This Publisher Foresaw an Internet of Fiction Mixed With Fact

Facebook has had a bumpy couple of years. It makes money in torrents, but the way it’s handled the manipulations of its platform has led critics to charge it was being irresponsible and craven. In recent months it’s finally begun to signal it understands that criticism and to make specific and potentially meaningful changes. But competitors, especially Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp CEO Robert Thomson, have no intention of letting this crisis go to waste.

Murdoch said in January in a news release that he believed that Facebook should consider paying media companies for their news content. Thomson said it more forcefully in an interview with Bloomberg on Thursday. He noted that Facebook recently agreed to pay for the streaming rights to professional surfing, and said quality news content should be no different. He said that a big reason why media companies have become so beholden to Facebook is that “too many publishers have been patsies.”

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As WIRED learned in its months-long investigation of Facebook, the Murdoch empire has never been shy about going toe to toe with Mark Zuckerberg, or other big technology companies. For example, in 2016 at Herbert Allen’s media conference in Sun Valley, Murdoch and Thomson threatened Zuckerberg with public denunciations and aggressive lobbying for regulation if he and Facebook didn’t stop recklessly wreaking havoc on the media industry. They said that they had made life difficult for Google by filing complaints with regulators in Europe, and that they would not hesitate to do the same to Facebook in the US.

Though many don’t know it, this is well traveled ground for Thomson. He has been thinking hard about these issues since at least 2007. In House of Lords testimony that year—before most had even heard of Facebook or social media—Thomson said he was worried about the disaggregation of content in the digital world. “What you have is a lot of young people who are growing up surrounded by much more information, but whose provenance is not clear,” he said. What worried him about that was that “in the longer term, critical judgment will not be as it should be: the rumors will be believed, the fiction will be thought of as fact, and the political agendas, among other agendas, will be influenced by interest groups who are coming from some quite strange trajectory to issues based on collective understanding that is founded on falsity.”

It’s a shame he has proven to be so prescient.

Face-off

  • The past two years have been a series of difficult trials for Facebook, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
  • Facebook Vice President Rob Goldman apologized for posting misleading tweets after Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian operatives for interfering in the 2016 US election.
  • Facebook recently announced changes to its main news feed algorithm to favor content from friends and family over material from publishers and commercial accounts.

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