Facebook’s co-founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has come under intense scrutiny and criticism since the election, largely because of the prevalence of fake news on his social platform that some critics are claiming helped Donald Trump get elected.
Zuckerberg’s initial response to concerns about fake news was in a Nov. 12 post on Facebook in which he wrote that Facebook is a technology company, not a media company. He also wrote that it was up to users to decide what news to follow and that it is a “crazy idea” that Facebook influenced the election.
The notion that Facebook is a technology company, not a media company, is nonsense. It’s fake news.
Zuckerberg is no dummy. He took the idea of a digitized facebook from some Harvard classmates and was good enough at coding to put one up on Harvard’s servers. As Picasso said, “bad artists copy; good artists steal.” Zuckerberg was smart enough to get into Harvard, smart enough to take a good idea and smart enough to continue innovating at his new company to leave Friendster and MySpace in the dust.
But when the company became successful Zuckerberg didn’t want to admit that Facebook was a media company, even though he eventually managed it like other media companies are managed, i.e. to maximize advertising revenue. At the beginning of Facebook, Zuckerberg didn’t like advertising because he thought it hurt the product. However, he soon learned, like Larry Page and Sergey Brin learned at Google, that users weren’t going to pay for the service, so in order to grow he had to accept advertising.
Advertising revenue is like heroin. Once you try it for a while, the highs become addictive.
Zuckerberg became addicted to advertising revenue, but because he was a new player in the game, he thought he could deny being in the media business and being addicted to ad revenue. He talked a good game, a game that would inspire the troops at Facebook, appease its users and distract investors. He said Facebook’s mission was “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected,” which is a lot more noble than admitting its mission is to maximize advertising revenue and profit. Wealth is even more addictive than heroin.
William S. Paley didn’t start CBS to serve the public with a truthful news source and create a community-focused discourse on important issues. Paley, like president-elect Trump, went to the undergraduate Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and, also like Trump, founded his company with the goal of getting rich. Why else would you go to business school? But Paley realized that the biggest profits were not in owning a network that packaged programs and shared advertising revenue with affiliates, but in owning radio and then TV stations.
The problem with owning radio and TV stations is that you have to get a license from the federal government (from the FCC) to use public airwaves; and to get those licenses, you have to agree to serve the “public good convenience and necessity.” Therefore, Paley realized that the No. 1 priority of radio and TV station managers was to keep their licenses, so it was in his economic interests to serve the public interest by providing news, public affairs programming, editorial writers and community affairs directors at the CBS-owned radio and TV stations.
But Paley and other broadcasters, through the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), lobbied hard (and expensively) to get the FCC rules changed so that being fair (the Fairness Doctrine abolished in 1986) or providing meaningful public service was thrown in the trash heap of good intentions. Bring on Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and now fake news.
These changes in regulation brought about a revolution in the media. Neither cable television nor the internet require a government license, so the concept of public service didn’t apply. Cable TV became the uncensored, unregulated home of indecency, advocacy news and pornography, all driven by an addiction to advertising revenue. The internet was driven by the same uncensored, unregulated content and addiction.
But there is some hope, some ethical light at the end of the tunnel. In 1974 eroticist Al Goldstein put his Screw Magazine on cable TV, and it t soon became Midnight Blue. Eventually, the repulsiveness of Midnight Blue, Screw Magazine and other porn became obvious to viewers. The novelty wore off and they died without advertisers or viewers. This election that spotlighted the obscenity of fake news might just be enough to kill it too.
Mark Zuckerberg has now announced that Facebook will try to do something to censor fake news by cutting off the reason for its existence — advertising revenue. The teenage Macedonians and Filipinos who created the fake news didn’t care who was elected in the U.S.; they cared about the advertising revenue. By admitting that Facebook would cut off the ad revenue to fake news sites, Zuckerberg was admitting that Facebook is a media company, that it isn’t amoral and that serving the public interest matters.
Welcome to the traditional media world, Mark.