Is Facebook’s Decision to Downplay Politics Really a Blow to Journalism?
Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.
Some journalists are alarmed by Facebook’s decision to deemphasize news in users’ News Feeds. I don’t share their concern. First, Facebook was never a desirable platform for hard news. You don’t want to get into an argument with your aunt over Donald Trump on Facebook. Facebook is like a friends and family picnic. It’s a place for exchanging recipes. It’s not for food fights over politics. And anyway it wasn’t designed to feature news or political discussions. By deciding to deemphasize hard news Facebook is going back to its roots. This is probably good for Facebook and it’s undoubtedly good for family peace. Now Red State Auntie Em can share her favorite photos of her dog Spot without worrying that she’ll have to see her Blue State nephew’s screed about Trump’s latest racist tweet.
The change might even be good for politics. Because Facebook wasn’t designed to feature hard news the display of news evolved organically in a hit or miss fashion. Tools weren’t installed to reward readers for searching out news that might conflict with their partisan proclivities. Nor did the site feature incentives to explore issues in-depth. To be sure the platform may have prompted some people to turn out to vote; studies show that people who displayed an ‘I Voted’ sticker had an impact on their close friends’ own decision to cast a ballot. But social media should be having a far greater positive impact.
Facebook’s decision gives journalists a chance for a do-over. As long as Facebook was featuring their content, journalists didn’t feel the need to create a social media platform designed expressly to meet the needs of users interested in news. Facebook already had the users. Under the circumstances it made little sense to set up a new platform. You go hunting where the sitting ducks are and they were on Facebook.
I came to learn this firsthand in one of those life-teaches-hard-lessons moments. In 2011 I joined a Seattle-area start-up to create a new social media platform for politics called Vote iQ. It was going to be a kind of Facebook for politics, as I told investors. The theory was that Vote iQ would give users a one-stop-shop platform where they could find out everything they needed to know: how to register to vote, where to vote, who their elected officials were, which special interests these politicians turned to for contributions, and how they voted on key issues. To put voters in the driver’s seat we intended to give them multiple ways to Take Action by making donations, filing a grievance with a bureaucracy or joining an activist group. Politicians in turn would establish profiles on the platform to give them a chance to showcase what they were doing for constituents, who would be able to exploit the system of two-way communication social media platforms offer. Want to yell at your senator for voting with the National Rifle Association? On Vote iQ you could by simply posting a complaint you, your neighbors and your senator could see.
Central to our vision was giving users an opportunity to access the news they need to know to make informed political decisions. Most voters know little about politics. A majority can’t even name the three branches of government. Despite the investment we as a society have made in education — a majority of adults now attend college — surveys show most people remain at least as ignorant about issues as Americans in the 1940s when the vast majority hadn’t gone past the eighth grade. By some measures people today are actually less knowledgeable than their great grandparents. (Their great grandparents could rely on cues given by labor leaders. Very few people today can, given the shrinking footprint of labor in American society.)
One solution was to sign up journalists and media companies. Like politicians they would create profiles and users could follow them. If, say, you like Paul Krugman, you could follow him on the site and be able to comment on his page about his columns and blog posts. This would be a classic win/win situation. Voters would be in a position to be their own journalist by curating the news they see. In return, media companies would gain traffic.
Because the platform was expressly built around news and politics special tools could be built to give users an incentive to explore communities outside their bubble. One suggestion was to work out a partnership with Starbucks to award users points toward a gift card when they followed mainstream media outlets like the New York Times. To encourage voters who otherwise might shy away from wonky articles heavy on policy and numbers, we’d offer information in clever, game-like ways, picking up on an innovation pioneered by Yahoo. We began with a Match Quiz that gave users a chance to see which presidential candidates in 2012 lined up with their own views on various issues. Another quiz helped voters figure out where they fell on an ideological scale ranging from left to right. (The media generally assume voters know whether they are liberal or conservative and what those terms mean. Studies show most have no idea.)
We actually began building the vote iQ platform after raising about 3 million dollars. But we ran out of money before we could fully implement our vision. Media companies, while intrigued, held back because we lacked the millions of users they could already access on Facebook. In effect, Facebook made reaching users so easy it seemed pointless to move to a second platform even if it might better serve their own needs and the voters’. Why go to the trouble of creating a new destination site for politics when there already was one?
But maybe now the media are willing to give the idea a second chance. I am confident Americans would welcome a major social media platform solely dedicated to politics the same way LinkedIn is devoted to career building. The country’s never been more engaged in politics than it is right now. The time is right for a platform where we can discuss politics and only politics and leave Auntie Em free to post her favorite pictures of Spot on facebook.
Facebook’s decision isn’t a big blow to the media. It’s an opportunity. All the media have to do is show the imagination to seize the moment. Carpe Diem!
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