Facebook Needs an Editor

No, I am not terribly concerned about the hoo-haa over kids in a conference room allegedly “censoring” right-wing “news” off of Facebook’s “trending” list.

  • First because I barely noticed that list, and when I did I found it useless. An Outbrain-like virus.
  • Second because haven’t we long speculated and complained that such trending lists — as on Twitter — are bullshit anyway, through both human and algorithmic prejudice?
  • Third because Gawker, Inc. is hardly one to lecture on journalistic standards.
  • Fourth, “news judgment,” as we like to call it in my trade, is all about putting thumbs on scales. So it’s hard for us to be too haughty.
  • And fifth, in this corrupted election season, couldn’t the rest of “news” media use just the sort of judgment that was allegedly exercised at Facebook? Damnit, where were the kids in the conference room at the black box of judgment and persuasion that is CNN who stood up and shouted: “Should we really continue to give too fucking much attention to — and make a self-fulfilling prophecy of — this dangerous, right-wing, demagogue-clown Trump just because we can pump our ratings and quarterly returns for our own greed rather than the good of the nation?” Take those kids and put them in charge of CNN! It could only improve.

Having said all that, I will however continue to argue that Facebook needs an editor. But not to edit.

Whether intentional or desired or not, Facebook does now play a critical role in the distribution of news. Thus I have contended that it has little choice but to grapple with its impact and the implications and ethics of the decisions it makes and products and procedures it creates. An editor — or perhaps an ethicist-in-chief — could help set the services standards and policies.

Now Facebook or you might well ask why an editor is needed to do that. Haven’t journalists bollocksed up their own industry, driving not only the business but trust in it into the ground? A fair criticism, surely. But I haven’t given up on resurrecting both the business and the quality of journalism — else why would I be teaching in a journalism school? I know many great editors who still think about their responsibility to society and the standards that govern them in every decision they oversee. That would be useful input at Facebook.

I’ve also argued that Facebook and Google need ranking journalists inside to act as bridges between the publishers and the platforms, promoting understanding, finding opportunities of mutual benefit — and for the benefit for the public, and informing the creation of new products to support quality, originality, and credibility. The best reason for them to do this is to hold off the regulatory spectre bearing down on them especially in Europe. As I write this, I am in Mexico City hoping and helping to bridge just such a divide and I have high optimism that what started as a war between the sides in Europe can turn into a fruitful relationship to build a better future for news in the Americas.

To be clear, just because Facebook and Google should have editors, that does not mean that they should create content. They shouldn’t. The platforms cannot find themselves in channel conflict with those they distribute or else war will break out again.

And anyway, “social media” is a misnomer. Facebook and Google are not media, even though they are taking over some of the functions that media used to think were their god-given right: production, distribution, sales, etc. Facebook and Google do not create and own content. They help others — anyone and everyone — to do that. That is precisely what makes them unmedia. They don’t mediate. They enable.

So an editor inside Facebook or Google would have nothing to edit: no reporters to hire, no curators to screw around with silly trending lists (or at least set a standard for transparency and make it clear that people inside the box are making judgments), no editors to decide what the public should know. No, an editor inside the platforms should become what an editor inside media companies should become: an advocate for the public we serve.

This would be the best of jobs (free lunch!) and the worst of jobs, for imagine the hub-bub that befalls this soul every time someone says Facebook or Google or any of the other platforms did things they didn’t like. The users of these platforms have a proper proprietary interest in them. By their use, they make them what they are. So woe be it to Facebook when its trending list doesn’t include a Breitbart link or its News Feed deletes a picture of breast-feeding. Someone needs to set, explain, justify, and adjust standards for what the platform does — not in the interests of the brand and the company but in the interests of the public. That’s what editors do, or are supposed to do. That’s why Facebook — and the others — need journalists.