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Pattern Matching

Facebook Is the ‘Mainstream Media’ Now

The election proved that social platforms are the new gatekeepers

Photo: Pool/Getty Images

For half a decade, debates have simmered as to how the news media should cover Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency. Recall the Huffington Post consigning his GOP primary campaign to its entertainment section in 2015; the New York Times’ 2017 handwringing as to whether to call his lies “lies;” the AP’s 2019 disavowal of “euphemisms for racism;” and the ongoing questions of whether his speeches and rallies should be covered live.

An implicit assumption in these critiques was that established media juggernauts could impact how the broader electorate understood Donald Trump. If they failed to cover him with sufficient bluntness and urgency, critics warned, his misdeeds would go unchecked and voters would fail to punish him at the polls. While not every warning was heeded, it’s safe to say that by the end of his term, no one who regularly read and believed the New York Times, watched CNN, or listened to NPR could fail to grasp that he was a liar, a bully, and a threat to American democracy, among other seemingly disqualifying traits.

And yet: He received some 7 million more votes in 2020 than he had in 2016. Even as Joe Biden edged past him in critical states by week’s end, a conclusion that circulated Tuesday night remained inescapable: The Trump that the titans of traditional media had exposed ad nauseam as a dangerous buffoon did seem to be the same one that 70 million Americans voted for.

Which raises the question: Where were those 70 million people getting their information? To be sure, some portion of them probably did get the mainstream media’s message and voted for him anyway, for various reasons legitimate or otherwise. But it also seems clear that the big legacy media outlets simply don’t control the national narrative the way they once did. As to where that influence now resides, we can find some clues from Nielsen ratings, Pew Research, and other recent media studies — and in the starring role that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have come to play in politics and elections.

The Pattern

The distinction between social media and media is becoming obsolete.

  • Let’s start with what isn’t new. First of all, it isn’t new that Fox News is the country’s top-rated cable news channel — it has been for 18 years — so any definition of the mainstream media that doesn’t include Fox News is incomplete at best. Conservative radio is also a familiar standby for right-leaning Americans, and has long hammered home the message that the mainstream media can’t be trusted — a message that dovetailed neatly with Trump’s rhetoric. Then there is local TV news, which is increasingly dominated in markets across the country by the Trump-friendly Sinclair Broadcast Group. We’ve long known that TV news is a leading source for older Americans especially, who were also more likely to vote Trump. What might be surprising is that TV news has thrived amid the pandemic, while the newspaper business has been devastated.
  • At the same time, the social platforms have become major, mainstream news sources in their own right, a trend that has accelerated throughout Trump’s term. A 2019 Pew Research survey found that 55% of Americans report getting news on social media either “often” or “sometimes,” up from 44% in 2016, with Facebook the most popular of those platforms for news. Perhaps more saliently, Pew Research found last year that 18% of Americans now cite social media as their primary news source. That’s a larger share than cable TV (16%), network TV (16%), local TV (13%), radio (8%), or print (3%), and puts the platforms second only to “news websites and apps” (25%). While YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok are all part of the equation, the numbers suggest that Facebook alone may now be a primary source of news for more Americans than any single media organization.
  • Crucially, Facebook is relied on for news by broad swaths of the political spectrum, while giants such as Fox News and the New York Times cater largely to one side or the other. So not only is it a dominant source of news, but Facebook is one of the few news hubs that still reaches both the right and the left — albeit with very different information, due to its personalization algorithms. The same is true for Twitter, albeit on a smaller scale, and among an especially influential crowd.
  • It’s that ability to personalize the news to each person’s taste that positions social platforms to further consolidate their popularity the more divided the public becomes. (Whether Facebook and Twitter are also driving that polarization has been surprisingly tricky to prove, though it seems intuitively likely.) It’s not a stretch, then, to think that the organization with the most influence over what Americans believe, including about Donald Trump, is Facebook. And Twitter, as the shared watercooler of the entire media industry, probably isn’t far behind.
  • Facebook and Twitter aren’t publishers of news, of course. They don’t decide whether to write about Trump’s Russia connections or Hunter Biden’s laptop; whether to say Trump “lied” or told an “untruth;” or whether a politician’s inflammatory remarks were “racist” or “racially tinged.” But their algorithmic feeds help to shape what 200 million Americans read and see, and in what form it’s presented.
  • Facebook’s algorithms, which are fundamentally the product of its own employees’ choices and value judgments, are the reason that commentators such as Dan Bongino and Ben Shapiro now often reach larger audiences than the Wall Street Journal or USA Today. (If you don’t know who Dan Bongino is, you might want to read this profile of him.) By now, the idea that social platforms are neutral players in American politics is no longer tenable. Academics and other critics have known, and argued, that point for years, but it was driven home this week in fresh and dramatic ways.
  • Facebook and Twitter entered this election determined not to be blamed a second time for compromising American democracy. As I argued recently, they also surely have in the back of their minds the prospect of an incoming president who views right-wing misinformation on social platforms to be grounds for regulatory action. Faced with those twin threats, platforms that for years have contorted their policies to avoid angering the right suddenly just… stopped doing that.
  • While their enforcement still left plenty of room for criticism, there is no question that Facebook and Twitter ramped up their editorial oversight to unprecedented levels this week. Both were quick to apply labels to posts from the president, whether he was prematurely claiming victory or casting doubt on the validity of the results. Twitter hid tweet after tweet from Georgia’s newly elected QAnon-supporting congresswoman. Facebook shut down a fast-growing pro-Trump group called Stop the Steal that had been mobilizing opposition to the vote counts in key swing states. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube all took down a video in which former Trump adviser Steve Bannon called for two public officials’ heads — literally. Twitter permanently banned the account of Bannon’s podcast. And Facebook is reportedly planning new measures to slow down sharing on its platform in a bid to limit viral misinformation about the election.
  • How much effect these measures will have, especially with many of them coming after ballots were cast, is not clear. What is clear, however, is that the platforms are finally beginning to act like gatekeepers, rather than simply facilitators, of the news, at least in the specific context of this election. It’s not a role they ever wanted, and it’s not clear that it’s a role they’re capable of playing particularly well, especially on a global scale. (As the New York Times’ Kevin Roose put it, they did better at moderation in part by making their core products worse, or at least less efficient.) But in this fraught moment, at least, it is a role they’ve felt compelled to take on, whether out of a sense of genuine responsibility, calculated self-interest, or both.
  • Social platforms have been steadily usurping both the role and the profits of the mainstream media for years. It’s time now to acknowledge that Facebook and Twitter are the mainstream media, or at least a crucial part of it. They may try to roll back some of the more aggressive moderation policies they put in place for this election once the political dust has settled. But they will never be able to roll back the realization that they are capable of taking responsibility when they want to. And they will now probably never escape the type of thorny editorial questions and controversial stances that traditional news outlets have always had to wrestle with.

