Facebook´s road to responsibility: platform or publisher?

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The week is over and... We survived to the most televised, long, repetitive live streaming of a public audition worldwide. We logged into Facebook to watch a Facebook Live where the Facebook Chief explained the Facebook business model. 

We watched Mr Zuckerberg answer such questions: “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” (Answer: “Senator, we run ads.). 

The world was finally educated on the mysterious mechanics that brought Sen. Bill Nelson to reveal that - surprise surprise - after “communicating with my friends on Facebook and [indicating] that I love a certain kind of chocolate,” he "started off all of a sudden receiving ads for chocolate.” 

But, beyond some naivety and political bias, we also received lots of food for thought. And we heard for a couple of times one fundamental question that deserves some deeper dive. 

Who you are, determines what you are responsible for. 

That is why understanding the nature of Facebook & Co. - platforms or publishers - is not a pedantic question. The answer to this question determines which laws you will follow, and more fundamentally, which societal contract you establish with the people.  

As we heard over and over, Facebook is a story of incredible growth. It is the story of young students that all a sudden got the keys to rule the world. And it is a story of inevitable ingenuity and the optimism of the youth (later also of some cynism of grown-ups...)

When you grow adult you discover that too much optimism can become dangerous. 

Now the time of maturity has come. And maturity means responsibility. And taking responsibility can be a painful and expensive process. 

That is why behind the apparently pedantic discussion about the nature of Facebook there is an immense burden of responsibility and there are many hurdles you would have never imagined to deal with. 

Here the dilemma: platform or publisher? 

In the words of Mr Zuckerberg Facebook is “no more just a provider of a tool” and it needs " to take an active and proactive view on how the tool is used across the ecosystem”.  

Interrogated again on the topic, the Facebook´s CEO replied: “No, we are not a media company, but yes, we believe we have responsibility for the content that is shared”. 

I come from a publisher background where I spent years before the age of social media. In that simple content world, platforms and publishers were well distinct models. 

There where the ISPs, pure access providers, neutral by nature, sometimes acting as content aggregators for their portals. Lots of discussions took place on net neutrality, lots of discussions on who did own the audience, but the role of an ISP was clear. 

Broadband providers are not liable for content posted by their user. EU and US, with good reason, stick to this principle. ISP are required to report immediately cases when they become aware of crimes and infringements, they have strict “take down” rules and of course, they are covered by data privacy laws… like our Made-in-EU GDPR. 

Then first content sharing platforms appeared. Those platform models, in the beginning, were meant to be content- and content-creator agnostic. They were all about facilitating the production and distribution of content. They were not about the content itself. 
On these platforms, audiences decided what content was relevant and what would rise to the top. Those platforms did not pay for content creation but for technology.  

Pure publisher models were the complete opposite. The content was created by newsrooms. Audiences had very little say, while all content decisions were made by publishers: they drew a clear line between content consumers and content creators; they paid for content creation, and less for technology; and they were responsible for the bad content or copyright infringements. Pure publishers came from a history of information control and mass audiences. They knew how important was to check, moderate and sometimes censor content. It is the history of our (imperfect) democracy and its relationship with the public opinion. 

And then, the platform revolution, led by the social networks - Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr… -  and followed by new types of publishers acting like a platform for bloggers and citizen journalists: Buzzfeed, the HuffPost...

We now find ourselves overwhelmed by a massive abundance of content, produced by everybody with a smartphone. 

We have entered a period that is all about content relevancy. 

The big platform players are flooded with content and suddenly have to act like publishers to ensure their relevancy and to prevent hateful, racist, terroristic, discriminatory, violent content to be disseminated and provoke damage. Not to mention the news manipulation that goes under the new name of “fake news”. 

Those same platforms now compete for hosting content that attracts and retain audiences. They allocate budget for subsidizing content creation or for licensing rights for live events. They are publishers and, willing or not, they are redefining the publishing business. 

So, Marc, you ARE a publisher:  

* your algorithms actively promote some posts and disfavour others (this is curation) 
* you pay smaller publishers to distribute their content on your platform
* you subsidize several Facebook live events  
* you promote and incentivize media partnerships with established Publishers
* you serve content-related, context-relevant advertising 

his is not a stigma, this is not an honour. Being a publisher is a hard job, we know: lots of laws,  lots of delicate human choices, that no AI algorithm is able to take in our name (for now), and lots of pitfalls. 

But it is a job you cannot skip or understate anymore: good that you have admitted that you have to take more responsibility there. Look at the best publishers, and learn from them. 

You will learn that newsroom moderation is more than to apply a blacklist of words and using automatic detection to take down image nudity. It is about moderators to be better informed and understand local contexts, it is about managers to take time to debate with public authorities also when they accuse you like it happened this week (sic), to have a bias against conservative content. 

And it is about “editorial sensibility”, that only a higher professionalism in the moderation teams can ensure. 

Remember this case? It was 2017 when the Pulitzer Prize-winning news photograph dubbed "Napalm Girl," which depicts a child from 1970s-era Vietnam weeping, ran afoul of the social network's standards against nudity. It was pulled down, then reinstated after the editor of the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten made a personal appeal to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (calling him "the world's most powerful editor") and citing the photo's newsworthiness.

We know, Facebook is entering a territory that has been covered by news organizations before. Newsrooms have long debated the value of publishing troubling images. It is a never-ending debate. The is no black and white rules here, but long, long conversations with journalists, civic movements and authorities in order to do what you aim to: to empower and preserve our open society. 

This bigger risk here is to leave one flank open to those lawmakers and governments to make laws to limit the right of expression for their own interest, rather than for the common interest. 

The open society is endangered everywhere. Dear Marc, you have created your platform “driven by optimism”. Time to add maturity to that optimism and take responsibility. And - who knows - you could discover that safety can become a competitive differentiator for the future of your business.