The Faustian Facebook dance continues
“What they are giving up in return may not be their souls, but it’s close enough.”
The rapidly evolving media world continues to undergo an unprecedented amount of upheaval, with mega-continents slamming into each other, vast chasms suddenly appearing under our feet, and glaciers melting at hyperspeed. But one thing remains largely unchanged, and that is the 800-pound gorilla whose shadow continues to loom over the landscape — a gorilla named Facebook.
The social network’s dominant position at the top of the media food chain is something most publishers have already become accustomed to, whether they like it or not. But that dominance was reinforced with the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States, an outcome that many believe Facebook played a role in, thanks to its distribution of so-called fake news.
This phenomenon was like a one-two punch to the solar plexus of the media industry. On the one hand, it drove home just how big a role Facebook plays in the news consumption of large numbers of people. But at the same time, it also made it abundantly clear how little the social network really cares about the news it distributes. So much power, and yet so little responsibility.
As one former Facebook staffer described it, all the network really cares about is whether users find the content in their feeds engaging or not, and “bullshit is highly engaging.” The question of whether or not the stories those users share are accurate or not is largely irrelevant.
Some sociologists argue that the way that Facebook is designed exacerbates the problem, because stories are shared by people we know or are connected with socially, and so they come with a veneer of trust. The site encourages people to share news stories because they make them feel a strong emotion, not because they are true or false. It’s like a giant machine for confirmation bias.
And so, media companies have to confront the reality that their fortunes — and in some cases, possibly even their survival — depend on a giant corporation whose interests may or may not even align with theirs.
This is the classic Faustian bargain, retold as a modern-media morality play. Like the original Faust, news publishers have been offered a deal by a charming stranger who promises he has their best interests at heart and that he’ll give them untold riches, in return for something they aren’t really using and probably won’t even miss when it’s gone. Who could say no?
In fact, it’s actually even worse than Faust’s deal. Faust chose to sign on the dotted line because he wanted extra features like wealth and power...MORE