Facebook and the end of the public sphere
Facebook has been facing heavy criticism in the last few years. Fake news, Russian propaganda, the targeting of insecure teens and former employees explaining how bad Facebook really is for your health: they all undermined the image of Facebook as a force of good. Mark Zuckerberg’s 2018 New Year’s resolutions to fix Facebook, even though they were carefully wrapped in idealistic rhetoric, are bad news for anyone who cares about diversity in the field of media and democracy in general.
Zuckerberg’s New Year's resolution: fix Facebook
In a highly debated Facebook post, Mark Zuckerberg introduced upcoming changes to the platform. Zuckerberg clearly is on a path to restore belief in Facebook as a means of ‘empowering the people’. In a series of interviews, posts and speeches, the Facebook CEO tries to remanufacture the image of Facebook as a benevolent actor, working for the wellbeing of humanity—and not for profit. Its new mission, Zuckerberg told CNN, is to bring the world together. Connecting friends and family isn’t enough, you need to overcome the divisions of contemporary society by building strong communities.
As a result of this new and updated mission, Zuckerberg is informing his Facebook followers. In a series of posts on his Facebook page, he explains what can be expected in the next year. In the name of the community, scientific research and dreams about empowerment, Facebook will tweak its algorithms so that we can interact more with people, form communities more easily, and spend less time ‘passively consuming videos or news on Facebook’. Moreover—and this indexes the companies’ humanitarianism—Facebook wants to make sure that we spend less time on Facebook. By showing us less ‘viral videos’, Facebook already succeeded in reducing ‘time spent on Facebook by roughly 50 million hours every day’.
With the digitalization of the public domain we see ‘human editors’ being replaced by algorithms.
These ‘benevolent’ actions are new illustrations of the massive impact Facebook has on controlling our behavior online. Up until now, the interface and the algorithms were built to ‘keep us hooked’ (Eyal, 2014). That’s why all mainstream media were rather astonished by Zuckerberg’s New Year resolutions. The social, cultural, financial, political and even emotional effects that even small changes of the Facebook algorithms have, explain why the posts of Zuckerberg are scrutinized worldwide. Pundits all over the world were speculating about what these changes mean for the distribution of (their) news across the platform.
More important than the question what the impact is for large commercial media is the question what these changes mean for the public sphere, and for democracies in all corners of the world.
The public sphere
The public sphere is the realm of communication and debate that came to life with the emergence of mass communication in the form of a relatively small-scale and independent press in the 18th and 19th century. These media created a forum in which the authority of the state and the powerful in general could be criticized and called upon to justify themselves before an informed and reasoning public (Thompson, 1990: 112). That public sphere, even though it was only in principle open to everybody, at least embodied the idea that citizens could come together as equals, in a forum distinct from the ‘the state’ and ‘the private realms’, according to Habermas. It is important to clarify that a public space is not necessarily a public sphere: a public space enhances discussion; a public sphere enhances democracy.
Today, the public sphere does not refer to one specific place anymore. It is mostly used as a metaphor to refer to a combination of offline places and more abstract environments embedded in social media. Even though the public sphere does not point to one concrete space or place, it is obvious that media are still crucial in this conception of the public sphere. Public opinion is still constructed vis-à-vis public discourse that is produced and reproduced through media. Whenever we think of the public sphere—as in a public space that fosters a deepening of democracy—we should understand that it only exists within concrete material infrastructures in very specific social, economic and political contexts. Media shape a public space, a public forum in which politicians, journalists and since the rise of digital media, 'common people' can have a voice. Newspapers, television, social media, the state and the rule of law all co-construct and organize the public space in which a public sphere can flourish or die.
The dream of digital media facilitating a rational and public sphere within democratic boundaries has seemingly been shattered.
It's these infrastructures, the technologies and the people who structure them that (co-)determine whether or not a public space becomes a public sphere. Ideally, media are not just creating a public space, but supporting a public sphere that enables rational debate and informs the public. Not technology as such will determine if that is the case or not, but also the general context in which these media are used. The commercialization of mainstream media, for instance, altered the character of the public sphere in a fundamental way. The once privileged forum of rational-critical debate became a domain of cultural consumption, organized along economic, not democratic goals. Bourdieu (1996) made abundantly clear how the commercialization of mass media and the quest for the highest ratings, created a stage for extreme-right antidemocratic politicians, promoting hatred and racism. The public space embedded in mainstream media became hostile to a public sphere.
The virtual sphere?
These changes in mainstream media were one of the reasons why digital media were hailed as a revitalization of the public sphere and democracy. Blogs and micromedia like Indymedia all contributed to the idea that digital media inherently helped achieve a deepening of democracy. The new technologies would enable citizens to have a voice in the public debate. Political participation would grow and this would facilitate a democratic utopia. At last, there would be a true public sphere based on equal access to the public domain.
