Facebook wants to be everyone’s daily newspaper.
That’s worked well for Facebook but not the rest of us.
Mark Zuckerberg made this ambition clear in 2013, a year after Facebook went public, when he announced a redesign of its centerpiece News Feed.
“What we’re trying to do is give everyone in the world the best personalized newspaper we can,” he proclaimed.
Eight years later a majority of Americans — 53%, according to Pew Research Center — turn to Facebook and other social-media for news.
While Facebook is popular and helps people stay connected, it’s unfairly exploiting its dominant position, according to a congressional investigation last year and antitrust cases against the company.
Meanwhile thousands of real newspapers are dying, leaving much of America with little to no reporting on local government and communities.
Congress and regulators should keep all this in mind as they step up efforts to address unfair business practices and societal harms caused by Facebook and other dominant digital platforms.
This is a multipart problem requiring multiple responses. Yet until recently, many of the legislative proposals focused on content and outdated notions of fairness, instead of structural reforms to restore competition and sustain actual journalism.
That may be changing. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., just introduced a bill to broadly strengthen antitrust enforcement, though it isn’t focused on the particular challenges of digital platforms.
Klobuchar and Sens. Mark Warner, D- Va., and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, also proposed revisions to Section 230, a telecommunications law that helps protect websites from being sued over most content on their sites.
The least effective response, particularly to misinformation, would be resurrecting the junked Fairness Doctrine, according to Phil Napoli, a professor of public policy at Duke University.
Even so, references to the doctrine surged recently, though the problematic broadcasting requirement was eliminated in 1987, Napoli showed in a recent paper.
The doctrine evolved from 1920s radio regulation, requiring broadcasters to give equal time to opposing viewpoints.
It’s not for government to decide what’s fair news coverage. But because broadcasts were carried on public airwaves, there was public interest in seeing the asset used fairly.
Newspapers were exempt on First Amendment grounds. Social media, especially ones emulating newspapers, might be exempt if the doctrine was still in effect.
Napoli’s paper describes how regulators and others eventually decided the doctrine was bad policy. It led broadcasters to avoid controversial topics, and pushed journalism to embrace the false equivalencies of “both sidism.”
That assumes there are only two sides, and can reduce stories to “he said, she said,” diluting truthful conclusions.
The doctrine “was a little bit more workable when our political extremes hadn’t stretched to where they are now,” Napoli told me last week. “When you see who is advocating for a fairness doctrine now, it’s for balance of opposing viewpoints regardless of whether there’s underlying credibility or accuracy or basis in fact.”
Research found correlations between misinformation and hyperpartisan sites, he continued: “A lot of the rhetoric around fairness wants us to gloss over that, to sort of equate fairness with tolerance for falsity.”
In practice, the doctrine was weaponized, used by entities like tobacco companies and President Richard Nixon to counter negative coverage and intimidate certain news outlets, Napoli’s paper explains.
Imagine if reports on the last election were required to give equal time to the losing side, which resorted to a false and corrosive narrative undermining democracy. Nonpartisan news outlets could be forced to air delusional arguments, even after election officials and courts affirmed the outcome.
The losing side didn’t need a Fairness Doctrine to be heard. Its misinformation was widely propagated by partisan outlets, Facebook and other platforms. They only belatedly exercised editorial judgment to restrict false and incendiary material, after it was too late.
That would seem to argue for new policy, perhaps forcing platforms to better moderate content. But none of the legislative proposals so far appears to truly address the problem, Napoli said.
“You could actually sweep a number of them right off the table as not at all genuine efforts to combat the misinformation problem,” he said. “Any of these proposals that were motivated by the perceived suppression of conservative viewpoints … wouldn’t achieve this at all.”
That perception is also wrong, according to a new report by researchers at New York University.
It found Trump led Biden 87% to 13% in Facebook engagements during the election season. Through 2020, conservative sites Fox News and Breitbart had vastly more Facebook interactions than any mainstream media outlet.
It sounds like personalized newspapers people create on Facebook may often look like the Fox Newspaper.
Napoli said what’s needed is for platforms to take more aggressive actions themselves, in part because “the First Amendment sort of dictates that.”
This isn’t to say people getting news from Facebook are all rubes. Most seem to know you get what you pay for: Pew found 59% of those turning to social media for news expect it to be “largely inaccurate.”
That whets my appetite for Napoli’s upcoming research. He’s now exploring the question of being misinformed versus uninformed.
As he put it, it used to be easy for much of the population to avoid news and remain uninformed.
Now, the proliferation of media sources has converted a portion of that group from uninformed “to what is better described as misinformed — they have the exact wrong information, but think they are informed.”
Again, there is no single solution.
Multiple responses are needed, to improve civic education, sustain reporting jobs, restore competition in digital advertising and prevent unfair business practices by dominant platforms.