Undercurrents

  • Podcasts may be the next frontier in online content moderation. It was on his podcast that Steve Bannon suggested Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray should be beheaded, and various podcast hosts faced pressure to act after Twitter and other social platforms did. The podcast platform Stitcher suspended Bannon altogether, while Spotify and Soundcloud took down the offending episode, Gizmodo reported. This comes a week after Spotify took heat for an episode of Joe Rogan’s wildly popular podcast that featured an interview with Infowars conspiracy-monger Alex Jones, who is banned from other major social platforms. That put Spotify in a particularly awkward position, given that it signed Rogan to a blockbuster exclusive deal earlier this year that was reported to be worth $100 million. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Rogan episode had sparked tensions within Spotify over its content policies.
  • California voters this week quietly remolded the future of tech regulation. They approved a pair of ballot measures, Proposition 22 and Proposition 24, that are viewed as bellwethers for the gig economy and online privacy. Prop 22 affirms the business models of Lyft, Uber, Doordash, and other on-demand apps by classifying gig workers as independent contractors rather than employees, while adding some basic protections, such as a wage floor. It also makes it harder for them to unionize. In OneZero, my colleague Sarah Kessler explained what the vote changes and what it doesn’t, while professors Veena Dubal and Meredith Whittaker lamented the new law as a “grim precedent” and offered a blueprint for gig workers to fight back. Proposition 24, meanwhile, reworks the ambitious but flawed consumer privacy law that California passed two years ago, closing loopholes that had let big tech companies off the hook. Privacy advocates generally agreed Prop 24 would represent an improvement, but also that it was flawed in its own right, and some had opposed it as entrenching a subpar privacy framework with insufficient protections for vulnerable groups. (The nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation neither endorsed nor opposed it, calling it a “mixed bag of partial steps backwards and forwards.”) As with Proposition 22, it is likely to serve as a reference point for other state laws, and perhaps ultimately federal legislation.

Tweets of the week

Hand-scrawled chart of the week

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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