Is it Time for Journalism to Get Off Facebook?

What do you do if something is "like cigarettes"? If you can, you quit.

Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.

Some of the best journalism in recent weeks has involved new revelations about a familiar subject: the apparent complete lack of any corporate conscience at Facebook.

The Wall Street Journal led the coverage, with a breathtaking series, based on a cache of leaked documents, tracing a litany of depredations at a company whose $29 billion (!) in annual profits ought to provide it with sufficient resources to limit the havoc it wreaks.

Instead, the Journal has revealed that the company secretly exempts famous people from all those safety rules it brags about; knows that Instagram is especially toxic for teenage girls and has done precious little about it; knew that an algorithm tweak had made the platform an even angrier place but Mark Zuckerberg refused to adjust it because, apparently, $29 billion a year isn’t enough; has responded weakly or not at all to reports from its own staff of trafficking in human beings, drugs and weapons on the platform; and has, knowingly if unintentionally, undermined efforts to get the nation vaccinated. (Facebook denies the thrust of the story on Instagram, although without the sort of specificity that would be convincing, and they have “paused” plans for an Instagram for kids.)

Last week, the New York Times reported that Zuckerberg recently signed off on an effort to clutter Facebook’s news feed with stories favorable to the company. And ProPublica weighed in with a story demonstrating that Facebook’s Marketplace has become a forum for fraud and violence, and has failed to adopt safeguards long since put in place by competitors.

Almost all of these stories are coming from inside Facebook’s house. You may think that the company will eventually reform itself, but its employees seem not to believe that. They have observed the thoroughgoing lack of shame especially of its CEO and COO, and the litany of empty and unfulfilled promises to do better. Facebook’s Oversight Board also appears to be concerned.

Technology columnist Kara Swisher, a friend and former colleague of mine, responded that she is coming around to something Salesforce’s Marc Benioff said three years ago:

“Facebook is the new cigarettes. It’s addictive. It’s not good for you.”

Among those it’s not good for is journalism.

I have long been worried about Facebook. When I got an award a couple of years ago and had the opportunity to make one substantive point to the assembled group of journalism supporters, I used it to warn about Facebook. The first edition of this newsletter talked about the platforms’ monopolization of online advertising, and called, along the way, for their break-up—while acknowledging that that wouldn’t solve the advertising problem for publishers.

But I increasingly think that awareness of our addiction isn’t good enough. We may need to find a way to quit. For publishers, the time has come to seriously consider no longer posting our content on Facebook. That will be hard: the news industry has a pack-a-day habit, with perhaps 25-30% of traffic coming from Facebook, although that number could be falling (with Facebook’s encouragement). And disengagement for the news business has been made harder in recent years by many publishers agreeing to take cash payments from the tobacco company, er, platform. Withdrawal is never easy.

If, in the heyday of print newspapers, we had learned that the teenage boys delivering our papers on bicycles were thereby seriously undermining the mental health of their female classmates, I like to think we would have acted. If we had learned that the newsstands selling our single copies were simultaneously trafficking in drugs, weapons for terrorists and prostitution, I hope we would have found another way to reach our customers. How, exactly, is today’s situation different?

A few years ago, recognizing how much Facebook has degraded our politics, I decided to stop posting or engaging there on political issues and questions. (Like the vast majority of Americans, I have continued to use it to share personal and family news, happy and sad. I am not sure that is wise, but the value to me is considerable, and I would miss the connections.) When I launched this newsletter, I took to posting it each week on Facebook. This week will be the last for that. We should all do what we can.

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