Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg never intended to be the richest and most influential media mogul in world history, responsible for how nearly half of adult Americans—and two billion Facebook users throughout the world—get their news. And the 33-year-old Zuckerberg never meant to turn the American media he now effectively owns and controls into a toxic waste dump—or else Harvard never would have invited its second-richest dropout to give the commencement address to its graduating class of 2017.
“My hope was never to build a company, but to make an impact,” he told an audience of his near-peers, many of whom would die for a job at Facebook—and at the same time join with Zuckerberg’s Silicon Valley colleagues and his own employees in believing that Facebook is responsible for sending Donald Trump to the White House. In that reading, Facebook was the prime proliferator of the insane conspiracy theories and lies—i.e., Pope Francis backed Trump for president, Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring from a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor, etc.—that swayed a gullible electorate to vote against Hillary Clinton. Love Facebook; hate Facebook. Shine Zuckerberg’s shoes; blame him for Trump. Meet America’s schizophrenic elite, circa 2017.
Zuckerberg responded to the initial wave of blame by insisting that the idea that Fake News on Facebook had decided the 2016 election was a “pretty crazy idea.” But the people that work for him didn’t believe him. He soon faced an internal insurgency after Facebook employees started a task force to probe the company’s role in pushing Fake News and their boss’ apparent evasion of responsibility. As one employee told BuzzFeed, “Fake news ran wild on our platform during the entire campaign season.”
Seeing which way the ball was bouncing, at least among the demographic he hires, Zuckerberg backed down. Fake News was an issue. What was the solution? “The problems here are complex, both technically and philosophically,” Zuckerberg wrote in a post. “We do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves, but instead rely on our community and trusted third parties.”
Accordingly, in December, Facebook kicked off a fact-checking initiative in partnership with a number of brand-name media institutions like the Associated Press, ABC News, Politifact, and the Washington Post to make sure that the stories relayed from other sites on Facebook’s news feed were true. How much is Facebook paying their partners for their service? Zero. And in that nice round number lies the story of how and why the American media collapsed, and much more.
The reality of the American media is that Google and Facebook own nearly the entire advertising market—which means that once-powerful American media brands like The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and every other website you visit are more or less the equivalent of random bloggers who provide their content to Facebook for free. Does spending billions of dollars to produce a good that someone else gives away for free—without paying you a dime—sound like a good business to be in? Well, it’s not. That’s why the world’s premier publisher of Fake News is worth $350 billion—which is more than 100 times the value of the Times, media’s most uniquely valuable brand, and 350 billion times the value of Newsweek, once one of America’s most important newsweeklies, which changed hands in 2010 for $1.
News organizations provide their content to Google and Facebook free—and fact-check other people’s content for free—because they’re dead broke. (Tablet magazine, which is free to our readers anyway, is also given away free on Facebook, though its nonprofit status shelters it somewhat from the horrific ecology of contemporary journalism.) If they follow Facebook’s dictates, maybe the social-media giant will toss them a few stray pennies in the form of increased traffic, which Facebook can turn on and off through its proprietary algorithms, the same way Amazon can decide which books Americans should read.
Facebook’s fact-checking initiatives put the burden of responsibility for journalistic integrity on the very institutions whose content it uses for free to drive traffic and make the kind of money from digital advertising that traditional press institutions can only dream of. In doing so, Harvard’s prize commencement speaker is destroying the institution of the free press, while shoving hundreds of billions of dollars in his own pocket and the pockets of his shareholders.
And this is the crux of the issue. It’s not that Facebook peddles Fake News, but that the social-media mega-giant is destroying the economic, sociological, and cultural foundations of legitimate journalism in America. That, after all, is the source of Facebook profits. Now that Facebook owns their revenue streams—and their readers—even the most famous brand names are finding it impossible to afford the institutional structures that produce real journalism. Fake News, comm ops, it’s all filler—scribbled at virtually no expense and with no real accountability, and it’s all that the broke news outlets can afford. Soon, there will be no such thing as Fake News, since the “news” will all be fake—because it’s all literally worthless. And that’s what’s on Mark Zuckerberg.
And Zuckerberg knows it. As he told the Harvard class of 2017, “I’ve met factory workers who know their old jobs aren’t coming back and are trying to find their place.” But the Facebook chief knows full well that the jobs his company is destroying aren’t in Detroit or Toledo. Last week, Time announced it was laying off 300 people. Last month the Times itself announced yet a further round of layoffs, as did The Wall Street Journal earlier in the year.
What we’re seeing is part of a longer historical trend over the last 15 years, during which employment in newsrooms dropped 50 percent between 2001 and 2016, largely due to the continued loss of revenue from print advertising.
