According to Zuckerberg, the way you find common ground—a common set of facts—is not through professional news outlets, but via individuals. And Facebook, with its 2 billion or so users, has plenty of them. But while Zuckerberg said Facebook is now ranking news outlets by trustworthiness—in person, he didn’t seem to distinguish among the quality of opinions.
“I do think that in general, within a news organization, there is an opinion,” he said. “I do think that a lot of what you all do, is have an opinion and have a view.”
And Facebook, he says, simply “has more opinions.” Show users more opinions, and you give them more options. “It’s not about saying here’s one view; here’s the other side,” Zuckerberg said when I asked him to reconcile the contradiction. “You should decide where you want to be.”
Deciding what to believe based on other people’s opinions is not only not journalistic, it’s arguably hostile to the press as a democratic institution. The truth may be nuanced, but reportable facts are often quite straightforward. As any journalist can tell you, the best answer to the question “what happened?” is not why don’t you ask a bunch of your friends what they think, organize their views along a spectrum, and then decide where to plant yourself.
I was, apparently, not the only journalist in the room who took issue with Zuckerberg’s reasoning. His view isn’t just reductionist but outright Trumpian, argued Joseph Kahn, the managing editor of The New York Times, and particularly harmful to journalistic institutions at a time when the president of the United States has made an argument not unlike Zuckerberg’s to attack the free press. “The institutional values of most really good media companies should transcend any individual opinion,” Kahn said. And to say that journalism can be categorized the way Zuckerberg suggests is “part and parcel of the polarization of society.”
There was a pause.
“I think that’s fair,” Zuckerberg said. In a newspaper, he continued, publishing opinions in close proximity to the news is “pretty dangerous.” Facebook, on the other hand, is surveying readers to determine which professional news organizations are broadly trustworthy.
Facebook wants its users to see less news on its platform these days, and most publishers are feeling the pain. The latest algorithm tweaks were meant to prioritize information posted by users’ friends and family—community! common ground!—rather than by professional news outlets. The average decline in Facebook-referred traffic to top publishers in recent months, Zuckerberg said, is something like 20 percent.
At one point, Zuckerberg hinted at the need for government subsidy of American journalism—alluding to the public-television licensing model that supports the BBC. Couldn’t Facebook pay publishers directly by licensing their stories or programming? “Yeah,” Zuckerberg said, “I’m not sure that makes sense.”