Facebook is perhaps Silicon Valley’s best-practiced company at ducking a punch. When confronted with evidence of systematic election interference in 2016, the company made a series of promises about advertising transparency but avoided changing any of the core mechanics of business. Put on the defensive by Elizabeth Warren, who’s made a campaign pledge to break up Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg has settled on the line that breaking up Facebook would actually make things like election interference “more likely” in a more “fragmented” environment.
On Friday, Facebook trotted out its latest bob-and-weave. The company announced that it was testing a news service, which will be accessible through a tab at the bottom of the Facebook mobile app. The company has reportedly inked three-year, seven-digit deals as part of the effort, and signed up a slew of some of the most prestigious names in the media business — including both The Wall Street Journal and the The New York Times, both of whom have shunned partnerships with Facebook in the past. Zuckerberg even went so far last week as to share a stage in New York with Robert Thomson, CEO of the Journal’s parent company News Corporation, to tout the new arrangement.
On the surface, this new service seems like the first time Facebook has done something to please the media companies from whom it has sucked away billions of dollars in revenue over the last few years. The old “Instant Articles” feature, which loaded partnered websites’ articles faster but kept users on the Facebook app, did little to steer ad dollars toward the places that actually published the articles. The “pivot to video,” encouraged by Facebook’s ambition to produce enough video content to rival YouTube, led to many websites laying off editorial staff in favor of the video team, only to eventually lay off those people too after the revenue never materialized. (Earlier this year, they settled a lawsuit — hilariously, from the advertisers — about the misdirection.) For this news service, Facebook appears to be cutting checks to publishers simply for the privilege of hosting their content, with no need to trim or expand head count to accommodate. No wonder the media people seem so happy.
All that’s changed is that Facebook now appears to understand what it takes to get media people to like it for once: actual money, not just its promise.
Which is really a shame, after all, because Facebook News, as described in the announcement, sounds like it sucks. It sounds a lot like Apple News, which is also a bad service, in that it will deliver a poorly curated mixture of things that people probably don’t want to read, even if the “team” choosing those stories has “editorial independence” as Facebook claims. The executives at the media companies that have signed new deals with Facebook likely know all this, and given that their job is to make money, this makes a certain amount of sense. But Facebook hasn’t changed its stripes, and Mark Zuckerbeg has not acquired a sophisticated, let alone intelligible understanding of the value of good journalism in the past two years. All that’s changed is that Facebook now appears to understand what it takes to get media people to like it for once: actual money, not just its promise.
A big clue that Facebook News is more about Facebook saving face than it is about fixing a corroded media ecosystem lies in the partners it has signed up for the service. In addition to NBC News, the Dallas Morning News and so on, Facebook has also signed up Breitbart News. The company is not yet disclosing its full list of partners for the news service, and Zuckerberg himself gave a predictable excuse for Breitbart’s inclusion (“diversity of views”).
Breitbart’s inclusion initially reads as something of a puzzle. After BuzzFeed’s 2017 report illustrating how the website was operated hand-in-glove with a number of notorious white supremacists, Breitbart’s biggest benefactor, billionaire Robert Mercer, was forced to step down from his hedge fund. If Facebook had been looking for a way to dodge accusations that it allows racist right-wing politics to flourish on its site, one would think that not paying Breitbart News would be an easy decision to make.
But Facebook’s logic here isn’t about right and wrong; it’s about ass-covering. On Twitter, after the announcement, Facebook executives Adam Mosseri (now the chief of Instagram, previously the head of the News Feed) and Andrew Bosworth (former head of advertising) got into the mix with reporters on Breitbart’s inclusion specifically, with Mosseri asking, at one point, “do you really want platform as big as Facebook embracing a political ideology?”
Obviously, Facebook has an ideology (let’s call it “whatever makes Facebook money”-ism). If you really want to trace its origin, perhaps the moment when it became most publicly identifiable was in May 2016, when a single Gizmodo headline (“Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News”) prompted three years of Facebook doing everything in is power to insist that it does not have a liberal bias. For the last three years, even though all the  evidence indicates that Facebook has a problem with propaganda from the right proliferating on its platform, the company has bent over backwards to appease conservatives.
Shortly after the 2016 Gizmodo story, Zuckerberg convened a meeting with leading right-wing “thinkers,” which attendee Glenn Beck described as like “affirmative action for conservatives.” Facebook’s global public policy chief, Joel Kaplan, a former White House aide to George W. Bush, has operated as a kind of an internal whisperer to the right wing, having “wielded his influence to postpone or kill projects that risk upsetting conservatives,” per the Wall Street Journal last year and showing up at the Senate confirmation hearing for his good friend Brett Kavanaugh. And just this past spring, Facebook announced a fact-checking partnership with The Daily Caller, the far-right rag founded by Tucker Carlson.
Facebook’s terror at upsetting conservatives — who happen to control the White House and the judiciary, in addition to comprising the audience of Facebook’s most engaged users — is more compellingly explained by Facebook’s material interest in appeasing conservatives than it is by its bromides about acting as a neutral arbiter of what content is kosher and what content is trayfe. The stuff put out by Breitbart News, which the media analyst firm NewsWhip identified as the 14th-largest publisher on Facebook for all of last month, is just one part of a media ecosystem that happens to be very good business for Facebook; Fox News, Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire (a particularly bad actor), and the New York Post all do much better traffic than Breitbart these days. In fact, Breitbart’s only drawing scrutiny now because it happened to named in the Bloomberg News write-up of Facebook News’ launch, and Facebook isn’t releasing a full list of its other “partners.”
But what so obviously concerns Facebook is a question of the dam breaking: if Facebook is forced to acknowledge that Breitbart is beyond the pale, then what do they do about everyone else? And what more might their  friends in Washington have to say about it?
Right-wing media can be good business, but digging in your heels fighting right-wing politicians is definitely bad business.
The entire game that Facebook is playing with its News app amounts to a small nod to the value of journalism, the business of which Facebook (with assistance from private equity, Google, and so on) has ground into dust. Facebook News is a modest act of reparation, and media companies have decided to take the money because they have no choice. Breitbart’s inclusion on both Facebook News and Apple News is stupid and bad, but it’s just the tip of the spear of a poisoned news environment where the top-shared articles on Facebook come from sites like onlineenewz.today and truththeory.com.
Media companies, high-minded stewards of the Truth as they may present themselves, are not in a position to offer a way out of this mess. What has driven Facebook (and Apple) to make the fundamentally biased decisions that they deny having made is a problem of political economy: right-wing media can be good business, but digging in your heels fighting right-wing politicians is definitely bad business. Facebook News is just a paper-thin shield against this essential fact.