According to a Parse.ly report from August of last year, Facebook now drives more traffic to news websites than Google. Many sites now depends on ad revenue earned directly from clicks off a Facebook shared link that happened to surface on some user’s news feed due to Facebook’s non-public sorting algorithms. Meanwhile, as we’ve learned recently, Peter Thiel, a Facebook board member, is trying to bring down a news publication that he dislikes. That seems like a brewing conflict of interest.
I’m not saying Thiel would even think about encouraging those algorithms to be tweaked to drive less traffic to sites that he disagrees with. What I am saying is that there’s an awful lot of power over the press today that currently rests in very few hands, and most of the people with that power have competing financial interests.
Here’s another example: Jeff Bezos is both the CEO of Amazon and the owner the Washington Post. Last summer, the New York Times published a damning book excerpt on the conditions of Amazon’s corporate employees. Publications worldwide re-reported or quoted the piece, including the Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg, and the Guardian — among many others — and almost all did so in a critical light.
But the Washington Post’s piece was more measured and tame. It comes across as gently critical, emphasizing defence over addressing the issues raised in the excerpt. I’m not saying Bezos had a hand in editing it, or even that the Post was reluctant to publish anything more critical. But what I am saying is that it’s hard to see how the Post’s reporting on this could feel neutral at all, given its owner’s conflict of interest.
I’m not trying to state that Bezos or the Post, in particular, are untrustworthy, but — in general — would you trust a newspaper owned by a person to report in a neutral way about a company run by that same person? Do you trust a social network to deliver the news in a neutral and fair way, even when one of the people who helps run it is simultaneously picking a fight with a specific publication?
Update: I’ve changed the last paragraph slightly to clarify that this isn’t about Bezos or Thiel specifically, but rather a broader trend.