Facebook has a fake news problem. The site is constantly inundated with entirely false stories — which is why I was surprised to learn that it had recently launched an e-learning course for journalists. For Facebook to offer such a class sounded to me like a vegan offering a seminar on veal tenderizing. I enrolled.
I immediately found the clumsiness I expected. “Complete all in order,” its directions specified, only to hastily clarify: “Complete all in any order.”
The course didn’t have any other similar blunders, but it was simply a jargon-addled snooze: “You can monetize Instant Articles views through your direct-sold ads, branded content, Audience Network, our ad network solution, or all three,” the course told me. “You can upload and boost your 360 photo by clicking on the Boost Post button on the bottom right of your Page post. You can also choose the Boost your Post Ad Objective in the Ads Create Tool.”
None of this information was wrong; it just wasn’t journalism. This is not an oversight. It’s simply Facebook revealing, once again, how loosely it conceptualizes “journalism” — to the company, everything and anything is journalism, as long as it’s shareable, ideally through Facebook’s native storytelling tools.
BuzzFeed reported earlier this month that some young Macedonian rascals had cultivated a digital advertising cottage industry by promoting at least 140 “sensationalist” American political-news sites on social media. The perpetrators wanted to make money getting clicks through shareable and only incidentally frequently made-up stories, and they succeeded. “Several teens and young men who run these sites told BuzzFeed News that they learned the best way to generate traffic is to get their politics stories to spread on Facebook — and the best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters,” BuzzFeed wrote.
This type of click-chasing, epistemologically flexible publisher has a symbiotic relationship with Facebook. “Unlike traditional media organizations, which have spent years trying to figure out how to lure readers out of the Facebook ecosystem and onto their sites, these new publishers are happy to live inside the world that Facebook has created,” The New York Times Magazine wrote, describing how the intensely partisan, nontraditional, and un-fact-checked viral powerhouses do business. “Unburdened of any allegiance to old forms of news media and the practice, or performance, of any sort of ideological balance, native Facebook page publishers have a freedom that more traditional publishers don’t: to engage with Facebook purely on its terms. These are professional Facebook users straining to build media companies, in other words, not the other way around.” Fake news is so abundant that The Guardian publishes a regular column devoted to debunking viral lies on Facebook.
Officially, the social network strives to be an impartial conduit, and it has an interest in distancing itself from the mantle of editorial oversight. As recently as this summer, Mark Zuckerberg denied that Facebook is a media company. And when contract workers of Facebook’s Trending feature were accused of editorial bias, the ensuing backlash was vehement enough to prod the company into making an adjustment, but look at what the change was: Facebook canned its Trending editors and chose to rely more heavily on an algorithm. It wants to be the stadium, not the umpire.
While the miasma from the Trending scandal and the continued glut of fake news is a bad PR look for Facebook, it appears that the criticism of its role in media has only led the company to become more firmly entrenched in its stance that it is not an arbiter of truth, and it’s not likely to flip-flop. “Ultimately, the problem isn’t just that Facebook doesn’t have the resources to pay for an army of well-paid, nuance-trained American editor-moderators (because, well: it does). It’s that doing so would undermine Facebook’s entire project,” a Select All piece on Facebook’s fake-news problem argued. “Facebook is built to engage its users, and to reward those users who produce engaging content. Every buzzkill debunking, every warning of caution, makes the site as a whole less engaging.” This is a good point: Fake news sites will succeed on Facebook as long as there is an appetite from users to click on these stories, and it is absolutely not in Facebook’s interest to assume responsibility.
Perhaps it goes without saying at this point, but Facebook’s journalism course did not go over fact-checking.
I’ll tell you what it did go over: video! The emphasis of the webinar was on Facebook Live and 360 Video (the only major topic that wasn’t video-oriented was how to publish Instant Articles). Facebook has decided that video is where journalism is going, and regardless of whether people prefer to consume news, opinion, and entertainment in video format, Facebook’s overwhelming dominance as a traffic engine for the media means that the media will follow Facebook, not the other way around.
And some of Facebook’s newest media darlings are already casting themselves in the company’s video-centric and facts-optional molds. I recently noted that Mark Zuckerberg’s “likes” include hyper-coiffed, hyper-partisan right-wing talking head Tomi Lahren. The 24-year-old pundit incubated at Glenn Beck’s TV network TheBlaze, but Facebook is where she has found fame, through viral rants against Colin Kaepernick and President Obama.
Lahren is a video-based commentator, not a reporter, and she is upfront about this distinction. “I’m not a journalist,” Lahren announced on CNN this year. No wonder Mark “not a media company” Zuckerberg likes her! She’s an especially appropriate figurehead for Facebook’s concept of journalism — clicky, pretty, and glad to use Facebook’s video tools.
The disinformation peddlers will not be stopped by the company that profits from it. Facebook is highly unlikely to develop a moral prerogative to root out lies, but the company’s fake news problem may be affected by Facebook’s goal for journalists — the switch to video, particularly video hosted directly on the site. The next election may well spur a similar burst of fake news, but if the social network gets its way, it’ll be on native Facebook video, not links to outside sites. And while Facebook’s e-course didn’t give me any journalism tips, it did reaffirm my suspicions that if I make it to 2024, I’ll be feebly watching Tomi Lahren attack Cory Booker on an Oculus-exclusive newscast beamed directly into my unemployed eyeballs.