The Biggest Lie Facebook Ever Told
Some 30 years ago, I had a part-time job delivering an LGBTQ weekly newspaper every Tuesday to all the gay bars, clubs, and “other such establishments” in Philadelphia. It was there I learned an important truth about the publishing business, one that I have never forgotten. It’s a lesson that is just as true today, whether you work for The New York Times, Facebook, or a second-tier bar rag. Publishers exist because of advertising.
One Tuesday morning, when my drug-addled, aging hustler assistant showed up late for work again, the owner, who had a flair for the dramatic, explained the critical importance of our roles in the company.
“Do you have any idea what we do here?” he screamed. When my assistant and I looked at each other and shook our heads, he explained, “We do three things here. One, we sell ads. Two, we deliver newspapers. And three, we write news stories” He paused, put his hands on his hips, and then added, “In that order!”
At that moment, any higher notions I had about “serving the gay community” evaporated. For the first time, I understood that there can be a huge divide between an organization’s mission statement and its actual business model.
Since then, the publishing industry has undergone seismic changes. Among other shifts, the lines between news, entertainment, and social networking have blurred, substantially changing the way we consume news and information. Needless to say, this has created some challenging new gray areas for all publishers, but more specifically for giant social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
Here’s the big lie: Facebook wants to hide behind its mission statement, which is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” As if by claiming to be a neutral technology platform they can side-step the fact that Facebook is a publisher and one of the world’s largest. As such, it is high time they start assuming some responsibility for content the content they publish.
Certainly, giant technology platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube bear an ethical, social, and moral responsibility that is far more complex and nuanced than Mark Zuckerberg’s specious assertions about Facebook’s commitment to protecting freedom of speech. Just as companies that pollute the environment need to be held accountable, companies like Uber should be forced to recognize that calling themselves a marketplace App, or a “ride-hailing company,” does not alter the fact that their drivers are in fact employees and deserve to be treated accordingly.
Ironically, despite evidence of Facebook being used to interfere with elections, years of public outcry, condemnation in the press, and even protests from their own employees at their role in disseminating misinformation and hate speech, Facebook may finally be forced to answer to their real customers — their advertisers. In fact, Facebook is facing an unprecedented corporate advertiser and agency boycott and mounting public pressure to change its policies. This week the NYTimes reported that Facebook “has never faced a public backlash of this magnitude from its advertisers, whose spending accounts for more than 98 percent of its annual $70.7 billion in revenue.”
Therefore, with the overwhelming majority of its revenue coming from advertisers, there can be no argument about what business Facebook is really in. It doesn’t matter how much they try to dress it up with idealistic marketing language, or legal corporate indemnification. Indeed, Facebook would do well to learn a lesson from my old boss or, perhaps, another outspoken publisher, Rupert Murdoch. According to MarketWatch, Murdoch “once called classified revenues a ‘river of gold,’” but has since “changed his tune, saying: ‘Sometimes rivers dry up.’”
Sean Smith is a B2B marketing consultant and author. He is the Founder and Chief Iconoclast at Virtù b2b.