Facebook’s killing journalism, and doesn’t care

Pictured: Mark Zuckerberg being watched by journalists. Quite the turn of the tables for a guy whose company makes money watching all of us.

Pictured: Mark Zuckerberg being watched by journalists. Quite the turn of the tables for a guy whose company makes money watching all of us. Associated Press

In 2016, the former editor of Britain’s Guardian newspaper claimed that Facebook had essentially stolen more than $25 million of that paper’s ad revenue. In one year.

By “hosting” the Guardian’s news “content” on its own app, Facebook was making money off Alan Rusbridger’s journalists. That this revelation came from the man who broke the story that Facebook and other major telecom monoliths were allowing the government to spy on… everyone, was more than a little ironic.

Facebook and its fellow monopolists Google and Twitter—note: YouTube belongs to Google, and Instagram to Facebook—are finally facing scrutiny for a series of deadly sins. Among Facebook’s: “Running a hugely popular worldwide website which has allowed extremist language to flourish in some countries while censoring mainstream speech in others,” according to the New York Times.

What’s an example of “mainstream speech”? How about a story highlighting Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph’s Hail Mary catch to keep the team’s playoff hopes alive? City Pages wrote such a story recently, then attempted to “share” it.

Like most newspapers, City Pages has seen Facebook dramatically constrict its “reach” lately. Though 120,000 people follow our Facebook page, the company has decided that as few as 5 percent will see the stories they’ve signed up to read.

There’s a reason for this. Facebook wants publishers and businesses to “boost” their posts by paying to reach those people. In other words, the company has decided not to show your work… to people who signed up to see your work… unless you pay Facebook. Which is already making money off countless media outlets that essentially provide the platform with free content.

In this way, Facebook sucks media companies’ blood on both ends. And we’re not the only ones in its vise grip: Ask Summit Brewing, which is suffering the same fate. Ask any business with a Facebook account.

How does the company know what people want? Because Facebook knows everything. Because we told them.

Countless stories have been written about the impenetrable wall around Facebook’s mysterious and oft-changing algorithm, which determines who sees what. When you hit the “post” button, is an employee deciding who it goes to? Are 20,000 employees? Is it a robot? Is it 20,000 robots? All that’s known, really, is it helps if you pay the ransom.

When asked about all this, Facebook blinks out statements that could’ve come from an IBM mainframe: We love journalism, and our users, and are taking steps to improve the lives of all involved.

After Kyle Rudolph’s play, City Pages tried a little experiment. What would happen if we accepted Facebook’s terms and played its greedy game? An attempt was made to buy $50 worth of a “boost” on the story.

Facebook said no. The offer was declined because City Pages’ blog post “asks a direct question to, or makes an assumption about a user’s personal attributes.” (The only assumption was that Vikes fans might be pumped.) That sort of post can, Facebook continued, “feel like an invasion of a person’s privacy, which we strive to protect.”

Please. The next time Facebook strives to “protect” your “privacy” will be the first. It’s a data mine, and thrives on the collection of your habits and desires, which it also seems to obtain from other internet giants.

Ever notice how something you Google or buy from Amazon suddenly pops up as an advertisement in your Facebook feed? There’s a reason for that. It has very little to do with “privacy,” and a lot to do with those companies’ valuations on Wall Street.

City Pages appealed Facebook’s decision on the Rudolph story, informing the company that it was a newspaper, and this was a news story. (And a positive one!)

This appeal was declined within seconds.

If the Guardian really did lose $27 million in one year to Facebook, think how much the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Star Tribune are losing because Facebook is vacuuming up everyone’s ad dollars.

Newspapers are dying left and right. Employees are losing their jobs or quitting before the executioner’s ax is hoisted. No one outside the industry seems to care much, least of all Donald Trump and Mark Zuckerberg. They’ll be happiest to see us go. Once papers die off, who’s gonna write about all the terrible things they’re doing?

Thomas Jefferson had a line that goes like this: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Please remember that line, and quote it in conversation about the evils of “the media,” those miserable people who work hard to bring information to the public, and are sometimes stifled by fake news, denials, flat-out lies, intimidation, and, in recent times, the dominating influence and kidnapping of authority by websites like Facebook.

The central message of that Rudolph story—the one Facebook refused to share—was: “Believe in Miracles.” This, in a city that experienced a football “miracle” last year, and on Christmas Eve of all days. Millions of us were celebrating one miracle or another, and this seemed like a safe thing to say.

Facebook disagreed. Attempts to elicit the company’s reasoning went nowhere. Somehow, the fact that Facebook won’t answer a journalist’s question about how and why it does what it does feels like the least surprising thing in this entire story.

Still, I stand by what I said. Believe in miracles.