October 26, 2017   3 mins

This is the third of ten themes in Nigel Cameron’s open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, exploring obstacles to him seeking the US presidency. Click here for whole series. 

We can’t blame you for the internet and every way in which it has devastated traditional journalism – though the fact that we have around half the number of professional journalists than a generation ago1 should keep all of us awake some nights. But if you want to be leader of the free world you need to be chief cheerleader for a free press – and you need to acknowledge how your huge and growing share of the online advertising market is killing more of the media outlets who actually do proper journalism.

More than 40% of Americans are reported to go to Facebook to get their news. Together with Google, you now control two thirds of online advertising2, and continue to squeeze traditional media who depend on selling ads to stay in business – and, of course, who do the reporting.

Three quick ideas for you:

  • Serious3 investment in journalism: what about a big initiative to partner with local and international papers to train new recruits, to foster journalism on both sides of the digital/analogue divide? Maybe your friends at Google could be persuaded to go halves? Plainly it would need to be done blind (although you could think about addressing under-reporting of, eg, the poorer southern hemisphere). Otherwise, if you are involved in determining who gets money, it would be seen as just another Facebook move into the news space. You do, after all, have controversial form in this area4.
  • Second, there’s “fake news,” and the shocking news – which you have just confirmed – that hundreds of Russian-linked accounts placed highly-targeted ads during the election campaign. Quite apart from the general “fake news” stories that Russia and other used to sway opinion. (See section seven for more on the Russian connection.)
  • And third: some people are worried that, if you run for President, Facebook could play the part of the Zuckerberg cheerleader, as Fox lined up for Trump. If that’s not the plan, we need to know how this is going to work. Perhaps a high-level panel of independent journalists should be given editorial control of the site as soon as you decide you are going to run? Since you’re already rumoured to be running, something of that kind could not start too soon.

Part 4: Make Facebook (the Company) look less like 1950s Mad Men

  1.  The Pew Research Center reports a precipitous fall in newsroom journalists from 55,000 to less than 40,000 in the nine years between 2003 and 2012.
  2.  Mathew Ingram for Fortune, 4 January, 2017, “How Google and Facebook Have Taken Over the Digital Ad Industry”: “Based on the International Advertising Bureau’s numbers and public financial numbers from Google and Facebook, the two digital giants accounted for about 99% of the $2.9 billion in advertising growth in the third quarter – with Google making up about 54% of the total and Facebook about 45%, leaving just 1% for everyone else.”
  3.  I emphasise “serious” because your “Journalism Project” doesn’t really count given the scale of the revenues you are winning from the industry.
  4.  Gizmodo on the 9th of May 2016 reported: “Facebook workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential ‘trending’ news section, according to a former journalist who worked on the project. This individual says that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.”

Nigel Cameron writes about technology, society, and the future. In 2007 he founded the Washington think tank The Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies. His most recent book is Will Robots Take Your Job?