Facebook Has All the Power

What are the implications of this revelations for content producers—we know Facebook manipulates the presentation of content in news feeds and there is the possibility of buying influential positions in news feeds by 'boosting content' - but does this level of experimentation indicate the prospect of a further undermining of audience-driven news priorities and traditional news values?

The right way to think about it is a loss of power—for news producers and their priorities. As I said, Facebook thinks it knows better than I do what "my" 180,000 subscribers should get from me. Of course it was their algorithm and their choices that helped me get those 180,000 subscribers to my public account. But this just underlines the point: they have all the power. If I want some of it back I have to pay money for "reach." That's cynical, on their part, which is why I use the platform cynically.

What are the long-term implications of these power statements? And how should Facebook change in response?

Forgive a slight tangent. In the 1960s in the U.S. it was not unusual for metro newspapers to have 80 percent market share or more. By the 1990s it was under 50 percent in some places. But newspapers kept raising their rates for advertisers, who had to pay more to reach less of the market. The logic was: where else are they going to go? Well, eventually an answer to that question emerged—Google, Facebook—and newspapers discovered how much loyalty they had built up among advertisers.

Facebook has "where else are they going to go?" logic now. And they have good reason for this confidence. (It's called network effects.) But "where else are they going to go?" is a long way from trust and loyalty. It is less a durable business model than a statement of power. 

In my piece for the Washington Post on these events, I distinguished between the "thin" legitimacy that Facebook operates under and the "thick" legitimacy that the university requires to be the institution it was always supposed to be. (Both are distinct from il-legitimacy.) News organizations should learn to make this distinction more often. Normal PR exists to muddle it. Which is why you don't hand a research crisis over to university PR people.

I think Facebook too should be thinking about "thick" vs. "thin" legitimacy, but I see no sign of that and do not expect it to happen soon. Some would even argue that a public company in the U.S. cannot afford "thick" legitimacy. I think that's wrong but plenty of corporate lawyers and CEOs would disagree with me.

Here's how we will know when the situation is changing. The first Internet company that succeeds big—like, culturally big—with terms-of-service that are readable, understandable, equitable, and humane will signal a shift. We are not there yet.

Finally, some commentators have questioned the practice of A/B headline testing in the aftermath of this scandal—is there a clear connection?

The connection to me is that both are forms of behaviourism. Behaviourism is a view of human beings in which, as Hannah Arendt said, they are reduced to the level of a conditioned and "behaving" animal—an animal that responds to these stimuli but not those. This is why a popular shorthand for Facebook's study was that users were being treated as lab rats.

One of the things that disturbed me about the episode was a milieu of casual behaviourism among Facebook workers, who don't seem aware that this view of other people is enormously reductive. Also, it has effects on the viewers themselves.

Journalism is supposed to be about informing people so they can understand the world and take action when necessary. Action and behaviour are not the same thing at all. One is a conscious choice, the other a human tendency. There's a tension, then, between commercial behaviourism, which may be deeply functional in some ways for the news industry, and informing people as citizens capable of understanding their world well enough to improve it, which is the deepest purpose of journalism. A/B testing merely highlights this tension.

This article was first published by the World Editors Forum.

Presented by

Julie Posetti is a research fellow at the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. She teaches journalism at the University of Wollongong in Australia.

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