Reality turned out more dystopian. The virtual space has been used more to share trivial stuff and to passively consume than to actively engage in a rational democratic debate. Even when people engage in political discussions, we see that it rarely facilitates a deepening of democracy. Trolling, flaming, shitposting and hacking, next to surveillance, tracking and targetting have become key ingredients of the virtual space (Maly, 2018).
The dream of digital media facilitating a rational and public sphere within democratic boundaries has seemingly been shattered. The internet has become, just like mass media in de last decennia of the 20th century, dominated by large-scale commercial organizations. They have turned the internet in another domain of cultural consumption. The criticism that Facebook received in the last years explicitly targeted its role in redefining societies and especially in undermining democracy. That is not just a question of ‘fake news’, but of the impact of algorithms built to serve economic, not democratic goals.
New actors, new business models or new technologies all have the potential to be disruptive: to reorganize the existing power relations in a certain field and as such to dramatically change the status quo. Digitalization and social media, and Facebook in particular, are a disruptive force in contemporary societies. They reshape the public domain and question the dominant position of classic media in shaping the public sphere. They also reshape the relation between the fields of politics, academia and media.
According to recent PEW research on News Use Across Social Media Platforms in 2016, 62% of American adults get news on social media, and 66% of the American Facebook users get their news on the site. This is 44% of the American Adult population that uses Facebook to consume news. For 64% of them, Facebook is the only site that confronts them with ‘news’. All existing media are now dependent on Facebook for at least a part of their audience. The New York Times campaigned for months through Facebook to acquire new readers and most small media depend on Facebook for a similar purpose. The monopoly in news distribution has shifted towards the digital.
With the digitalization of the public domain we see ‘human editors’ being replaced by algorithms. In the ideal version of the public sphere, human editors would decide which stories they run and which ones make it onto the cover. That decision would be made on the basis of the intrinsic quality and societal relevance of a topic. Today, human editors still determine what is considered ‘news’ (but this is to a large extent guided by commercial considerations). However, human interactions with the algorithms of digital platforms are what will determine if and who sees that news in the end. Whether your newsfeed will be filled with lolcats or with intellectuals depends on your personal interaction with the algorithms of Facebook.
The impact of these algorithms and digital interfaces is so influential that human editors and journalists rewrite their content to maximize their chance of uptake online.
The algorithms of Facebook have a tremendous impact on shaping the public space. The old dream of the internet as a democratic force, creating a level playing field for all is long gone. The internet today is characterized by deep inequality. It is dominated by a small number of huge internet companies. Their algorithms structure the public space and every change affects not only the entire media field, but reaches far beyond. Every new goal these companies set themselves has effects for millions of people and companies.
Facebook still maintains the idea that they “are not in the business of picking which issues the world should read about, but we are in the business of connecting people with stories they find most meaningful’. But Facebook is clearly not just a platform that enables people to ‘share’. It de facto functions as a news medium. True, Facebook does not produce content, but it organizes the access of millions of people to news and it formats the news other media produce. Facebook is only reluctantly and partially admitting their role in the public sphere.
The neoliberal public space
The impact of these algorithms and digital interfaces is so influential that human editors and journalists rewrite their content to maximize their chance of uptake online. News platforms are built to be found in Google, to push sharing and to maximize social media uptake by selecting ‘sharable’ quotes. Pictures, titles and abstracts are chosen so as to maximize their click-ability and share-ability on Facebook. Not the democratic relevance is the dominant criterion for selecting the news, but ‘online success’ or cultural consumption.
The Facebook ‘guidelines’ for publishers are like a law of nature in the Facebook ecology. The new Facebook guidelines for publishers show again how invasive and powerful Facebook really is, even though Facebook pretends to change its algorithms in order to stop fake news and allow quality to circulate. Quality in the Facebook discourse points to ‘authentic’ stories, ‘stories that ‘the community’ is willing to read, share and interact with’. What matters the most here, is not societal or democratic relevance, but ‘interaction’. The guidelines for publishers deal with the form, the content, the timing and the frequency of Facebook postings.
Throughout the document, Facebook emphasizes the importance of the form of the content. Publishers should focus on using the right keywords. They should publish different content types: not just articles or interviews, but also Facebook live videos, status updates and Facebook instant articles. They should also use high quality resolution in their videos.
Facebook does not produce news itself. It does not say which topic one has to share or write about, but it does give guidelines on topics and form. The underlying assumption of these guidelines is a perspective on the public space as ‘a market of ideas’; a market where publishers compete against each other to conquer market shares. Publishers are explicitly told to monitor competitors; to build up and target your audience, and to post a lot of content on Facebook in order to conquer your market share. Facebook seemingly non-ironically adds that you do not need to be afraid to spam your audience ‘because we will not show everything to your followers’.
Neoliberal ideology is organizing the public space Facebook is setting up. The guidelines are explicit about this. Facebook for instance suggests to publishers to see what works and goes viral on Facebook and to engage with it: meaning to produce content themselves on these trending topics. Moreover, publishers are advised ‘not to wait too long to post on a trending topic’.
