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How Facebook is attempting to strangle journalism


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On the 11th of January Mark Zuckerberg released his plans for what can only be described as the new Zuckerberg doctrine which promotes 'meaningful interaction' on Facebook.  This doctrine hides its much more dangerous intention. In a paternalistic fervour, Facebook wants to upgrade itself from Big Brother to Big Daddy.

The changes being implemented in the Facebook feed algorithm favour posts from family and friends over organizations' posts. This will mean a decided decrease in posts from media and news organizations (I dare say such as this one) in Facebook news feeds. The justification for this change is Zuckerberg's desire to make Facebook 'good for people's well-being', and to 'bring people closer together' in order to make Facebook 'time well spent'.

It comes following the recent accusations of Facebook's role in spreading of disinformation that especially affected the 2016 American presidential campaign. 

In his comments outlining his doctrine, Zuckerberg said he wished to reduce 'passive content' which is content that we scroll or blankly watch before moving on. However, there is a complete inversion of passivity in the plan outlined. Zuckerberg begins by saying research has shown being more connected to family and friends leads to happiness and well-being, however 'passively reading articles or watching videos —even if they're entertaining or informative—may not be as good'. In this redefinition, it is passive to read and watch something, even if it is informative, but it is active to use the social aspects of Facebook.  

The proposed solution to this problem is the hiding away of established journalism, as well as the divisive issues of importance that actually fires people up into a discussion. It is also helpful to look at what is not considered 'passive'.

Strangely the definition of 'passive content' doesn't include endless posts of couple goals, recycled memes, and self-congratulatory posts that elicit very little engagement. But even that content is second to advertisement, the ultimate passive experience. We don't engage with advertisement, we don't get any meaning from it, we instead wish to scroll or skip past it as quickly as possible. Is that passive content going to be reduced? Of course not. Speaking of the proposed changes an interview, Facebook vice-president John Hegeman assures us that advertisements will remain unchanged. 

In reality what is being done is the creation of a new standard for news and information to be judged by. Facebook is now arrogated itself the task of ensuring well-being, and in doing so is going to apply this standard to news. Are you going to feel positive when you read about a genocide in South East Asia? No? Well you don't need to be presented with it, says Facebook. The news is no longer judged by its informative quality, but instead its therapeutic effects. This is a doctrine of passivity. 

But that is not all that is dangerous with this change. A recent article by Sheera Frenkel, Nicholas Casey, and Paul Mozur in the New York Times has identified the beginnings of dangerous possibilities. Facebook has piloted this new program in six countries around the world. Its aim is to bury Facebook posts from established news agencies in a feature called Explore while leaving the normal feed filled with more 'meaningful' content, most important of which is advertisements. This, however, as the article identifies, does not extend to non-established and questionable news outlets, whose posts will still be found on news feeds. In short, if you are the BBC, you're buried in the back pages of the new Facebook, but if you are smaller government-funded propaganda outfit, or '', you get the front page coverage. 

To understand how sinister this change really is it is helpful to look at the countries that it is being piloted in Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Serbia. Apart from Slovakia and Serbia, all the other countries are ranked in the bottom half of the World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders. In the words of Reporters Without Borders,  Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić has 'gagged independent media' within his country. The same is true in Cambodia which experienced the closing of one of its main newspapers by the country's leader Hun Sen. News agencies in these countries, already subject to repressive conditions, experience a diminished connection and interaction with their audience as a result of Facebook's pilot scheme.

The choices of countries begs the question what results are they hoping for? In their own response to this plan Reporters Without Borders issued their own indictment of the proposed changes stating its result increases Facebook's profit, reduces user interaction with news, and enforces repressive regimes power over information control. While the emotional well-being of economically secure users in developed countries is protected from divisive or polarizing news, news agencies under repressive regimes lose their ability to connect and inform to their population. 

Facebook is espousing a new version of an old idea: paternalism. Users are children in their ever-expanding zone of responsibility and as such need to be guided by their unwavering hand. Similarly, the most effective advice to counter this overreach is just as old and unchanging. When a business says it wants to act in your best interest, hold on to your wallet; when an information outlet starts speaking in the soothing tones of 'well-being' don't look at the hypnotic swinging pocket watch; and when Zuckerberg offers you a solution to your problems, back away while keeping a cautious eye on him. 


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