Yesterday, Facebook announced the launch of its Journalism Project, which is aimed at fostering stronger, healthier ties between the platform and the news industry from which it profits.

The project's three stated goals are collaborating on better news products, better equipping journalists, and better equipping the populace. A tall order, but few have the clout to accomplish this as Facebook does.

Facebook will apparently engage with news creators early in the process to create items that better engage with their readers, especially to better leverage some of its prominent features such as Instant Articles. As well, the social media giant will work to improve the viability of local news, continue to host hackathons and sponsor news events, and experiment on business models and monetization with content partners.

This focus on newsmakers is a particularly striking move given that Facebook (and Twitter) introduced features like Instant Articles have sanitized stories of their creators' identities. In pursuit of loading articles from content partners even faster, Facebook's app will host the articles locally, rather than redirect readers to the sites.

Not only does this strip away the publishers' brand identities, it also harms their bottom lines by killing the ad impressions. This friendly approach to news partners may help smooth ruffled feathers, but isn't likely to resolve the overarching problems in the relationship.

Additionally, Facebook is rolling out increased resources for journalists and the at-large public. On top of increased training opportunities, journalists are being given free access to CrowdTangle, a tool that empowers them to track and enhance their stories' digital footprints.

For the general public, we're being given options to report news items as fallacious and a series of PSAs about the danger of "news hoaxes." Additionally, the company assembled a cohort of external fact checkers and adjusted the algorithms governing news feeds to de-prioritize pieces of fake news.

What's Their Motivation?

Facebook's PR capital has sunk in recent months due to the mass proliferation of dubious news items on its platform. Thus, everything surrounding the Journalism Project and whatever comes next are purely reactive moves designed to restore its image.

As well, cozying up with the fourth estate might reduce the number of pieces attacking Facebook of not being proactive enough on this critical issue and others.

The larger motive, however, is safeguarding Facebook's intrinsic value. The company was smart in its initial design that it pegged the consumers of the platform's value to also be its producers. Continued engagement with the platform, the factors that drive Facebook's value proposition to advertisers, rely on high-quality interactions. Being inundated with unreliable information erodes the foundation of trust the social network is built on, which undermines Facebook's value proposition to users.

By working to improve and ensure the quality of content, Facebook is aiming to protect their revenue streams and stock price. While it has long since rebounded, the stock did fall by 10% in the week after the election, amid criticisms that Facebook enabled the outcome by not curbing fake news sooner.

Time to Resolve That Identity Crisis

While the Journalism Project will probably produce better outcomes for the platform, its news partners, and the users, it doesn't quite address the larger issue at stake here: what exactly is Facebook?

In a Facebook Live post, CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared his company to be a new kind of platform and neither a traditional media or technology company. Yet, neither he nor anyone else at the company has given a clear vision of what Facebook is.

In plain terms, the platform has evolved beyond merely being a social network; it's also a content and open development platform. Anyone can create and distribute both content and apps via Facebook, so it's absolutely become a complex machine.

Despite the many faces of Facebook (or perhaps because of them), there's a severe lack of publicly available vision. Instead of sitting on the fence and only coming down to react to criticism and crisis, the company's leadership should move more proactively to define the platform and its relationship to the world.

Facebook has had massive real-world effects for quite some time now. Along with Twitter, it has radically empowered people and events that otherwise might have floundered. Two prime examples are the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter.

In the former example, protesters convened online, planned events, and developed their messaging, ousting many longtime autocrats and ushered a wave of democratic reforms. The latter highlights how these platforms can give a movement a venue for discussion and broadcasting its message. Last summer, Facebook Live was used to livestream the shooting death of Philando Castile at the hands of a police officer.

Facebook can be used to reunite estranged families, build political movements, and turn cats into symbols. With over a billion users, the company has a lot of power and, to paraphrase Uncle Ben, a mountain of responsibility to go with it.

These situations are never easy and don't resolve themselves. Twitter and Reddit famously struggle to handle their harassment and trolling conundrums and still have no solution. However, Facebook is worth around $370 billion, so it can absolutely afford to spend some time sorting itself out and moving forward appropriately.

One can only hope the Journalism Project leads to something greater.

Published on: Jan 13, 2017
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