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18 November, 2016

Fake news or not: Facebook is a media company

Are Facebook, Google and Twitter media companies? Fake news, hate speech, regulation, and journalism’s future just might depend on the answer.

Let's begin this deep dive with something simple, like a definition.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a media company as:

Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis argues that we shouldn't define companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Snapchat as media companies.

But wait, Google and Facebook do pay to have original content created for their products.

A Google employee creating content in the Grand Canyon for a Google product called "StreetView." 
Here is a link to dozens more photos of Google workers creating similar rich-media content.

And Facebook has been paying millions of dollars to create original, exclusive video content for them.

Link: Facebook Pays Publishers Over $50 Million to Start Using Live Video

And celebrities, too.

So, by definition Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat are media companies that broadcast videos, AND they provide Internet services.

More importantly, they build mass media audiences and bundle content with advertising and deliver that to users.

They run global commercial operations.

Oxford's definition of a media company as a company that provides broadcasting, film, and Internet services describes these activities very clearly.

These firms also demonstrate a willingness to control content to varying degrees.

Facebook filters for nudity, Google filters and ranks the results for the Google news product from a short list of quality sources, and Twitter bans users for posting hate speech.

All of those decisions are editorial functions.

It doesn't matter if a bot or human does the work, except that we have seen many recent examples that these media companies are struggling with exactly how to provide editorial oversight to the content that they package and sell online.

Of course, not all media is journalism. Much of it is just entertainment.

For example, Sean Hannity is not a journalist.
He is an entertainer. His cable news show is designed to look like a news set and it is broadcast on the Fox News channel, but he will be the first to admit he does not do journalism.
He is in show business.

These new media companies just don't want to admit to being media companies.

Matthew Ingram writes for Fortune,
"Here's One Reason Facebook Doesn't Want to Admit to Being a Media Company."

Are you a media company if you publish fake news?

All of this matters because these media companies would rather not have to pay reporters to create material, or pay editors to vet it, or face scrutiny when they get it wrong.
And, they have been getting it on many occasions very wrong during the latest US election cycle.

Google's top search result the morning after the election for "final election numbers" lead to a fake news site.

Google execs admit that result is an error.

And the fake news sites (some created by Macedonian teens) are out cashing in big time. Both Facebook and Google have been shamed by this news and have promised reforms.

A Buzzfeed analysis found that "Fake Election News Outperformed Real News on Facebook."

According to Business Insider, “Google said it is working on a policy change to prevent websites that misrepresent content from using its AdSense advertising network, while Facebook updated its advertising policies to spell out that its ban on deceptive and misleading content applies to fake news.”

That is a good start and these statements also indicate to me that both of these "media companies" not only know who the good and bad actors are with regards to publishing fake news but they also have the means to mute spurious content. 

President Obama sums up the problem elegantly when he spoke with The New Yorker.

The new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true,” Obama says.
“An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. 

And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”

After first denying that Fake news was a problem in the newsfeed, Mark Zuckerberg tells ReCode that Facebook plans to.

  • Add a warning label to stories that users have flagged as inaccurate.
  • Work with more third-party fact checking organizations.
  • Improve the accuracy of “related articles” that it suggests for users to read.
  • Block fake news distributors from paying to promote their content. (Facebook started that process this week.)
  • Build better algorithms to automatically detect fake news.  

Maybe these media companies can start squashing fake news by testing these MIT professor's five principles:

  • Responsibility
  • Explainability
  • Accuracy
  • Auditability
  • Fairness

LINK: We need to hold algorithms accountable — here’s how to do it.

Real news journalists should recognize that this also a short list of what defines bona fide journalism.
This list is kryptonite to fake news.

Meanwhile, a group of undergrads at Princeton U. were able to build a quick and dirty fake news app during a 36 hour hackathon.

The key to making all this happen is happen seems to be applying machine learning and neural processing to separate the fake from the genuine.

So the question is Does Facebook really suck at machine learning or are they willing to play dumb just to avoid being properly classified as a media company?

We may soon find out, because the German ministry believes that they already are.

German Justice Minister Heiko Maas told Reuters this about social media companies. “In my view they should be treated as media even if they do not correspond to the media concept of television or radio.” 

One final thought, it is important to remember a few years ago Zuckerberg patented something called a 'Newsfeed'.

You don't get to do something like that and then go out tell journalists you are not a news guy.

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