Some publications, like the Times, have made gains in digital subscribers and advertising but not enough to offset losses in print. Last quarter the Times saw an overall decline in advertising revenue of 7 percent. At other papers, according to a 2016 Pew report, digital revenue is making up an increasingly large portion of revenue, which, as Pew noted, “has more to do with the decline of print revenue than the growth of digital.”
The bulk of the digital advertising that was supposed to rescue the press is going to Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Google. Media outlets have no choice but to take the scraps that may come their way via Facebook traffic. But according to a recent study, only four out of every 10 social-media consumers actually open the links they share: What they are sharing are social-media headlines, not content. This problem is well known to anyone who has ever worked in a magazine or newspaper—only a depressingly small numbers of readers continue reading after the initial page of a story. That’s why advertisers want to buy space in the front of a publication.
With the advent of the internet, traditional media professionals forgot their trade, or retired to Connecticut—and their successors have no idea what planet they are on. Media companies like the Times could never figure out how to make money off the internet—should they charge for content online or give it away? While the industry was figuring out its next move, entire papers went under while the survivors cut costly departments, like foreign and national bureaus and investigative reporting teams. At least a generation’s worth of journalistic experience and expertise and ethics was replaced by kids who had no idea what they were doing and with no one to guide them—the cohort comprised, as Obama aide Ben Rhodes famously opined, of 27-year-olds who literally know nothing.
Facebook, on the other hand, never had to worry about either end of the transmission chain—it doesn’t have to pay to create content, and it has no legal responsibility to provide reliable information. Why? Because, as Mark Zuckerberg could have told the Harvard graduating class of 2017, that’s the law. You can look it up: Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act stipulates that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Section 230 was originally known as the Cox-Wyden Amendment—named after Chris Cox, a Republican congressman from California, and then Democratic representative, now Sen. Ron Wyden from Oregon. The concern of these two digitally-hip legislators was that if websites were sued every time someone had a problem with a given piece of content, like kiddie porn, America’s Great Internet Adventure of the ’90s would come to a grinding halt.
The language of Cox-Wyden that describes the policy of the United States—“to promote the continued development of the internet and other interactive computer services and other interactive media,” etc.—was appropriately optimistic about the future. However, it failed to imagine a future beyond the days of dial-up internet connections in which a mega-website like Facebook would eat all the media.
Zuckerberg’s company is not just a publisher, but the most important media organization in the world—and Section 230 gives Facebook and Google a tremendous built-in advantage over traditional media companies by sheltering them from liability. It’s a good bet that Zuckerberg spends millions every month on lawyers ensuring that every word of Section 230 stays exactly as it is.
Amending Section 230 will at least stop the massive transfer of wealth that has gone from traditional journalism to Facebook over the last decade. Without legislative action to repair the mistakes that Congress made in the 1990s, real journalism today doesn’t stand a chance.
And that raises an interesting issue: since the election of Donald Trump, the media has taken to the ramparts in an impressive campaign to “resist” the president’s siege against the press. So why isn’t the press resisting Facebook, which has demolished its institutions like the bad machines in a Transformers movie?
What about a campaign organized by the press, academics, writers, artists, and civil-rights figures demanding that Facebook be treated like the monopoly it is and dismantled? Would philanthropist and Silicon Valley nice guy Mark Zuckerberg actually censor content critical of Facebook?
Get real. Facebook doesn’t have to censor anything. The press is terrified of the prospect of being seen to bite the only hand that feeds it, however badly. Nearly everyone who had the simple horse sense to fight back against a lethal attack on one’s own profession has long left the field or was forced from it.
Consider the Times’ move last month when it announced it was replacing several layers of copy editors and editors “with a single group of editors who would be responsible for all aspects of an article.” Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joseph Kahn wrote in a memo that “our goal is to significantly shift the balance of editors to reporters at The Times, giving us more on-the-ground journalists developing original work than ever before.”
In other words, the paper is swapping out a more experienced and thus more expensive core of journalists responsible for quality control for cheaper—younger and less experienced—journalists who will be responsible for creating content, which no one will pay for because they will get it free on Facebook. In effect, the Times is trading parts of the institutional memory of real journalism for a bunch of bloggers whose output—based on zero experience in the field, and typically churned out while sitting at their desks—will be indistinguishable from Fake News.
But what choice does the Times—or any other news outlet—have? The industry is caught in a death spiral that is eroding and corrupting our democracy. And the only people who profit from it are Mark Zuckerberg and the executives and shareholders of Facebook.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).