Commentary

In A World Of Fake News, Is Advertising Now More Truthful Than Journalism?

“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

Those words are part of the foundation on which this country was built, what defines us as Americans. But that was before social media gave all citizens the ability to send their words out to millions just by clicking a button.

Our founding fathers wanted a country where people had the right to question their government. A free press was critical in ensuring that. But a free press has led us to a world of fake news, where that right extends to allowing citizens to say whatever, whenever.

That leaves us to grapple with the consequences of these decisions — notably, how should we address the issue of fake news?

Facebook has become the face of fake news. Some argue that stories on Facebook helped sway the presidential election.

Many are challenging what Facebook really is. Is it a social media company? Or as Mark Zuckerberg says, simply a place “to connect people with the stories they find most meaningful?” Or is it something even more? Is it, fundamentally, a news organization?

I posed this question to leaders at both ends of this spectrum: Sir Martin Sorrell, WPP CEO, for the advertiser’s perspective, and David Rubin, Dean Emeritus of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and a First Amendment scholar, for the journalist’s perspective.

Surprisingly, both men stated unequivocally that Facebook is, inherently, a media company, which requires it to be held to the same standards as other media outlets like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Facebook has “the same responsibilities as traditional media companies,” Sorrell said.

But that leads to the question of what those standards are. The laws of this country actually allow for the dissemination of conjecture and innuendo — as long as there is an absence of malice. As Americans, we agree this is fundamental to a free press.

When it comes to advertising, some argue that advertisers will always seek to push limits and deceive consumers, and often do so successfully. That is an exaggeration. Commercial speech is actually the most regulated speech in our country.

So we are in a strange alternative universe where advertisers are actually being held to a higher standard of truth than journalists.

As an ad woman, that leaves me with a slight feeling of superiority. As a citizen, it terrifies me. As a country, what should we do?

One explanation for how we got here is the advent of the Internet. As consumers relied more heavily on search engines and social media networks for information and less on more traditional sources, ad dollars followed. Newsrooms have been gutted, and we are increasingly leaving the dissemination of news to the algorithms.

In Facebook’s attempts, in Zuckerberg’s words, “to show people the content they will find most meaningful,” it has hidden behind these algorithms and, at least early on, absolved itself of any responsibility.

What the 80% of Americans on Facebook need to demand is accountability.

Rubin notes that since algorithms are inherently making choices about what content is being shown to readers, the algorithms are, in fact, making journalistic decisions. Because of that, if Facebook is willing to take the millions of dollars being diverted from news organizations by selling the eyeballs coming to Facebook for news, then they should make yearly major subsidiaries back to these news organizations. “Send a check,” says Rubin.

What do you think, Zuck?

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