It’s time Facebook made friends with the media

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Facebook’s volatile relationship with the media took a turn for the worse this week after BBC journalists discovered sexualized images of children on the platform. Facebook executives allegedly requested the images from the investigation, promptly reporting journalist Angus Crawford and the BBC to the police.

This is the latest in a saga of content moderation issues grabbing headlines. Facebook is struggling to clean up the social media platform and new community flagging tech and flashy AI tools just aren’t cutting it. Zuckerberg needs the mainstream media, and the media needs him too.

Facebook is one of the world’s largest distributors of news and entertainment, it relies on the media to produce original, relevant and safe content. There’s a long history of frequent clashes, but despite coming to blows with “the Beeb”, these warring parties are beginning to collaborate in more productive ways.

They’re fighting threats of fake news, hate speech and the rising onslaught of illegal activities.

Chasing ad dollars

Facebook has become the gatekeeper to the digital world, meaning its “media partners” are beholden to its demands and new innovations as they try to reach their audiences on the site. That means accepting newfangled native features, like ‘Instant Articles’, ‘Facebook Live videos’, the latest tweaks to its ‘Trending’ feature, and providing newsbots for Messenger chats.

On the surface, these tools sound like innovative ways to entertain users with interactive units. But, it’s no accident that each one keeps users firmly within the confines of the Facebook domain, exposed to Facebook advertising.

To put it in perspective, in 2016 The New York Times earned $209 million in digital advertising revenues in 2016 (up 6% year on year), meanwhile Facebook brought home nearly $27 billion (up 57%). It’s this issue that’s caused a turbulent relationship with the mainstream media. In some cases sparring for ad dollars has turned to serious copyright infringements, with pirates ‘freebooting’ videos, preventing content producers from reaping their hard-earned ad dollars from sites like YouTube.

The war against fake news

Digital piracy chipped at the platform’s reputation in front of grumbling content owners, but then there was fake news, taking it to a whole new level.

As phony tales of Hillary Clinton doubles and workplace defecation took over the Newsfeed, Facebook became the people’s enemy. Accused of enabling misinformation and deception, when viral stories entered so-called echo chambers in the election run-up many argued that fake tales and biased content curation influenced voters.

Fake news hurt the mainstream media too, even with the most stringent of fact-checking still some stories slipped through. Now, united by common foes, Facebook and the media are beginning to put aside their differences, working to quash fake news, hate news, abusive content, and more.

Facebook has partnered with organizations like Snopes and the Associated Press, signatories of Poynter’s International Fact Checking Code of Principles, to evaluate content on the platform.

The social network has also hired former television journalist Campbell Brown as the head of news partnerships, acting as a go-between connecting Facebook with its publishers. It launched the ‘Facebook Journalism Project’, offering training and tools for journalists. And most recently, Facebook and Google vowed to help French newsrooms to fight fake news, debunking false claims ahead of the presidential election.

Evolving mediums

Facebook’s latest moves build on efforts to improve community standards, also fighting the rise of hate speech in article comments, and pioneering new technology to automate this all.

In recent years, major digital publications have been forced to kill article comments sections, moving the conversation to social media to avoid the slew of hatred from online trolls. If Facebook can create a new standard for safe conversations, they might just get them back again.

In the meantime, Facebook risks becoming a breeding ground for hatred and illegal activities, like the child abuse images the BBC found and CNN’s revelation of private US Marines groups continuing to share nude photos of females troops. But, ongoing investigations of this nature complement Facebook’s AI image recognition and flagging technologies, and in the past Zuckerberg acknowledged how the BBC has helped to improve the site’s abuse report system.

It’s all part of the evolution of digital media. Facebook will continue to pioneer new formats for consumption seeking to create the technology to keep it fair and clean. And publications will use these too, they’ll check Facebook in check, all the while desperately trying to direct users back to their own sites using different monetization models.

In a post-truth era of Donald Trump’s “alternative facts” subscriptions are on the rise for leading newspapers like the New York Times, and many platforms are trialling new ideas, such as e-commerce branches. Those once coveted ad dollars are already becoming less valuable.

Facebook is not a media company, it’s a tech company, or so Zuckerberg asserted. He later backtracked saying “It’s not a traditional media company”. But traditional media is morphing in a world of new digital dangers. And like it or not, Facebook is a part of the media. It faces the same challenges, and in working alongside the mainstream media, fighting to solve these issues of hatred and online abuse, Facebook is finally playing ball.

This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.

This post is part of our contributor series. The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily shared by TNW.

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