The dangerous ignorance at the heart of Facebook

The attitude Mark Zuckerberg is displaying towards news suggests a deep ignorance of the true dynamics of news and its role in society.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

I've not been able to let go of a piece by Adrienne Lafrance for The Atlantic since I read it a week or so back. In it, she captures Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg's attitude to news:

“I do think that in general, within a news organization, there is an opinion,” he said. “I do think that a lot of what you all do, is have an opinion and have a view.”

And Facebook, he says, simply “has more opinions.” Show users more opinions, and you give them more options. “It’s not about saying here’s one view; here’s the other side,” Zuckerberg said when I asked him to reconcile the contradiction. “You should decide where you want to be.”

This is, of course, so ridiculously far from what the heart of news reporting is — and should be — as to be laughable. It's perhaps worth bearing in mind that Zuckerberg is a man who has been essentially isolated from the real world since his very early 20s, through the rapid success of Facebook. By his early 30s he was able to buy the four houses around his, and tear them down to maintain his privacy. He has little-to-no experience of what most of us would term the real world.

This attitude - lecturing journalists as to what their profession is - is a classic example of the natural tendency of highly successful people to assume that their expertise goes father than it does. The fact that a combination of skill, insight, timing, luck and ruthlessness allowed Zuckerberg to birth Facebook does not particularly qualify him to have an insight into the dynamic of news. That we're even listening to him is an example of the Halo Effect — the human tendency to assume that one highly positive attribute means that this person is more highly skilled in other areas.

Reversing Enlightenment thinking

Worse than that, the “insight” he does have is actively dangerous. News is not a matter of opinion. There are raw, basic, agreed upon facts that shape the world, and which can be identified. Now, journalism hasn’t always been its own best ally in this, and the nasty tendency to find “an angle” on the story all too often ends up with an opinion-based report, rather than a factual one. But the best reporting has always allowed the facts to stand for themselves.

Lafrance again:

Deciding what to believe based on other people’s opinions is not only not journalistic, it’s arguably hostile to the press as a democratic institution. The truth may be nuanced, but reportable facts are often quite straightforward.

Zuckerberg sees news as a form of opinion, one that can be graded on a curve. That’s dangerous - and for all his technocratic power, he’s actually pushing us back towards a pre-enlightenment form of discourse.

The Atlantic’s piece was headlined “Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t understand journalism”. You can remove the last word, and the headline is still accurate.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.