Let’s face it – the world’s most popular social media platform isn’t exactly at the vanguard of moral conduct.
Strange are the ways of social media goliaths. And stranger they are of Facebook. After years of wrecking the revenue streams of news publishers – both print and digital – FB has just test-launched an aggregated News tab which it hopes, in its own words, ‘aids in (FB’s) effort to sustain great journalism and strengthen democracy’. In a blog post to announce the limited rollout, FB says: “Journalism plays a critical role in our democracy.
When news is deeply-reported and well-sourced it gives people information they can rely on. When it’s not, we lose an essential tool for making good decisions.”
Ironic, isn’t it?
Let’s face it – the world’s most popular social media platform isn’t exactly at the vanguard of moral conduct. FB hasn’t made a name for itself with its truthfulness. Or credibility. Or integrity. Or transparency. Or for protecting the privacy of its users. Or for being non-partisan. Or for sticking to its word. Or for not being involved in surreptitious efforts to swing public opinion during elections and undermining democracy. Nope, Facebook doesn’t really have the bragging rights to any of these attributes which, some would argue, should be prerequisites to becoming a news publisher. But arguably devoid of such moral compulsions, FB is already the world’s most popular social media news source.
Those of us exposed to Bollywood of the 1970s will remember an iconic and evergreen dialogue from the blockbuster movie Deewaar. A typical Bolly masala – two underprivileged brothers grow up to find themselves at either side of the law – the hit movie was full of intense drama. In one particular shot critiqued as a masterpiece, the lawbreaker elder brother (played by the legendary Amitabh Bachchan) tries to argue against the ethics and ideals of his cop brother (the very talented Shashi Kapoor).
Loosely translated, AB says his chosen path has given him ‘buildings, properties, bank balance, mansions and cars’. And then he asks: “What do you have?”
Mere paas maa hai.
“I have mum,” says the younger brother, winning the argument without having to defend what he does or why. Now Facebook can’t be termed a defender of the law (maybe in the upside-down world), but if you ignore that minutia, the similarity is stark.
Traditional news publishers argue about sticking vehemently to ethics and principles, about journalism of courage, about overcoming fear and turning down favours, about how hard speaking the truth is but why it is still worth speaking, and about trust, honesty and other such intangibles. On the other hand, Facebook, despite lacking the pedigree and probity of an established news publisher, has just the thing that tilts the scales in its favour.
Facebook has scale.
Like the proverbial maa of Bollywood, ‘scale’ is the single-most-important attribute in this David vs Goliath fight. FB’s 2.4 billion monthly active users translate into 2.4b monetisable profiles, their likes and dislikes, their habits and desires. And that’s a huge fork it uses to steal everyone else’s advertising lunch. It took decades – even centuries – of pursuing true-blue journalism for traditional publishers to establish their credibility and popularity, in that order. But while we waited in the ever-longer queue for our turn at the buffet, Facebook started dipping into the spread from the other side of the table.
It built the audience first. Then, dangling the ‘followers’ carrot in front of revenue-starved publishers, it ‘borrowed’ our content for free, which helped it secure an even bigger audience.
Just when some publishers came close to partly monetising their followers, it changed the rules (a.k.a. algorithms). Facing falling pageviews, publishers now routinely pay the ransom (a.k.a. FB Boost) to promote our free content on its platform – for FB to get even bigger in scale. So ‘News’ has the scale to start with more audience than even the most popular traditional news media outlet. And now FB is hiring journalists. Not to create news, but to curate it, from the same gullible sources. It will be paying a nominal fee to some (not all) publishers, and there’s already a beeline of blue-blooded publishers in the US (where the pilot has been rolled out) to get more of their blood sucked in the hope of scarce revenue. Strange are the ways of news publishers, too.
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