“Politics and hard news are important, I don’t want to imply otherwise.” Hmm—when you hear words like that from a tech executive, you know the next thing is a big, fat “but.” And sure enough:
“…But my take is, from a platform’s perspective, any incremental engagement or revenue [these topics] might drive is not at all worth the scrutiny, negativity (let’s be honest), or integrity risks that come along with them.”
The executive, in this case, was Adam Mosseri, who leads Instagram and was posting on Meta’s new app, Threads, an alternative to the dumpster fire that is Elon Musk’s Twitter (now X). Translation for that vortex of buzzwords (all painfully familiar to journalists, because worrying about the inner workings of companies like Meta is part of our job now): News is bad for business, and Meta is going to do nothing to help people access it on Threads. Because after all, as Mosseri continued: “There are more than enough amazing communities—sports, music, fashion, beauty, entertainment, etc.—to make a vibrant platform without needing to get into politics or hard news.”
It was a stunning statement—so much for being an open marketplace of information!—but also completely par for the course. “Stories about politics just turn everyone off,” a television executive told me recently. “There’s no market for that.” For tech companies, movie studios, streaming platforms, even some foundation leaders and, of course, many politicians—news is nothing but a headache.
In a way, that’s nothing new. “Hard” news, the kind about power, money, and the way we govern ourselves, has always been a pain in the neck for media execs. Sure, they sometimes pay lip service to the public square, especially when it helps build the brand: Mark Zuckerberg famously promised to turn Facebook into the “perfect personalized newspaper for every person in the world.” Social media companies reveled in the role they played in popular uprisings around the world. When regulators came knocking, they’d wrap themselves in the flag of democracy.
No more. Zuckerberg is into the metaverse and Brazilian jiu-jitsu now. Your Facebook feed is an endless scroll of friends, family, and fluff. On Instagram and TikTok, everyone is trying to sell you something. Elon Musk is building either some kind of virtual payments system, or just a playground for the far right.
Today the defenders of free speech think nothing of cutting off the public’s access to information altogether. Musk has gone on random vendettas against news outlets, labeling National Public Radio “state-affiliated media,” and throttling the reach of the New York Times. After Canada passed a law to force Facebook to share revenues with publishers, the company summarily yanked all news from its platform. Thus, during this summer’s wildfires, Canadian users had virtually no way of finding accurate information on Facebook. Conspiracies and propaganda, though, remained plentiful.
Here in the US, Facebook hasn’t outright banned news—but it might as well have, so little of it will you see in your feed. At Mother Jones, it used to be that as many as 5 million users came upon one of our stories via Facebook in a month. Now it’s closer to 60,000. And it’s not for lack of interest: 1.5 million people follow Mother Jones on Facebook, more than ever before. It’s just that Meta has decided that news is not good for its business, and constructed its algorithms accordingly. Mosseri, too, has explained that his comments about Threads were all about its algorithm: “News is clearly already on Threads,” and that’s all fine and good, but “we’re also not going go to amplify news on the platform.”
This, it goes without saying, is a big problem for journalism. When platforms keep people who follow you from seeing much of your content, which is what “not amplifying” means, it means publishers can’t connect with subscribers or donors (or for that matter earn advertising revenue, which for better or worse is still pretty important for what remains of commercial media.) That’s why America is losing newspapers at the rate of two a week, and why this has been a year of nonstop media layoffs, and why the company that owns CNN is betting on Dr. Pimple Popper.
So what’s to be done? A lot of well-meaning people are pushing a law akin to the one Canada passed, versions of which have been introduced in Congress and in the California legislature with names like The Journalism Preservation Act. It sounds good, and I hear all the time from Mother Jones readers hopeful that here, at last, is a way to rebalance the relationship between tech platforms and newsrooms.
The bad news is, these bills are designed to fix a problem from 10 years ago, not the one we are dealing with today—and the problems we’re dealing with today, they’ll probably make worse. It’s true that Facebook and Google built their business (in part) by showing people news articles without paying for them or sharing the ad revenue. That was the “perfect personalized newspaper” era. But that era is over. At Mother Jones, if Facebook paid us a tiny fraction of a penny each time someone shares one of our articles (and fractions of pennies is what we’re talking about) the total would still be peanuts. The only companies that could plausibly benefit are the corporate megachains trying to hold on to a high-volume, click-driven business. It’s no coincidence that in Australia, where a version of this legislation passed, its biggest cheerleader was Rupert Murdoch.
So no. Forcing tech companies to hand over crumbs to publishers won’t help. We need to think much more broadly about the internet as a public resource instead of a private playground. That’s for a future column.
In the meantime, here’s what we at Mother Jones are doing, and what you can do. We’ll keep pushing to bring our journalism to people everywhere—on the web, on TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, Apple News, SmartNews, what have you—because there are people on all these services who are hungry for information they can trust. We’ll also keep pushing to reach new audiences there, especially those who are (often rightly) cynical about traditional media. But we won’t ever let ourselves become dependent on these platforms, and neither should you. If you want to reliably see our reporting, consider subscribing to our email newsletters, which are fun and informative, and forwarding them to others who might like them. Our print magazine is basically a subscription box of beautifully packaged investigative reporting, and no tech mogul can interfere with its delivery. (Maybe there’s someone—hint, hint, the holidays are coming—who might like a gift subscription?)
What else are you doing to assert control over your information diet? Let us know!