To be in the media business, you have to be a media company
Unlike companies in the print and electronic (TV) media, digital media companies in India are not regulated; and unlike these companies, they do not have an industry body that serves as a self regulatory organisation. If Facebook wants to profit from the media business, it has to follow the same rules media companies do.columns Updated: Mar 31, 2018 17:23 IST
Think of a company. Let’s call it F.
F is in the news business. Let’s assume it is a newspaper company. It decides what news people get to read in the paper. And by virtue of having a significant subscriber base, it gets advertisements from advertisers who want to reach that audience with their messages.
F is definitely a media company.
Unless, of course, it isn’t in the newspaper business but a digital one, and its name is Facebook.
Facebook is a social media platform and security researcher Renee DiResta, who has studied the spread of disinformation online for years, described such platforms as “designed for fast information flows and virality” in a seminal paper. The messaging platform it now owns --- WhatsApp --- is all that, and on steroids.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man that “the medium is the message”. His intent was to highlight that the medium has the power to influence people, not just in terms of the content carried (the message), but purely by itself, because of its characteristics. In the years since the phrase has been used for almost all media but it is perhaps most apt when dealing with social media.
Only, Facebook Inc. sees neither its eponymous social network nor its messaging platform as media.
As Wired magazine wrote recently, the “notion that Facebook is an open, neutral platform is almost like a religious tenet inside the company”. The Wired article also pointed out that there are legal reasons for this: … “Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act… that shelters internet intermediaries from liability for the content that their users post.”
Yet, this desire to be hands-off with the content on the platform has wrought havoc.
In hindsight, it should have always been clear that the power to influence people, preferably anonymously, would eventually be misused by someone passing off fake news as real. There is now reason to believe that the Russians may have done that ahead of the 2016 US elections. Fake news is a global problem. According to a recent report in the New Straits Times, Facebook and WhatsApp are the biggest sources of fake news in Malaysia. According to Wired, WhatsApp has a big fake news problem in Brazil.
In India, fake news is an even bigger problem on WhatsApp than it is on Facebook.
But that hasn’t been all. According to a recent report by ABC, publishers of inflammatory content on Facebook’s Instant Articles may have benefited from advertising that the company drove their way. Under the company’s Instant Articles feature, publishers put up content directly on Facebook, rather than on their websites.
Then there’s the controversy surrounding Cambridge Analytica, which harvested data from Facebook and used that to try and influence poll outcomes. This is extremely worrying, especially in a country such as India, which doesn’t (as yet) have a data protection or privacy law that can protect users.
Clearly, things are out of control.
To be fair, Facebook hasn’t been unresponsive. Even while continuing to maintain its position – it is a platform – it has sought to address the issue of fake news. For instance, it has partnered with external fact-checking units. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica controversy, The Guardian quoted Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook’s product manager, as saying that the company’s new investigative tool would tackle the issue of the spread of fake news and that the company would also “now proactively look for potentially harmful types of election-related activity, such as pages of foreign origin that are distributing in authentic civic content”. The same article said that Facebook partners with AP journalists across all US states to check facts.
WhatsApp is even trickier to moderate, although the messaging platform has been experimenting with a header that tells users when a message has been forwarded.
The question that many are asking is whether this is enough. The network effect may be responsible for the rapid dissemination of content on Facebook and WhatsApp and the filter-bubble (a term coined by Eli Pariser to explain an algorithmic skew that directs a certain type of content to users based on factors such as their past browsing behaviour and search history) for why people often end up seeing content that reinforces their world view as opposed to an opposing point of view that may give them a sense of balance. But it is Facebook that has to be responsible for the content on its platform.
For that, though, Facebook has to first admit that it is a media company. And while just 5% of the content on Facebook is news, the company has to admit that it is also a news media company. That means sticking to basic journalistic processes concerning accuracy, fairness, disclosure, and labelling, things that the social media company doesn’t seem to have thought through.
Unlike print and electronic (TV) media, digital media companies in India are not regulated; and unlike these companies, they do not have an industry body that serves as a self-regulatory organisation. If Facebook wants to profit from the media business, it has to follow the same rules that media companies do.