Call me old fashioned, but when I see Facebook moving to consolidate its already significant control over news delivery, I get worried.
On Wednesday, May 13th, Facebook launched “Instant News,” a partnership with nine major media publications—including the New York Times, the Guardian, National Geographic and the Atlantic—to host selected news articles directly on Facebook.
To start, only iPhone users will have access to the new format and publishers only plan to share a few “instant articles” a week. However, an Android version is on the way, and publishers’ involvement is expected to quickly expand.
What’s the deal?
Almost half of internet users in the U.S. say that they get their news from Facebook at some point during their week which makes Facebook a crucial access point.
Facebook has 1.4 billion users worldwide and it is the largest source of traffic for many media sites (for example, 15 percent of traffic to the New York Times website comes from Facebook, a figure which has doubled in recent months and represents the low end of the spectrum). Meanwhile, those who find, edit and report the news are struggling to make money in an age of free information and ineffective online advertising. What’s more, Facebook has often demonstrated its tremendous power to control what users see in their news feeds, causing publishers, who have not yet joined the program, to worry that it will intentionally direct readers away from them if they do not get on board.
In essence, news organizations don’t have much of a choice, financially speaking. They need readers to stay in business; Facebook has the readers. And to sweeten the pot, the current program offers partners 70 percent of revenue generated by Facebook advertisement, and 100 percent of that generated by ads they themselves will be allowed to select and insert.
What does this mean for readers?
Not much, on the surface.
The driving motivation for Instant Articles, purportedly, is a desire to deliver news content more quickly to smartphone users. Those articles available directly on Facebook will load up to 10 times faster than others loaded from external sites. In our ever-more-impatient culture, that’s a big plus. Additionally, the program lets readers zoom in on high-resolution geo-tagged images and auto-play videos.
And publishers will still control presentation of their content and accompanying advertisement. For now.
For BuzzFeed, partnering with Facebook made perfect sense. BuzzFeed relies heavily on native advertising for revenue—that strange new phenomenon whereby media sites publish advertising in article form. (In theory, native advertising is clearly labeled, but it has the uncanny ability of playing its part a little too well, to the point that a reader believes it to be actual news right until the end.) With its huge reach and considerable influence over readers’ attention, Facebook is a sponsor’s wet dream of a publishing platform.
Critics, however, are apprehensive. Giving away news distribution to a powerful organization like Facebook is a dangerous move.
In March, Felix Salmon of Fusion warned:
“…if Facebook continues to grow as a trusted news source in its own right, then the result could be an existential crisis for news organizations with old-fashioned things like editors and fact-checkers and clear ethical guidelines.”
For me, this is the crux of it. I understand that news organizations are businesses, trying to be successful—to hold on to readers, and ad revenue—by partnering with massive platforms like Facebook.
However, I worry that this is the first step to Facebook becoming “a trusted news source in its own right,” which to me portends a waning commitment to things like fact-checking, editing and, most crucially, ethics.
We’re seeing a shift already. Look at the scandal in the Rolling Stone over a totally fabricated story. No one bothered to fact check. Look at the obscene number of grammatical errors in articles published by BuzzFeed and other sites contending for sponsors’ dollars.
And on the other end, look at Facebook, playing mad scientist with its news feed algorithms, highlighting viral content one moment, world news another. It has proved unapologetic in its experiments.
I do not believe for a second that I actually control what I see on Facebook. I am part of that 50 % who reads some of her news on Facebook (what can I say, my friends post interesting articles!) and I am scared that Instant Articles is hardly so innocent, nor so small, as we are being led to believe.
If modern readers demand neither truth nor quality in their news and if publishers submit to the as yet obscure and unpredictable agenda of social media giants, what happens next?
Some of these first big nine publications are currently referring to the partnership as a “test,” but if they come to rely on Facebook’s delivery of traffic, will they really be able to back out again and survive?
Maybe my fears are baseless, but I think this program is a big deal. I think its consequences could be far greater than we are anticipating.
In response to concerns that Instant Articles could lead to a total takeover of how and where the public accesses news, Facebook’s chief product officer, Chris Cox, has said, “We’re not trying to go, like, suck in and devour everything.”
Somehow, I’m not reassured.
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Author: Toby Israel
Editor: Katarina Tavčar
Photo: Maria Elena/Flickr