by Leo Quick

Last week a fishy deal was struck, as Facebook donated £4.5 million to the National Council for the Training of Journalists. It’ll fund some 80 traineeships with local newspaper publishers that will last two years. Fantastic, on the face of it. On the face of it (the mantra on which Facebook was built) a rainbows-and-flowers deal, an altruistic gesture on behalf of the almighty Facebook to rescue the vulnerable and decrepit print journalism industry from destitution. A good cause, I’m sure we can agree, for the Zuckerberg zillions: better than nuclear weapons or propping-up dictatorships. So let’s leave it at that, shall we? Except then there’s this lingering feeling that something more, something insidious, is happening.

No, it’s more than a feeling. It’s a surefire hunch. Let’s start by assessing the power dynamics to the deal. Firstly, there’s the donor, Facebook, which was recently labelled an ‘absolute power’ by Forbes – something of an expert on the subject – and indeed a user-base of 2.27 billion doesn’t lie. The social media megalith has an unprecedented scope and influence, directly affecting the lives of its users who see, share, skim, and swallow content on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis in every time-zone and every city on earth. At the other end of the deal is the NCTJ, a highly-esteemed but underfunded institution, and the UK local newspapers to which Facebook’s trainees will be posted. That these local papers have suffered of late is no secret, with circulation in freefall and forty local UK newspapers lost last year alone.

there’s this lingering feeling that something more, something insidious, is happening.

The UK’s local rags are in such turmoil that, for most, to have a paid trainee for two years would simply not be possible without Facebook’s gift (once again, big thanks, fb!). That said, the greatest reason these papers have lost readers so rapidly in the past few years is unquestionably their new sugar daddy. Indeed, when Facebook’s press release talked of the scheme boosting “reporting from towns which have lost their local newspaper and beat reporters”, there was no  admission that the said beat reporters had been beaten off by Facebook’s own rapid monopolisation of local advertising revenues, which had before gone to local papers and effectively paid reporters wages.

There was admission, however, of the need for local news, Nick Wren saying “We want communities to be informed and I don’t think you can do that without strong local journalism.” Nice one, Nick. So you can be sure the scheme is nothing to do with the PR campaign Facebook has undertaken since Cambridge Analytica-gate, a charm offensive which aims to present itself as ‘interested in local journalism’, ‘keen on helping community reporting’ (translate as: ‘interested in claiming back those who left following recent data harvesting scandals’, and ‘keen on helping ourselves survive the #deletefacebook movement’). The hunch becomes a theory. Facebook bigwigs know they face a battle to save their reputation and hold on to their user-base in the UK. So why not spend a measly 0.35% of last year’s revenue on saving face and getting publishers onside?

We are learning how power manipulates the media to its gain in the digital age. We know more about the algorithms that Facebook use and constantly tinker to modify what you see on your news feed. The UK government’s recent seizure of a cache of Facebook’s internal documents will reveal more. For now, we know that it is your information, your personal details, your likes and dislikes, that Facebook profits from and will continue to use to seduce advertising revenue. Companies like Facebook and Google are in the data industry, and profit from a Janus-faced business of controlling you by collating and sharing your information, whilst at the same time connecting you to information they think you’ll like, in the ‘echo-chamber’ phenomenon. Newspapers can’t do both at once (although News of the World tried). Instead local papers continue to go about simply informing their, albeit dwindling, readerships of the news as they see it. For an unscrupulous giant like Facebook to suddenly declare itself a patron of respectable journalism feels ever so slightly incongruous.

It brings to mind depictions of media manipulation in Russia, where critics have talked of a master puppeteer, Vladislav Surkov, “at the centre of the show, sponsoring nationalist skinheads one moment, backing human rights groups the next.” Surkov, who has helped camouflage Putin’s position for almost two decades now as a shadowy Kremlin aide, has set the precedent for how to stay popular in a postmodern society. It’s all about constantly shifting the spectacle, welcoming post-truth content (think of Facebook’s promotion of fake news stories, most recently employing a PR firm to vilify George Soros), and confusing the opposition.

We are learning how power manipulates the media to its gain in the digital age.

The press reaction to Facebook’s gift shows this confusion has already taken hold, ‘Can we really attack them?, after all they’ve donated four and a half million!’ And there is a part of me which wonders for a second. What we can be sure of is that a relationship with Facebook is dangerous for the NCTJ and UK publishers, because absolute power has no responsibility. It should be the motivation of local newspapers that they, whilst they are still independent, still do.

featured image CC BY-2.0 Florian Plag

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