From 5% to 4% news in your newsfeed
Only media with a large staff and large budgets will be able to follow those guidelines. Only large companies that have the means to produce social media content next to the daily articles and videos, can succeed in the Facebook environment. In other words: only large established companies will be able to fulfill these demands. This does not yet take into account that one needs an ever-increasing advertisement budget in order to find audiences on Facebook. After all, in order to ‘fix Facebook’, Zuckerberg announces to drop the percentage of news in the News feeds from 5% to 4%. This is again bad news for the smaller news companies, and Zuckerberg is explicit about this:
“The idea is this update will show more news from sources that are broadly trusted across the community and not only by those who read them directly. For example, take the Wall Street Journal or New York Times. Even if you don't read them or don't agree with everything they write, most people have confidence that they're high quality journalism. On the flip side, there are blogs that have intense followings but are not widely trusted beyond their core audience. We will show those publications somewhat less.”
Facebook also announced that 'it will boost news sources that its users rate as trustworthy in surveys'. To be known as a medium is thus the first requirement to make it on that list. Here you see the conservative quality of the new Facebook guidelines: the established companies win; the smaller media lose. Not quality as such is crucial, but what is commonly seen as such. It is this general common-sense idea of certain mainstream producers of quality that will be used as a list of trustworthy sources.
Establishing a trustworthy brand, having tons of followers that interact with your content, are replacing real judgement about the quality of the content a medium produces. A relatively small online magazine, like Diggit Magazine, gets around 50% of its readers through Facebook and 20% through Google—yet will not be on Facebook’s “trustworthy” list due to its size. We cannot be authentified, we do not have access to all the Faceook guidelines and we do not get advice from Facebook. In the quest to ban viral fake news, smaller but qualitative news sites will be sacrificed as collateral damage.
It's these small media that suffer from the fact that Facebook’s newsfeed is put together by algorithmic editors serving economic goals and not by human editors serving democratic ideals. Today, human editors select news on their 'economic and algorithmic value': which headline will generate clicks and high ratings. The economic values embedded in the algorithms organize the mass of the information in a very particular way.
The algorithms designed by these commercial enterprises are undermining the democratic quality of the public domain
But even beyond these economic values that dominate the media field, algorithms in themselves are probably not the best instruments to define quality and truth. They can possibly be useful to detect blatant falsehoods (News with headlines like 'Clinton is an alien'), but quantitative, and technological criteria especially, are not the best instruments to organize a democratic public sphere. Algorithms cannot read and decide which news or information is trustworthy or which voices should be heard from a democratic perspective.
As we can see it now, quality is still quantified. Quality is linked to established media, and the surveys will reproduce the existing categorization of these media. In general, we can expect that large established mainstream media with big budgets will be favored and the diversity of the media landscape will be weakened. Facebook’s technological solutions appear to further reinforce the commercialization of the public domain again, not its democratization. The dominant position of Facebook in the contemporary media field means that its algorithms not only (re)shape the public space, but also determine if this public space can harbor a public sphere.
Facebook’s current answers to the criticisms that it undermines democracies follows the example of Google. In order to circumvent taking up editorial responsibility, Google reserves high places for mainstream media and Wikipedia in search queries on sensitive topics. If you have complaints, knock on the doors of these other actors. The solution that Facebook has thought of is quite similar to Google’s answer. By favoring established mainstream media, it also shifts responsibility to them.
At the same time, Facebook is formatting their voice by pushing them to compete within the Facebook ecology. What changes now are the parameters and everyone active in the field needs to adjust to this. Facebook’s algorithms, however, still determine which voices will be heard and which voices will be suppressed. The ranking of your news feed is personalized. Facebook organizes a private space, algorithmically ranking stories to keep you satisfied. Satisfaction is a crucial Facebook value, and not democratic quality for instance, because if 'the ranking is off, people don’t engage, and leave dissatisfied. The contemporary Facebook formats strengthen the big players who are willing to produce ‘stories’ for cultural consumption.
Neoliberalism and the algorithmic public space
The contemporary public space is shaped by algorithms. Newspapers, mainstream media and small media depend on large digital and commercial players like Facebook and Google to find readers and viewers. The URL box in your browser has lost its importance. Google and Facebook have become the main channels to find information.
The algorithms designed by these commercial enterprises are undermining the democratic quality of the public domain. The changes Facebook proposes do not alter that reality. In the best case, algorithms use proxies for quality. Meaning that they are badly equipped to detect ‘democratic qualities’ of the public debate. Moreover, it would be naïve to think that these algorithms are created to create a democratic public sphere. They are at first commercial tools. The algorithms reshape the public space according to commercial values, not democratic ones.
As Vaidhyanathan already argued in The Googlization of everything, digital media taking up democratic tasks are examples of a neoliberal doctrine. By letting crucial structures of a public sphere be dominated by the market, one undermines democracy. The scale and impact of Facebook is so huge, that one would think that ‘the people’ should have democratic control over this platform. Do we dare to think of Facebook as a commons?