Facebook and Google are making conscious efforts to distinguish themselves as technology companies rather than media companies. This distinction is important to define considering their vast reach and power to shape the future news landscape.
Examining their roles becomes even more noteworthy as major news organizations around the world seek to curb the power of this duopoly. This is in part to preserve the integrity of traditional journalism and to loosen the platforms’ grip on the global ad market.
In the US, major news publishers are seeking collective bargaining rights against the Facebook-Google duopoly. The effort is spearheaded by the News Media Alliance, an organization whose members include The New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as numerous regional newspapers in the US.
Similar actions are being taken in Britain. The News Media Association, representing 1,100 British newspapers, wrote a letter to Parliament calling for the regulation of the two companies for their dominance over the ad market and the massive role they play in distributing information.
Why it’s important
The ubiquity of these platforms and their ability to spread information to users makes them highly influential sources for news. Even more, their global reach makes them attractive platforms for publishers to use as primary hosts for originally produced content.
In a recent paper published by peer-reviewed journal First Monday, authors Philip M. Napoli and Robyn Caplan counter Google and Facebook’s resistance to the “media company” label.
In their analysis, the characterization of these companies is integral to their role in disseminating information and shaping public opinion. It also could influence the regulatory and policy rules that govern them.
What is a 'media company'
In simple terms, a media company can be defined as an entity that deals in the mass distribution of content. According to Napoli and Caplan, there are three main criteria essential to the function of a “media company,” although they are not mutually exclusive.
- The production of content; original material created by users or, in this case, news outlets.
- Distribution of content by moving it from producers to consumers.
- Exhibition, or the process of providing content directly to audiences.
The move toward digital news media, however, has disrupted the traditional relationship between publisher and consumer. In fact, the ease in which users or outlets can generate content and then distribute it via web-based platforms has significantly changed the media landscape.
Curation vs. creation of content
One of the central arguments tech companies use to differentiate themselves from media companies is that they do not generate content. Instead, they provide a platform for users to disseminate their own or third-party content.
For example, Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, explained, “we don’t do our own content, we get you to someone else’s content faster.” Schmidt acknowledges Google's role in the distribution and exhibition of content, both of which are key functions of a media company as discussed above.
At a 2016 Q & A session at Rome’s Luiss University, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg elaborated on this view regarding his social network platform:
“We are a tech company, not a media company. When you think about a media company, you know, people are producing content, people are editing content, and that's not us. We're a technology company. We build tools.”
Some of these tools include Facebook Live and Facebook Instant Articles which allows users, including news publishers, to directly host content on the platform.
In refuting this argument, Napoli and Caplan claim that the lack of creation/ownership of content does not exempt a company from its role in distributing and exhibiting media content. As an example, they point to the fact that cable and satellite companies are often under the same regulatory authority as the content producers they serve. This is true even if they are not involved in the content creation process.
Human vs. algorithmic editing
A less explicit argument from Facebook and Google is that their lack of human editorial processes separates them from traditional media companies that rely on human decision-making to choose content.
However, the “gatekeeping” duty usually assigned to human editors is still being carried out, albeit in a different matter. With more media companies trying to incorporate artificial intelligence into editorial and writing processes, the argument that relying on algorithms over human editors indicates the practices of a tech rather than media company begins to hold less weight.
Can a media company be run by computer scientists?
Another argument these companies use is that the makeup of their employees distinguishes them from media companies. For example, Eric Schmidt claims that Google is a technology company “because it is run by three computer scientists”.
In debunking this argument, Napoli and Caplan comparatively look at the symbiotic evolution of media and technology over time. They state, “Technological advancements—and the associated technical expertise—have been fundamental to the media sector since at least the advent of the printing press.”
Therefore the view that the tech backgrounds of a company’s staff separates it from the media industry does not hold up based on precedent. Historically, media companies have a track record of embracing new technologies to minimize costs, increase distribution, and aid in content creation.
Duopoly pushing traditional media out of ad market
Finally, competition for ad revenue between online platforms and traditional media outlets implies that they operate within the same business sector.
According to a report by Axios, Google and Facebook are dominating the global market with about 50% of all global ad-spending going to the two companies.
In comparison with traditional media like print and radio, Google’s ad revenue alone matches that of all print media outlets globally and Facebook’s ad revenue out-earns all global ad revenue generated by radio.
Preserving high-quality journalism
Important players in the news industry are catching on to the potential negative effects of underestimating Facebook and Google’s dominance in the digital media ecosystem.
In 2016, both Facebook and Google came under harsh scrutiny for their alleged role in the spread of “fake news” during the US presidential election. As the New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg puts it, “The maneuvering is about more than the fight for digital territory. It’s about the endurance of quality journalism."
Do Facebook and Google primarily deal in the curation of content? Yes. But with the increasingly important role these companies have in spreading news media stories, perhaps it is time for them to take responsibility for their role in affecting the quality of journalism in the future of digital news.