Is Facebook a “media company,” and why does it matter?

In March of this year, Wired said

“Facebook steadfastly resists categorization as a traditional media company. Instead, CEO Mark Zuckerberg insists on calling the social network a technology platform—even though nearly half of all American adults get their news on Facebook. ”

Facebook has — at least at times — wanted to be seen as a “dumb pipe” for other people’s content, and thereby avoid any responsibility for what appears on the platform. Which is probably a good idea, because when it comes to promoting accurate news, they don’t seem to be very good at it.

Facebook has two contradictory social goals. On the one hand, it wants to let people share their own feelings and be “connected” and teach the world to sing and all that, but OTOH it wants to be a “safe place,” free of harassment, hate and discrimination.

You can’t have that both ways, even if you are a tech genius billionaire.

Facebook is intimately involved in what people see and how they perceive the world. Its algorithms decide what appears in a user’s news feed. It intervenes to squelch undesirable speech. It seems to have been a useful conduit for “fake news,” and it’s possible the Russians used it to sew discord and exacerbate social tensions in the US. On top of all that, Facebook is trying to dominate video, which is where a lot of the growth is occurring in online content.

With all this going on, it seems increasingly absurd that Facebook is anything but a media company – and, as noted above, a particularly bad one. (Yes, I linked that story twice just to rub their noses in it.)

Why does it matter? Why is Facebook so intent to deny the obvious truth?
Scott Galloway suggests it has to do with their stock valuation. Tech platforms get a better valuation than media companies.

That seems reasonable.

The “responsibility” angle seems pretty likely as well. Along those lines, I found this article helpful.

The reason this distinction matters is that pure technology platforms receive greater immunity regarding the content they serve, both legally and in the public eye. This stems from the 1996 Communications Decency Act’s Section 230(c), or the Good Samaritan act, that states “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.” Media companies are considered more directly responsible for their content.

The other thing to consider is advertising.

When you’re trying to create a corporate culture with idealistic young tech geeks, the notion that you are empowering people to share and connect make the world more open sounds nice. (“Can I have some baby kale with that, please?”)

When you have to admit that you’re chasing advertising dollars, it’s not so hip any more. Working for a “media company” that’s trying to make a buck like everybody else doesn’t put you on the road to Shambala. (Yes, that’s an old song, but you get the point.)

Anything that’s (1) old, (2) an important part of the culture, (3) a big source of money and power, and (4) sometimes regulated is going to have some weird stuff going on, and that’s certainly the case with media. We have a strange mix of rules for “media companies.”

Broadcast companies have to get licenses and show that they’re acting in the public interest – because they’re using the airwaves, which are a public resource. In the past, we had this weird thing called the Fairness Doctrine, which “required the holders of broadcast licenses both to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was … honest, equitable, and balanced.”

As a silly side note, The Fairness Doctrine was assumed cultural background when All in the Family’s Archie Bunker demanded equal time after hearing a gun control story he didn’t like. I don’t think a modern-day Archie would get far if he called Zuckerberg and demanded that he “fix” Meat Head’s deceptive timeline.

The Fairness Doctrine is no more, and cable TV never had the same restrictions because it didn’t use a public resource. And — as we all know — the internet is the Wild West compared to cable TV. You can post anything you like.

Still, there’s a perception that media has an obligation to be fair.

Tying it all together, why does it matter if Facebook is a “media company”? I see three reasons.

  • Valuation
  • The sense of responsibility that comes with being a “media company”
  • Feeding the idealism of the Facebook workforce

But that’s just my opinion. Chime in with your own if you like.

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