When the world’s largest social-media platform unveiled its new Facebook News last year, the company emphasized how much it would do to help struggling local news organizations.
The feature “was built to bring people closer to the stories that affect their lives,” according to the marketing language. Facebook News also promised to generate revenue for some news sites, thus shoring up their troubled finances.
But Lindsay Schrupp says that it hasn’t worked out that way for her local news operation. And she blames Facebook’s founder and CEO for hurting left-leaning organizations like hers while coddling right-wing figures like Jared Kushner and Ben Shapiro who have successfully cultivated him, according to recent Wall Street Journal reporting.
“Mark Zuckerberg is putting his finger on the scale and saying what is or isn’t news,” said Schrupp, the top editor of Courier Newsroom, which has started local news sites in swing states — Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania — with a liberal bent and funding from politically connected backers.
The Courier sites — for example, UpNorthNews in Wisconsin or Gander in Michigan — aren’t allowed on Facebook’s “news tab,” which is where users find a concentration of journalism, or what passes for it. In this election week, they also are banned from “boosting” their content with advertising.
That’s because their funding mostly comes from Acronym, a nonprofit with deep ties to Democratic politics that has received criticism for its lack of transparency; the Center for Responsive Politics, among others, calls it a “dark money” group.
But Schrupp says there’s a clear separation between the news side of Courier and its funders, that their staff-produced reporting is largely about local issues, and that they are transparent with readers about how they function. Even Courier’s critics acknowledge that the sites are fact-based, not peddling conspiracy theories.
One thing is clear: Far fewer of Facebook’s billions of users will see the sites, which at this moment are geared toward encouraging voting in those states.
Meanwhile, Schrupp points out, such right-wing media sites as Breitbart, the Federalist and the Blaze function largely unfettered. She says this is, at least partly, because Courier is up front about its funding sources while others are far more opaque.
No surprise, then, that the top-performing Facebook posts — day after day — are dominated by pro-Trump voices or sites like Fox News, Breitbart, Franklin Graham, and Ben Shapiro.
“What sticks out, when you dig in to the data, is just how dominant the Facebook right truly is,” wrote Kevin Roose of The New York Times, who tracks those posts daily. “Pro-Trump political influencers have spent years building a well-oiled media machine … creating a torrent of viral commentary that reliably drowns out both the mainstream media and the liberal opposition.”
Schrupp strongly objects to what she calls “the outrageous false equivalency” that depicts Courier as the left-leaning counterpart of the burgeoning right-wing “pay-to-play” media sites that have cropped up as local newspapers have withered. “It’s infuriating,” she told me. “Our intent isn’t to spread misinformation, and we have clearly articulated journalistic standards and ethics.”
But, she complains, in making its decisions, Facebook doesn’t consider that. It only looks at the politics of Courier’s backers.
This is all happening amid seismic media transformation, in which Facebook has played a particularly fraught role. Along with Google, the other part of what’s been dubbed “the duopoly,” Facebook has sucked up most digital advertising revenue. Those dollars could have helped keep news organizations afloat as print advertising has cratered.
But for most news organizations, “Facebook remains a necessary evil,” said Emily Bell, director of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.
“Facebook is a giant presence in the publishing environment, and in some cases it is in fact the publishing environment,” she wrote to me. Tow has done groundbreaking research on the “pink slime” sites that present themselves as legitimate local news but are largely right-wing aggregators, some of which charge clients for publishing what masquerades as news coverage.
When Facebook adjusts its practices or tweaks its algorithm, those changes make a huge difference. Often, these days, it’s left-leaning news sites that take the hit.
Clara Jeffrey, the top editor of Mother Jones, the progressive and widely admired magazine, reported last week that Facebook took specific steps to suppress her organization’s journalism. “Average traffic from Facebook to our content decreased 37%,” after algorithm changes that Zuckerberg signed off on in 2018, she wrote — changes that also hurt liberal sites like Slate and ThinkProgress.
Zuckerberg’s moves may be overcompensation for the public criticism Facebook encountered after 2018 reports that staffers were suppressing conservative content. He’ll soon appear before Congress to address similar complaints about “censorship” of the New York Post’s dubious reporting on Hunter Biden’s laptop.
Meanwhile, Zuckerberg “has recently cultivated relationships with prominent conservatives,” the Wall Street Journal reported. He does so with help from longtime board member Peter Thiel, a prominent Trump backer, and Joel Kaplan, a top Facebook official with conservative ties; Zuckerberg also reportedly talks frequently with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Facebook representatives respond by saying that the boss meets with groups and individuals of all political stripes, and that Facebook’s content decisions aren’t intended to affect traffic to individual media organizations.
But those decisions have long-lasting — often damaging — effects. Recall how media companies disastrously scrambled to “pivot to video” after Facebook suggested that would be the future.
The reasons that liberal sites have been stifled are various. For Courier, it’s because of its backer’s politics. For Mother Jones, it’s because of algorithm tweaks that have profound effects.
But the result is “ironically, what conservatives have consistently accused Facebook of doing to them,” Jeffrey wrote, “with the perverse but entirely intended effect of causing it to bend over backward for them instead.”
In other words, working the refs has been highly effective.
Zuckerberg’s viselike grip on the company’s policy is a factor, too, as is the lack of transparency or recourse — despite plenty of corporate-speak to the contrary. Granted, his decisions may be less about his own political leanings and more about efforts to appear unbiased and, most of all, about protecting Facebook’s gargantuan profits from regulation.
But, whatever the motivation, Jeffrey told me she finds it alarming: “Every editor and publisher should be worried about what we found.”
Given Facebook’s outsize influence at this hinge moment, every fair-minded citizen should be, too.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.