Facebook Finally Blinks

Mark Zuckerberg’s radical decision to reinvent the News Feed is a plea for mercy.

Mark Zuckerberg
Stephen Lam / Reuters

Mark Zuckerberg moved fast and broke shit, lots of shit.

He broke journalism, by radically deflating the value of the digital advertising on which the livelihood of media now depends; he broke the reading habits of his users, the lab rats in his grand experiment, by constantly manipulating them and feeding them an endless stream of dreck to jack up their “engagement” with his site; and in a way, he broke American democracy, by sitting on his hands as a foreign adversary exploited his platform and by creating the world’s most efficient vehicle for spreading political lies and agitprop. Now, with the announcement that he’s largely stripping the News Feed of news, he’s breaking his own site, too.

This radical overhaul of Facebook is a concession of defeat. At some point in Facebook’s rise—its march past the 2-billion-user mark—the realization dawned: Facebook is now the most powerful publisher in the business, the mother of all media gatekeepers. Initially, that realization dawned on everybody except apparently Facebook itself, perhaps a willed state of ignorance. The company described its product as a mere “tool,” and protested that it played no role in organizing the news that it broadcasts, as if it weren’t imposing its values on the News Feed, as if is weren’t providing a sense of hierarchy to the mass of posts it splays. That description, which trumpeted Facebook’s passivity and neutrality, could never really sustain close scrutiny. And after the election of Donald Trump, Facebook has received no end of that.

But Mark Zuckerberg has always touted his own agility, his ability to overhaul his site when epiphany strikes. In the aftermath of election, in the face of so much biting criticism, Facebook began to describe itself quite differently. The company finally acted as if it might assume the responsibilities implied by its power—it feinted as if it would soon train its algorithms to make strong editorial judgments about the news, about the credibility of the stories it broadcast. It would begin sorting the fake stuff from the objective reality.

In a way, this was a satisfying change in policy. Fake news is a genuine scourge, so it made sense for Facebook to substantively address it. But there was an obvious danger in Facebook imitating a traditional media company. By design, Facebook published the opinions of its users. And it’s uncomfortable to make objective judgments about opinion. No Facebook user wants to believe that they are sharing fake news. And presumably Facebook has no interest in telling its loyal users that their political preferences are founded in lies and garbage assumptions.

There was a further wrinkle to Facebook’s problem. The company describes its mission as connecting the world. As it happens, the world includes many authoritarian governments. If the company began to cull opinions, if it began to excise content on the basis of its truthfulness, then it would lose its best defense against dictatorial pressure. Governments would want Facebook to shut down dangerous lines of conversation. But Facebook has resisted those pressures, by striking its nonjudgmental pose. A shift in policy, the assumption of hefty new responsibilities, would provide an opportunity for the worst rulers in the world to come begging Facebook to eliminate the “lies” spread by dissidents.

There’s no undoing the damage that Facebook has caused over the last few years. Still, Mark Zuckerberg has made a noble decision, to carry his company back toward its roots as a true “social network,” largely stripped of journalism and political propaganda. Facebook will be back primarily in the business of making us feel terrible about the inferiority of our vacations, the relative mediocrity of our children, teasing us into sharing more of our private selves. Still, the social tolls of Facebook-induced status anxiety are far less than political tolls of Facebook-reinforced filter bubbles. So, credit to Mark Zuckerberg. He’s made a decision that might adversely impact his revenue for the sake of the common good. And even if it’s still not possible to laud him as a great humanitarian, he deserves approbation for displaying sufficient humility and self-awareness to back down and back away.

Zuckerberg will find it painful that he won’t get the full praise he might believe that he deserves. During the coming days, he will find himself on the receiving end of media hostility. There will be many in media who will bemoan the capriciousness of his decision. And there will be some justice in their complaints.

Facebook has encouraged media to become dependent on it. When Facebook asked media to create Instant Articles, it submitted. When Facebook encouraged media to throw resources behind the production of short videos, media obeyed and shuffled precious editorial dollars into the pursuit. And now after monkeying with media, after exploiting media’s abject reliance on it, Facebook has essentially told media to kiss off. By downgrading journalism in his News Feed, Zuckerberg is choking off a stream of traffic, and, therefore, choking off a stream of revenue.

Media will feel the sting, but it’s for the best. And on some level, media knows it. The hostile coverage of Silicon Valley these past few months reflects a certain psychodrama. For years, media has resented its dependence on Facebook and Google, yet it suppressed any vitriolic sentiments. These companies carried such cultural prestige, and media felt so enslaved to them, that it broadly restrained their venting of their complaints. With the election of Trump, all of media’s pent-up rage came pouring into the opinion. It was suddenly acceptable to bash these companies. Every day, the big newspapers seemed to publish a new critical exposé of them.

But instead of clobbering Facebook one more time, media should now thank it. Facebook has just done media the biggest favor of them all. It has forced media to face the fact that digital advertising and ever-growing web traffic will never sustain the industry, especially if that traffic comes from monopolies like Facebook hoping to claim the entirety of digital-advertising dollars for themselves. Media can’t deny this, but it doesn’t want to sustain the pain and heartbreak that comes with transition; and it’s reluctant to let go of the notion that it might exploit Facebook to achieve global scale. Now, Zuckerberg has broken that too—and freed media from a delusion that it should have discarded long ago.