clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Media — both on the left and right — are pressing Facebook to define what journalism is

Even as the social media giant tries to not become the arbiter of what’s news — and what’s “trash.”

(left to right) Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Partnerships VP Dan Rose and COO Sheryl Sandberg
(left to right) Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Partnerships VP Dan Rose and COO Sheryl Sandberg
Drew Angerer / Getty

BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith was confused as hell and he wasn’t going to take it anymore.

So while he’s not exactly Howard Beale, the famously pugnacious editor of BuzzFeed pressed hard last week on global news partnerships head Campbell Brown to explain how the social media giant defines journalism and who practices it.

The focus of his ire was the presence of six conservative publications at a biannual meeting that Brown ran last Thursday in New York with a group of editors and publishers Facebook works with. While Smith had no issue with outlets like the National Review and the Weekly Standard — mainstream conservative media that he lauded — he wondered out loud why “trash” like the Daily Caller was allowed there and that Facebook was false-balancing right versus left media outlets.

For those not familiar, the Daily Caller is a popular and sometimes controversial conservative blog that was founded by Fox News host Tucker Carlson and current publisher Neil Patel. Tonight, for example, its main headlines are “Russian National Linked With NRA Is Charged With Conspiracy” and “Exclusive: Young Republicans Dumped at ‘Random’ Gas Station by Anti-Trump Uber Driver Speak Out.”

Patel, who was also present at the Facebook meeting, obviously disagreed with Smith’s assessment and questioned why he brought it up now rather than at many previous Facebook media meetings the Daily Caller staff had attended, said sources.

Still, Smith’s assertion was also echoed by the Huffington Post’s top editor Lydia Polgreen. Sources said that she and also Vox Media publisher Melissa Bell argued with Brown, making the point that Facebook had to be less opaque on how it decides on what is a legitimate news organization. (Disclosure: Vox Media owns Recode, but we are never invited anywhere good like this.)

Brown, said sources, tried to cut the partisan baby in the middle by noting that Facebook would not pick sides on the left or right and instead rely on independent fact-checking organizations it has turned to to decide what’s true and what’s not.

Welcome to the 10th ring of media hell, Mark Zuckerberg.

All joking aside, the clash is symbolic of what has become Facebook’s daily challenge: Identifying what is and isn’t news, while also serving billions of users with a range of different political beliefs.

In fact, those efforts will be again at the center of a hearing today in front of the U.S. House Judiciary committee, in which executives from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are expected to answer questions about the companies’ “content filtering practices.”

It’s not the first time this topic has been discussed on Capitol Hill. A previous hearing back in April featured a couple of YouTubers, sisters named Diamond and Silk, who claimed that Facebook is silencing conservative opinions. The sisters — black, female Trump supporters with 1.6 million Facebook followers — have been consistently used by conservative politicians as examples of Facebook censorship, including during a hearing in April when Zuckerberg testified before Congress.

That’s because Facebook deemed Diamond and Silk’s official page “unsafe to the community” last fall, cutting some of its traffic. Zuckerberg has since called it an “enforcement error.”

Tuesday’s hearing will be a chance for social platforms, Facebook in particular, to try and convince Congress that it can allow free speech while still policing content for safety, and even accuracy.

That goal has never been tougher, and Facebook faces near-weekly setbacks, many of which have been of its own making. “Those engineers who run that place are completely unprepared to deal with what they have created,” said one media exec, in one sentiment both the left and right can probably agree on.

Last week, for example, Facebook was broadly attacked by the media for defending InfoWars, the far-right site run by Alex Jones that often peddles conspiracy theories and inaccurate information. When asked why the InfoWars page was allowed to operate on Facebook despite the social company’s efforts to curb fake news, Facebook described it as a “free speech” issue and said that it was defending the right for a page like it to exist and not what was on the page itself.

“We just don’t think banning Pages for sharing conspiracy theories or false news is the right way to go,” Facebook tweeted from the official company account.

Oof. Ouch. Toe-stubbing accomplished!

A big part of the problem is that there is a lot of sometimes perplexing and definitely conflicting nuance to Facebook’s approach. The company doesn’t want to help spread disinformation, but it also won’t decide what’s true or what’s false. In the case of InfoWars, Facebook doesn’t consider the publication a news organization, which is why InfoWars has not been invited to media confabs run by Brown. What’s even more confusing to users, though, is that InfoWars self-identifies on Facebook as a “News & Media Website.”

You can grok the Gordian-knot problem here, right?

And, according to sources, those Facebook does consider a legit news outlet cannot be tagged with more than a limited number of infractions in a month as publishing false news as determined by those outside fact-checkers or it is also dinged by denial of advertising and other penalties. Sources said that is why other well-known conservative outlets like Breitbart, for example, were not invited to Brown’s meetings.

What’s ironic is that the meetings were designed to bring more clarity to how Facebook behaves, giving more insight to publishers in what the company is doing on its platform, from tweaks to its algorithm to money that it has given out to entice media companies to use its tools to distribute content.

While sources said the gathering soon got back on that track, some of those there were also surprised that Facebook had brought in so many conservative sites compared to those that are considered more liberal and that there were none on the very left present to counter the Daily Caller. “Facebook has gone out of its way to overbalance as it has gotten pressure,” said one editor not present who works frequently with the company.

But those familiar with the meeting said that not everyone who is invited can attend — in last week’s meeting neither the New York Times nor CNN could be there, though both were invited.

This article originally appeared on