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The week of May 3, 2015
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Facebook’s weird state of denial about news

By George Brock

Andy Mitchell, Facebook’s director of news and global media partnerships, arrived at the (superb) International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, in early April to speak about news on Facebook. Thirty percent of American adults get their news via Facebook (27 percent in the U.K.); 88 percent of millennials in the U.S. do so (71 percent in Italy). Each month, 1.4 billion people use Facebook. That makes Mitchell one of the most—if not the most—powerful news distributors on the planet.

And what Mitchell had to say was straightforward in most ways (full video here) and extremely odd in one important omission.

Facebook wants to improve the “experience” (this word cropped up a lot) of people getting their news on mobile to improve. Links to clunky news sites load slowly, and Facebook is talking to major sites (such as the New York Times and BuzzFeed) about embedding their journalism directly in Facebook. Every statistic underlines how much people like getting their news on Facebook.

This was all fascinating, but there wasn’t any mention of how Facebook sees and handles its role as a news gatekeeper, influencing both the detail and flow of what people see. The issue didn’t come up right till the end when a Scandinavian questioner asked Mitchell about instances of Facebook cutting out material from the news linked from his organization and an Italian student followed up. Mitchell batted both questions away without addressing either directly.

Facebook is not, and knows quite well it is not, a neutral machine passing on news.

I then asked Mitchell (it’s at 54:36 here) whether he thought Facebook was in any way accountable to its community for the integrity of its News Feed. Mitchell, by now looking pretty pissed off, repeated that Facebook wanted people to have a “great experience,” that the feed gives them “what they’re interested in” and that Facebook’s feed should be “complementary” to other news sources. In short, he didn’t begin to answer the question.

For the senior news guy with such gatekeeper and distribution power to evade these questions is condescending and dishonest. Facebook is not, and knows quite well it is not, a neutral machine passing on news. Its algorithm chooses what people see, it has “community standards” that material must meet, and it has to operate within the laws of many countries.

The claim that Facebook doesn’t think about journalism has to be false. And, at least in the long run, it won’t work; in the end these issues have to faced. Facebook is a private sector company that has grown and made billions by very successfully keeping more people on its site for longer and longer. I can imagine that any suggestion that there are responsibilities that distract from that mission must seem like a nuisance.

Google once claimed something similar. Its executives would sit in newspaper offices and claim, with perfectly straight faces, that Google was not a media company. As this stance gradually looked more and more absurd, Google grew up and began to discuss its own power in the media.

The claim that Facebook doesn’t think about journalism has to be false.

It was difficult to pass a day in Perugia without being reminded of how Facebook is making (usually via its algorithms) news decisions every hour. Someone reminded me of the survey in the U.S. that showed large percentages of respondents quite unaware that Facebook has an adjustable formula that determines what their News Feed shows. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen mentioned in a presentation the disagreements that temporarily took news from the Danish media company Berlinske off Facebook (at issue was a picture of some hippies in the 1960s frolicking nude in the sea). There was another row in Denmark when Facebook objected to a picture of Michelangelo’s (also nude) statue of David. An editor for the Turkish daily Milliyet reminded me that Facebook has strict rules about how Kurdish flags are seen on its feed in Turkey.

I’m hardly the first person to be struck by the weird attitude Facebook presents. I reread an excellent post by Jay Rosen on this theme. And there are wider discussions of the responsibilities of the search and social giants by Martin Moore and Emily Bell.

All of this convinced me that Facebook’s state of denial will have to end, sooner or later.

George Brock is a commentator and professor of journalism at City University London. He is the author of Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age. You can follow him on Twitter.

A version of this article was originally published on Brock’s site. For more commentary on Facebook’s news handling, see Jay Rosen’s “Facebook please stop with this” and Brock’s interview with Enrico Bergamini.

Photo via Lars Plougmann/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed