The freedom of the press — or whatever is left of it, anyway — is crumbling beneath a ruthless & sustained assault by powerful interests, spearheaded by the major media corporations. Censorship practices are gaining more traction as news networks continue to blame the unpopular election results on “fake news,” an idea reinforced by intelligence agencies’ claims that Russia influences the public by promoting criticism of US policy. As the public discussion shifts its focus to Trump’s presidency, the crusade against dissenting media has quietly continued to erode public access to information. In what may be the death blow to truly independent media, Facebook recently announced that they are changing the rules that determine which stories are trending — specifically, by handing control to the corporate media…
Social Media is Falling to Censorship
If a topic is trending, most of us assume that many people are discussing it, which means it may be worth checking out. This is why trend mechanics can have a big impact on how articles, videos, & other content spread on social media — if a bit of content gets enough people talking, it starts trending, which shows it to a bigger audience who may not have discovered it otherwise. The upside is that, in theory, anyone who makes things that the internet likes has a chance of success ( like independent journalists ) and the downside is that dishonest sites can take advantage of the process to make advertising money. Overall, it’s been a fairly solid, democratic process — until now.
On January 25th, Facebook released a statement, titled “Continuing Our Updates to Trending,” explaining how the website was changing the rules that govern how topics & stories begin to trend. Large numbers of people posting & commenting on a story will no longer be enough for a topic to start trending ( which is how it used to be ) — the updated rules only allow a news story to trend if it is being reported by a significant number of news websites.
How Facebook’s New Rules
Endanger Independent Media
“It really takes a mass of publishers writing about the same topic to make the cut,” says product management VP Will Cathcart about the changes. To be fair, limiting trends to those being covered by many different news outlets is likely to cut down on the worst clickbait & “fake news” but it will also effectively turn the corporate media giants into the editorial board of social media. Wikileaks’ release of John Podesta’s emails, for instance, was mostly ignored by news outlets despite the public’s interest which kept the topic trending on social media ( maybe because the leaks show the media agreeing to let the DNC write their stories ). If the rules had required a significant number of news outlets to cover a trending story, the Podesta leaks would have been automatically repressed by news media’s decision to ignore them.
Excluding stories reported by a single website — no matter how important or how well-researched — will turn media conglomerates into a de facto information-oligarchy with broad powers to repress the spread of online news. In cases ( such as Podesta’s emails ) where the story may hurt profits or embarrass media corporations, repression will be the “default setting,” even without any planning or shady backroom deals. The greatest danger is that there is nothing stopping the media giants from teaming up to deliberately control the distribution of news on social media.
Facebook Keeps the Details Secret
But which news sites are considered credible? And how many need to be covering a story before it is allowed to trend? Like Google’s recent choice to conceal their list of 340 sites to be punished, Facebook has decided the details shouldn’t be available to peasant journalists, like myself. The Wall Street Journal, however, tells us the new system requires a trending topic to be covered by “a significant number” of “credible” news sites & that how long a site has existed may also be important.
That’s all we get to know. As for which sites Facebook thinks are “credible,” a clue might be found in their outdated guidelines on trending topics, which say that a trending story can be called a “top story” if it is on the front page of at least 5 of these 10 sites: BBC News, CNN, Fox News, The Guardian, NBC News, The New York Times, USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, & Buzzfeed News. To be clear, this is only speculation — but, if those 10 sites are examples of sites Facebook finds credible, then it would be fair to guess that “credible” is just a better-sounding word than “mainstream.”
Will Be the First Casualties
Here’s the thing — right now, you would not be reading this if rules like Facebook’s had existed. 2 out of my 3 most-successful articles — which drove more than half of this website’s traffic in 2016 — covered topics only I was bothering to cover. In the 1st, I used math to break down the DNC’s delegate system, which every other news outlet had failed to do. In the 2nd, I was one of just a few journalists in the US to stay up all night, talking to witnesses of the DNC’s Nevada state convention fiasco — again, most news outlets ignored the issue. The 3rd provided the only accurate Oregon primary results available for weeks because I dug up the county-level data to find 10%+ of the vote wasn’t counted by any other news outlet.
These 3 articles attracted millions of visitors because they covered issues that people wanted info about and they were successful because of the democratic nature of social media trends. If I published them now, they would not be allowed to trend simply because major media outlets didn’t want to cover the topics. Most of those millions of readers would be denied access to the information that they wanted & that I & other independent journalists provided for free. This website wouldn’t be what it is & I would not have the chance to support myself by doing what I love to do because donation-based journalism really means number-of-visitors-based journalism. This policy — and others like it — may very well destroy that kind of independence in journalism.
Corporate Censorship of Social Media is Here —
Unless & Until You Do Something About it
This article is not warning you — it is telling you what is happening now. This is not a drill — this is media corporations being given actual editorial control over the distribution of online news via social networks. Facebook is the gateway of over 40% of all news website traffic and the largest source of traffic on the internet — the more control we give media corporations over it, the more it will resemble the garbage politics & profit-driven media of the TV news networks. Unless internet users demand otherwise, this will be a grave loss to both the people at-large and to independent journalists everywhere, whose inquiries are not limited by the chains of advertisers & shareholders’ profits.
If you’d like to do something about this, here is a link to Facebook’s feedback form. Blowing up their inboxes with our concerns & helping others to do the same by sharing this article is a decent enough place to start.
P.S. A fellow journalist & master podcaster, Michael Salamone, has created an alternative to Facebook at TheSocial.MediaRevolt.org — see ya there 🙂
P.P.S. Since social media is becoming an increasingly hostile place for independent media (I’ve heard Lee Camp mention it, too) & Facebook hasn’t been showing these articles to very many people lately, you might want to subscribe to my email list by clicking here so that you don’t miss posts like this one! (there should also be a yellow subscribe button at the bottom of your screen & in the sidebar)
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