For some time now, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has claimed Facebook is a tech company, not a media company. But now it appears he has had a change of heart.
Yesterday, during a Live Video chat with chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, Zuckerberg accepted that Facebook is, in effect, one of the world’s largest publishers of information.
The tech world’s uncomfortable awakening to the reality that many of its key players like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are effectively publishers, with all the responsibilities that this entails, has been awkward to watch.
The fact of the matter is that Facebook, with its 1.8bn users, is the front-page newspaper for the world.
‘We don’t write the news that people read on the platform, but at the same time, we also know that we do a lot more than just distribute the news, and we’re an important part of the public discourse’
– MARK ZUCKERBERG
Even though Facebook doesn’t write the content, its platform was the destination for most people’s news in 2016. And as loath as engineers are to admit it, that makes Facebook a publisher.
When it became apparent that the fake news propagated through Facebook played a role in Donald Trump’s shock victory in the US presidential election, Zuckerberg dismissed this as a “crazy idea”.
This offhand dismissal sparked an internal debate within Facebook, with engineers rebelling and pointing out that Facebook has the responsibilities of a publisher.
Last week, Facebook revealed it is experimenting with new ways to discern fake news from the truth, employing several fact-checking agencies as well as flagging debatable content and reducing its place in the News Feed.
That is just one step.
Facebook isn’t just a media company. It is a multimedia company with a video platform that is taking on YouTube, with features such as Live Video and, in recent days, a new podcasting feature called Live Audio.
Facebook is a media company, Zuckerberg admits
In a Live Video chat with Sheryl Sandberg, Zuckerberg faced up to the inevitable.
“Facebook is a new kind of platform,” Zuckerberg said.
“It’s not a traditional technology company. It’s not a traditional media company. You know, we build technology and we feel responsible for how it’s used.
“We don’t write the news that people read on the platform, but at the same time, we also know that we do a lot more than just distribute the news, and we’re an important part of the public discourse.”
This is a huge step for Zuckerberg to take, and a clarion call for tech companies everywhere that have built the platforms, to take more responsibility for the content that appears on them.
Facebook has also to be cognisant of the reality that countries like Germany, all too aware from history how media can be skewed for political reasons, are taking the fake news matter very seriously and lawmakers are threatening to fine Facebook €500,000 per fake news story that appears on the platform.
But in combatting this, the platforms are also running the gauntlet of accusations of censorship or providing tools for others to muffle credible news if they simply disagree.
It is interesting that Facebook is taking steps closer towards the traditional shape of a publishing company. In recent weeks, it announced it is seeking to fill a “head of news partnerships” role that requires 20 years experience of news publishing.
Facebook has many ambitions for what it wants to be. Ultimately, it is about gathering people around information.
A group of 1.8bn users is a powerful platform. And with that power comes responsibility.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on stage at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Image: catwalker/Shutterstock