In the fall of 2019, Facebook announced that it would be writing selected media outlets some very big checks. The launch of Facebook News was billed as a way to give consumers more access to information, but it was actually an attempt at appeasing big media companies.
Facebook, with its older and more conservative user base, had become the epicenter of election conspiracies from the Clinton campaign and its media allies. While Hillary Clinton and her associates were eager to shift the blame for her defeat by relaunching their existing Russiagate smears with false claims that Russian Facebook ads had tilted the election to Donald Trump, the media’s obsession with Facebook was even more corruptly self-interested.
About a third of Americans regularly get their news through Facebook. The tech giant’s algorithms had the ability to make or break the news media, and would go on to break the digital media empires of the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and others in the lefty clickbait brigade.
While Hillary wanted someone to blame for her failures, the media wanted leverage over the company that controlled its fate. The invention of a “fake news” or “misinformation” crisis, the term that the media pivoted to once President Trump made “fake news” his own, was used to persuade Big Tech companies to censor conservatives and promote media content.
Facebook News was a walled garden that pushed the content of the major papers behind Russiagate conspiracies and misinformation alarmism while profiting massively from it. The Russiagate Facebook conspiracy theories provided the rationale for censoring conservatives and for rewarding the media outlets spreading them with special promotions and lots of money.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook paid over $20 million to the New York Times and $15 million to the Washington Post in annual fees. Even more valuable than the big checks was Facebook’s ability to push media content to its users. Last year, sources at several publishers were crediting Facebook News with massive traffic surges, but not everyone was equal.
“Many other U.S. news publishers are getting payments from Facebook to have their content featured in its news tab, but they only get a fraction of the sums paid to the Washington Post, the New York Times,” the Wall Street Journal noted.
Facebook and the media had created a cartel in which media sites created paywalls to raise the value of their content and gain better deals with the social media monopoly. Zuckerberg’s company offered its biggest media critics big checks in exchange for exclusive deals. Both sides claimed that they were “fighting misinformation” with what was really a shakedown and a cartel.
Now that the deal between Big Tech and Big Media is set to lapse, there’s panic in the presses.
In 2020, Zuckerberg had cut out the media middleman by influencing the election directly through the hundreds of millions in “Zuckerbucks” that were handed out to local election offices in primarily Democrat areas, effectively “privatizing” a national presidential election.
Rather than continue to hand out tens of millions to top media outlets, Facebook’s CEO had written a much bigger check to atone for 2016 and put the Russia fake news smear to bed.
That’s bad news for the media.
From its “Meta” renaming to the departure of COO Sheryl Sandberg to the algorithm shifts deprioritizing politics, Facebook is trying to leave the 2016 election behind. Zuckerberg is scrambling for a future for the company in virtual reality headsets and the “Metaverse,” and imitating TikTok’s short video clips, away from the former titular company’s core product.
Meanwhile, Facebook has reported its first sizable loss of users ever.
The Facebook News walled garden going away would be bad news for the privileged media outlets who secured it using a shakedown campaign that depends on conspiracy theories involving the 2016 election. And the panic over the end of the dirty deal in media circles also shows how their election lies were incentivized by the need to create this corrupt arrangement.
When the media accused Facebook of spreading conservative misinformation, the only defense was providing special privileges for the media. Despite the fundamental illegality of such cartels, Democrat politicians and the media openly pressured Facebook to promote “responsible” journalism, by which they meant their own political content, at the expense of “misinformation”.
By then the entire debate about misinformation had boiled down to creating a two-tiered content system across Big Tech that would fund and push media content while suppressing rival material. This urgent need for a news cartel was described as the best way to meet the “threat to democracy” posed by the “wild west” of the internet. This cynical rhetoric carefully avoided any discussion about the benefits that would flow to the media from this arrangement.
The ten million dollar checks certainly didn’t hurt.
It’s no coincidence that just as Facebook might stop writing big checks to the media, the media began discovering new content crises at the social media monopoly.
Recent entries from the Washington Post, which was being paid $15 million, include, “Facebook Gives Gun Sellers 10 Strikes Before Ban” and “Facebook Fails Again to Detect Hate Speech in Ads”: both of which went viral. The former taps into the new mania over gun control to manufacture yet another crisis involving Facebook. And crises reward the media cartel.
Or they used to.
At the height of the media’s shakedown of Facebook, the fake news business model was troubled while Facebook appeared to be on the rise, but now both are struggling to survive. Investors aren’t buying Facebook’s Metaverse nonsense and TikTok struck a serious blow to the social media monopoly’s control of social spaces. Facebook, like some other FAANG giants like Netflix, no longer seems inevitable. With the company’s stock price down, Zuckerberg may be less willing to spend tens of millions in blackmail money propping up the media’s failing business model.
Parasites eventually kill the host. The media didn’t deal a fatal blow to Facebook, but its drumbeat of attacks certainly didn’t help the company. The media blamed Facebook for dominating digital advertising, but the idea that users and companies would flock back to their sites if Facebook goes the way of Myspace is every bit as delusional as Russiagate.
Facebook’s corporate blackmail payments and Trump conspiracy theories helped prop up the media, but neither of those would ever last. The media’s big bet on using Big Tech to create a cartel overlooked the fragility of the monopolies it was relying on. Despite recent setbacks, companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon still dominate the internet, but investors are beginning to question whether they can continue to endlessly grow and swallow up everything.
The two interlocking cartels, Big Tech and the media, became politically and then economically interdependent in a way that was both illegal and deeply dangerous to a free society. The lies, the conspiracy theories and the censorship are products of technopolitical collusion between two sets of corrupt companies that have devastated our politics, our culture and our country.
The two cartels set out to control our speech and our politics for their own power and profit. They did it by manufacturing a crisis and declaring that their abuses were the solution.
Both Big Media and Big Tech cartels need to be broken up before they break our society.
(This article was published on gatestoneinstitute.org on July 5, 2022 and has been reproduced here with a modified headline.)
(Featured Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)