Platform, publisher, publican: What if we treat Facebook as a pub landlord?

Within the fuss of Facebook’s heavy-handed temporary ban on fact-checked news in Australia last week, the company also answered the question it has constantly sought to ignore: Is it a platform or a publisher?

When pressed, the organisation always argued it was platform. It provided a space for people to share stuff, but it wasn’t responsible for what was shared. But when you pro-actively stop people sharing stuff because they are professional information sharers, then surely you’re a publisher – or at the very least, a very, very proactive editor!

Semantics aside, perhaps the best way to view to Facebook’s actions in Oz – and the results of their actions – in the last week as if they were a publican – after all, don’t all social media analogies rely on a pub at some point?

The job of a publican is earn an income by attracting people to his or her venue, and finding ways to keep them there. To that end, Facebook’s actions are entirely in keeping with a pub landlord’s personal interests.

But what of the landlord’s community responsibilities? It’s for this reason that pubs and restaurants are subject to licensing and council laws in the UK. The publican needs to ensure he or she is operating a safe space, and one which doesn’t result in damage to the community. That involves the publican setting out to create a safe space, and attracting a clientele which help create the safe space, plus ensuring they behave.

Worryingly, what we saw last week was that, when push came to shove, Facebook was happy to be the publican which didn’t pay attention to creating a safe space. Leaving this ever-so-slightly tortured metaphor alone for now (although not as tortured as the one from Nick Clegg which follows), Facebook at a stroke created a space which was fundamentally dangerous for local life throughout Australia.

It locked out journalists from sharing their work. It locked out fact-checking, creating a world where any old rumour could take hold. It took the gamble that its users wouldn’t notice, and that its revenues would therefore be unaffected.

Data from Chartbeat says audiences in Australia to news dipped as a result. Would that have returned over time? Maybe – but Facebook’s strength to society is its ability to get trusted news in front of people when they aren’t necessarily looking for it. And Facebook benefits too.

Yet, Facebook showed it was happy to facilitate a low-information community despite the well-known dangers of such an approach. In the last few days, led by former former deputy prime minister of the UK, Nick Clegg, it has sought to blame publishers for this state of affairs.

Clegg wrote:

The assertions — repeated widely in recent days — that Facebook steals or takes original journalism for its own benefit always were and remain false. We neither take nor ask for the content for which we were being asked to pay a potentially exorbitant price. In fact, news links are a small part of the experience most users have on Facebook. Fewer than one post in every 25 in your News Feed will contain a link to a news story, and many users say they would like to see even less news and political content.

(I’ve kept the link in because if you read the actual research, it doesn’t mention news at all, it talks about political content. Once a politician….)

Clegg is basically pushing the ‘big society’ model he and Tory PM David Cameron promoted in the early 2010s: Only it’s not Government relying on volunteers to pick up the services it wouldn’t fund anymore, it’s journalism somehow voluntarily expected to make the Facebook Newsfeed a reliable source of information, when, to be frank, Facebook can afford to fund much, much more.

Then it got a bit weird:

“It’s like forcing car makers to fund radio stations because people might listen to them in the car — and letting the stations set the price. It is ironic that some of the biggest publishers that have long advocated for free markets and voluntary commercial undertakings now appear to be in favor [favour] of state-sponsored price setting. The events in Australia show the danger of camouflaging a bid for cash subsidies behind distortions about how the internet works.”

If Facebook is the car maker, it’s one which also found a way to hoover up shed loads of the revenue regulated radio stations relied on to keep going, by installing its own methods of getting advertising to you in the car. Sounds crackers doesn’t it?

Ultimately, it’s the job of a car maker to keep those driving it as safe as possible – and that is what Facebook should be worrying about, too. The fact Facebook chose to ban fact-based information from its platform (the safety), at almost no notice, is similar to a carmaker installing its own speakers and running constant noise at your ears while you are driving.

Only, of course, that would be annoying. What Facebook does so well is create experiences people enjoy. Thinking about it from a safety point of view, would Facebook-the-car-company decide those pesky brakes companies were realising their worth to the auto industry, and therefore a brake-free world was the way to go?

Back to the publican again. The difference between a publican and Facebook is there are laws in place to ensure publicans aren’t causing a greater harm.

The fact Facebook gives the impression that journalists are somehow uninvited on Facebook to share news, and are only allowed there because Facebook says so is a sobering moment to reflect upon.

Real news, properly-researched, makes Facebook a better, safer, place. Facebook commands a huge amount of online time every month – and like a pub (sorry!) it has to take a responsibility for the influence that time spent on Facebook has in other aspects of life too.

Too often, I draw on my experiences of reporting on the rise of the BNP in East Lancashire in this blog. But they thrived because they targeted low-information communities. They did it through leaflets and door-knocking in pre-social media age. And it was effective, for a while – until scales dropped from eyes and many, including alarmingly some BNP councillors, realised that the propaganda they flogged didn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Without the free flow of journalism on Facebook, the platform risks becoming the largest low-information community in the world – and potentially a very real risk to civic society.

That’s why the logical response to events in Australia in the last week is to obligate platforms which allow people to congregate to support journalism for the good of society. To ensure that journalism is support to improve the knowledge held by users of that platform.

Mark Zuckerberg has often talked of Facebook as a town square, with a desire to create more ‘front rooms’ for people to congregate in too. Fine and laudable – but as the landlord, the responsibilities go way beyond just letting people in they want, or evicting them when they ask for a proper compensation for the difference they make.

Journalism has benefitted in many ways from Facebook. It has forced us to look at ourselves and understand the disconnect between what we believe is important and what our readers instantly find important. It has, on many fronts, been a force for good – more voices, more sources, more chances to connect with people. And many, many people at Facebook care about journalism. I know that.

But that, at the very top, it fails to recognise that the benefit journalism brings to Facebook goes beyond the transactional click for the publisher is very worrying – and should alarm law-makers around the globe.

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