On September 9th, editor-in-chief Espen Egil Hansen, of Norwegian Aftenposten, went head to head with the world's biggest content hub, Facebook. His open letter went around the world, and the following debate divided people into two groups. One that flamed Facebook for censoring free media. Another touting Facebooks right to manage their community by their own rules and standards. But are social media companies and journalism really adversaries?
Aftenposten's stab at Facebook was the result of period of extensive censorship, culminating with several cases of removed content, in particular the famed, Pulitzer prize winning "Napalm Girl" photo, which played a big part in turning the American public against the war in Vietnam, citing it as a case of improper nudity, and possible child pornography.
A challenge for democracy?
Hansen was soon backed by Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, who also took to posting the photo on Facebook. Her post was since removed by the social media giant, though they later backtracked and restored all posts.
A letter addressed to PM Solberg from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, stated that "Even with clear standards, screening millions of posts on a case-by-case basis every week is challenging." Sandberg has a point, which is one of the main reasons Facebook have recently turned to automated censoring. This automation is far from perfect, and Facebook knows this. Sandberg made this clear by adding an intention to not only do better, but also to listen to the Facebook community.
Some argue that Facebook isn't an editorial platform, and therefore have the liberty to impose any rules they like. With Sandberg's letter, however, Facebook have acknowledged being part of the media ecosystem.
Blowing bubbles or smoking filters?
As a result of algorithm-based content indexing and sharing, online filter bubbles are a reality everyone faces when using social media, or even when searching Google or Bing. You might describe algorithmic filtering as an automated curation or editorial function. Facebook are aware of their status as the world's leading content delivery platform. They are, however, not bound by journalistic ethics or obligations. They operate and act as a private business, answering in part to users, but mostly to shareholders and advertisers. Not that the latter part in itself differs much from most journalistic media.
Algorithms do not think abstractly, and that might be their main problem. Editors base their journalistic decisions on any number of factors, including data, gut feeling and contextual awareness. Where algorithms might serve the kind of content you like, editors will—in a perfect world—serve the content you need.
Paper or digital; the editorial responsibility is in the hands of the editor. There are legal and ethical guidelines for what constitutes as a legit journalistic media in most of the world. At the same time, journalism is a vital part of democracy. Many people might not recognize it today, but you’d be more likely to find a journalist digging through trash to uncover unpleasant truths about local or national government, than say a blogger writing on her spare time. These media must be allowed in charge of their own content, in order for this democratic scale of justice to balance properly.
Part of the solution
One option, as proposed by Espen Egil Hansen, would be to allow verified democratic media broader control over their Facebook channels.
Furthermore, Facebook holds all the user data and technical abilities needed to ensure that users below a certain age, or with certain religious, geographical or cultural preferences won't be shown inappropriate images. This would serve as a more democratic and open alternative to strict censoring.
It's hard to blame Facebook for wanting to create a safe and happy place online. After all, Facebook is where people go to enjoy themselves with friendly chitchat, LOLcats and casual social gaming. But since the platform actively tries to enable sharing of journalistic content, their part in the future of democratic journalism is nowhere as insignificant, as Mark Zuckerberg would have us believe.
Social media’s amazing global and local reach might not be worth a whole lot as a democratic tool, without dedicated critical journalism to back it up.