece for WIRED, Zeynep Tufekci chronicled what the magazine called Zuckerberg’s “14-Year Apology tour”. Facebook’s legacy isn’t a more connected world, it’s a legacy of overstepping personal boundaries, feigning horror and regret and then begging for redemption. Data exploitation isn’t a bug, it’s Facebook’s dominant feature. Facebook is the abusive spouse of a world that’s having its #metoo moment.

It many ways, Facebook has turned into one of the legacy media organizations it helped destroy. Like Time-Warner in its multimedia heyday, Facebook publishes text and photo-based news and content (think Time-Life Publications). With Instagram, Facebook Stories, Facebook Live or any of its viral video stars, Facebook is now a broadcaster (like HBO, TBS, CNN). Towards the end of last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook was going to invest more than a billion dollars to create original programming.

Facebook is now a full-fledged media company and should be treated as such, with the possibility of Federal broadcasting licenses. Internally, Facebook could take a page from broadcast networks and have Standards & Practices office to monitor the quality of the news organization. (Not like its 2016 failed effort that had a bunch of freelance journalists half-heartedly editing Facebook’s older newsfeed.)

After 14 years of double-talk and back-sliding, maybe it is time for Zuckerberg to trade in his t-shirt and hoodie for a suit and tie and take a seat at the grown-up table. He runs one of the world’s largest media companies, and credibility, quality and integrity are the cornerstones on which many of the legacy media companies were built.

It’s time Zuckerberg stopped apologizing and take responsibility for the content his “platform” creates, curates and and disseminates. It’s time for Facebook to take responsibility for the problems it has caused on a global level.

That’s what legitimate media companies do.