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When Facebook ‘Disrupts’ Journalism, It Degrades Our Democracy

Democracy dies in darkness. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Facebook and Google are loosely regulated, privately owned entities that collectively distribute information to — and collect information about — billions of people on a daily basis. There is no precedent in human history for the kind of power that they enjoy. And both have a known record of exercising that power in deceitful, destructive ways. They have (collectively) conspired to suppress wages for workers in their sector; violated their users’ privacy rights; abetted censorship in authoritarian nations; contributed to a genocide in Myanmar; and aggressively avoided paying taxes to the government that funded the basic research and infrastructure on which their private empires were built.

Nevertheless, top executives at both of these companies believe that they have been subjected to an unfair amount of adversarial coverage in (what remains of) the traditional media. In their view, journalists do not monitor their activities so zealously — or analyze their actions so skeptically — out of concern for keeping them accountable to their users and the broader public, but rather, out of bitter jealousy.

And a journalist at Axios, Scott Rosenberg, wants them to know that they’re absolutely right.

Facebook and Google execs privately complain about the barrage of critical coverage they face, charging that media companies have a financial incentive to attack them and that media execs are settling scores. They’re right.

Be smart: Outrage over Facebook’s misuse of user data and failure to rein in election fraud is real. But the zeal that media outlets bring to their Facebook coverage is personal, too. It’s turbocharged because journalists, individually and collectively, blame Facebook — along with other tech giants, like Google, and the internet itself — for seducing their readers, impoverishing their employers, and killing off their jobs.

… In the ’90s, media stalwarts complained that Craigslist and eBay had stolen their classified business by posting ads for free — but paper classifieds were doomed the moment the web browser became popular.

In the 2000s, publishers lashed out at Google’s hammerlock on search, while they couldn’t even get search to work right on their own sites.

Incumbent media companies could have built and owned the digital advertising business themselves but they didn’t move fast and smart enough and worried too much about cannibalizing their existing revenue from print and airwave ads.

One piece of this analysis is indisputably true: Journalists (and their employers) have been adversely impacted by the rise of these tech giants, and are thus, acutely aware of the less benign aspects of their power. It is plausible that this experience has led some outlets to cover Facebook and Google more adversarially than they might have otherwise.

But it’s also plausible that the immense power that Facebook and Google have amassed leads other outlets to cover them less adversarially than they should. For example, a newly hired tech editor at a digital-first publication that specializes in providing intimate access into the thoughts of the powerful (to readers who prefer their news in flash-card form) might write a “beat-sweetener” piece informing Facebook and Google executives that they are right to see themselves as victims of the Fourth Estate’s professional jealousy.

It is true that many legacy-media outlets did a lackluster job of adapting to the internet revolution (present company excluded). And it’s true that this made it easier for tech platforms to eat their industry’s lunch. Rosenberg does a fine job of establishing a motive for “score-settling” journalism. But where is the crime? It would be one thing if Axios presented a litany of libelous errors that journalists had made in the course of covering Silicon Valley with a vengeance. But if this alleged resentment isn’t producing misinformation, then what is the point of insinuating that critical coverage of Facebook is rooted in personal grievance? Who is served by such unsubstantiated insinuations?

These questions point to the more fundamental flaw in Rosenberg’s analysis — its failure to grapple with journalism’s civic functions and responsibilities. Let’s stipulate that reporters resent Facebook and Google for what they’ve done to the news business. Why should we assume that such resentment is rooted in personal concerns, rather than democratic ones?

Silicon Valley giants have outperformed newspapers in the business of matching advertisers to eyeballs, while also (at least, in Google’s case) radically expanding the accessibility of information in a manner that’s delivered immense benefits to the public (not least, that portion of the public that reports for a living). But they could not provide the latter service if it weren’t for journalistic enterprises — because Facebook and Google have not outperformed traditional media at its core function of news-gathering; they’ve just slurped up the revenue streams that sustained such work.

Between 2004 and 2016, Google’s revenue (the vast majority of which comes from advertising) swelled from $3.2 billion to $89.5 billion. Over that same period, the amount that local businesses invested in print newspaper ads dropped from $44.4 billion to $12.9 billion. Meanwhile, Facebook diverted more than $1 billion in advertising away from print outlets in 2016 alone, according to an analysis from Poynter.

This creative destruction didn’t just hurt journalists, but also the publics that they serve. In 2014, there were 35 percent fewer full-time newspaper reporters covering state capitals in the U.S than there were in 2003. This decline was powered by the mass death of local and regional papers. And the civic consequences of that extinction event have been immediate and profound. Multiple studies have shown that when a city loses its local paper, residents become less knowledgeable about — and active in — local politics. One of the leading researchers on this phenomenon, Lee Shaker of Portland State University, explained its consequences to Wired last year:

“You can kind of see this cascading series of consequences,” Shaker says. Here’s the scenario, as he describes it: “If people don’t get local news, they don’t know what’s going on in their community. If they don’t know what’s going on in their community, they don’t get involved in their community. If they’re not involved in their community, and others aren’t involved in their community, their government may not actually function very well. If people aren’t involved at the local level, and they don’t know what’s going on, and the government’s not performing at the local level, they start to lose trust. And when they start to lose trust, they start to have concerns about whether or not democracy is working, whether the government is working. And those feelings are naturally then extended to the national government.”

This state of affairs works quite well for America’s would-be plutocrats (including those who maintain homes in Silicon Valley). Print journalism’s crisis of profitability has left many papers reliant on the largesse of billionaires — and, in some cases, muzzled by their ideological whims. Meanwhile, the dearth of reporting on state governments has made it easier for monied interests to bend public policy to their will.

But the “disruption” of legacy media has worked rather poorly for anyone who believes that our nation should be governed democratically by a well-informed public (or, at least, by one that has been given the opportunity to be well-informed). The fact that Facebook and Google have devastated the news business is not a reason to view stories that portray their power as a threat to the public good with skepticism; it is a reason to view their power as a threat to the public good.

When Facebook ‘Disrupts’ Journalism, It Degrades Democracy