Facebook: A Tech Company Or A Media Company?

To close observers of the social network, it seems like Facebook is in a constant struggle of trying to figure out if it is a media company or a technology company. While it’s fair to say the company’s initial aim—to connect more people, in more places, using a social network—falls under the latter category, the way the app is used by many today makes it murkier.
By virtue of being the most-used social network, Facebook – whether it likes it or not – is the largest distributor of news and information in the world. That’s why it was controversial when the company announced that it had fired the ‘news curation’ team that had been previously tasked with filtering which news stories were “trending”. The company was ostensibly responding to reports that these curators were biased and that the supposed algorithmic trending list was anything but.
The move did not go down well. Shortly after, several untrue stories were at the top of the trending list, proving that algorithms can and will get things wrong. The controversy really brings into focus the tension that is at the nexus of technology, social media, and publishing. Whether Facebook likes it or not, it is involved in all three of those categories. As The Guardian put it, “Trained humans with fact-checking and journalism skills, such as those fired from the company last Friday, aren’t 100% foolproof, but they can intervene to keep algorithmic wildfire at bay. Perhaps it’s time for Facebook to rehire them?”
But Facebook, whose founder Mark Zuckerberg insists he is running a technology company, sees it as purely an issue of scale. Having a team on board who has to vet each and every article makes the process more laborious and less scalable. As the company’s blog put it:
“Trending was designed to help people discover interesting and relevant conversations happening on Facebook, about breaking news and events from around the world. Our goal is to enable Trending for as many people as possible, which would be hard to do if we relied solely on summarizing topics by hand. A more algorithmically driven process allows us to scale Trending to cover more topics and make it available to more people globally over time.”
So what’s Facebook to do? Does it have an ethical responsibility—as any media company would—to ensure that the information it is widely disseminating is factual and accurate, even if it’s not responsible for creating the content itself? One could argue that they do, but that doesn’t mean that the company has to see it that way themselves; they are, after all, not a public sector entity. However, from a pure utility perspective, you could also argue that it’s irrelevant how the company sees themselves. If they want to continue to grow as a technology company, they have to provide a user experience that their users find useful and positive, and want more of. If Facebook users continually find they’re being exposed to “fake news” they will eventually tire and find another place which does take on the responsibility of vetting the information put out.
As Mandy Jenkins, head of news at Storyful, which specializes in verifying and distributing social news, told The Guardian: “Machines think in black and white. I don’t think verification can be automated yet. What something means to be real and verified is not black and white.”
Calls for Facebook to rehire the curation team have already been heard around the internet. While the company is probably not pleased at the amount of negative attention this curation team has already received, they might be best served by reversing course and admitting that perhaps their algorithm isn’t quite yet ready to take over all the work of a human.