Rupert Murdoch, perhaps the most polarising media owner in the world, may seem an odd man to be a prophet of the future. He did sell off a large chunk of his media empire to Disney, after all: a move some have read as a retreat from the game of newsmaking which he lead at for so many years (often enough with dubious practices). It’s hard to side politically with the man whose papers were involved in phone hacking of grieving families, or whose television station routinely blasts out falsehoods.
But the 86 year old media mogul’s statements on Facebook are spot on, recognizing that the rather staid and self-centered world of legacy media has come to a cropper at the hands of even more elitist and narcissist institutions: social media platforms.
Murdoch’s statements took aim at Facebook’s offer to “prioritize” news from ‘trusted’ publishers – part of a rebranding effort taken by a social media giant that once attempted to play down or virtually hide the impact of the fake news it was so happy to carry. The contempt for journalists is almost palpable: rather than actively paying for good content (which requires the investment of time and effort, and can put reporters lives at risk), Facebook offers a sort of pat on the head, months after trying to pretend it didn’t help undermine trust in media.
It is often difficult to empathize with the media, which have essentially played big tech’s game of condescending to audiences before the big tech came around. The New York Times‘ motto, ‘All the news that’s fit to print’, was originally a barb against rivals seen as sensationalism and commercialism – but today it smacks of arrogance. But at the very least the news media – for all of its failures (and there are many) – produced content, rather than acting as a mere conduit. Moreover, when the traditional media has screwed up, someone normally gets the blame for it.
Facebook offering recompense to support better reporting for the news whose advertising revenue it essentially takes would have been a better alternative for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it can afford to, and it would do a lot more than token efforts to fund fact-checking sites. Coverage revealed that unsurprisingly, this was Silicon Valley spin at its finest: a lot of hot air which failed to actively solve the problem, but touted as a shiny new solution. All this, rather than working on a way to support real news.
Secondly, and perhaps more worryingly, is the question of what a ‘trusted’ publisher is. Is this a paper which skews liberal, reflecting Facebook’s ‘beliefs’? (it is difficult to see immense tech firms which do their best to take our data with as little consent as possible as liberal in any worldview but their own, admittedly). Or perhaps, more cynically, it will simply become pay to play on a bigger scale: those who pay some sort of fee will enter the category. Or perhaps, even more cynically, news which is critical of Facebook will quietly vanish whilst puff pieces and press releases will sale to the tops of our newsfeeds.
The most monstrous fact about Facebook is the seeming inability to accept, or maybe even countenance that its immense power could be dangerous – or that folks like Mark Zuckerberg could be distant from normal humans. It truly is a caricature of West-Coast scientific optimism, entirely certain in the progress of science, and entirely blind to its own failures – or the value of any other institutions. The need to ‘disrupt’ and ‘innovate’ can be used to tell yourself what amounts to little more than hijacking advertising revenue, or helping to ensure that fake news is as well disseminated as the real thing, apparently. Once you imagine yourself as the face of the future, why care about anyone else?
Facebook, like all social media, has always relied upon content creators (be they friends and family, or professional newsmakers). In its haste to proclaim itself the only meaningful expression of humanity (as evidenced by Zuckerberg’s tone-deaf attempts to convince the world that he’s ‘fixing’ Facebook in any other way than ensuring it suits his agenda), the social media giant has fundamentally forgotten this. If it really wants to make the world a better place, it would do well to follow the insalubrious but canny Murdoch’s suggestion and support content creators – and accept that just maybe, other people’s work is of value too.