Facebook, I wish I could quit you

A couple of weeks ago, executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter were compelled to testify before Congress. They were there to account for serving up covert Russian political ads to millions of American readers in the leadup to the 2016 election, and how they might keep it from happening again.

The execs were a little slippery on that last point. The hearings paint a frustrating picture of a tech world that is slowly waking up to the downsides of wielding massive power and influence over American society, but deeply unwilling to take responsibility for it.

Silicon Valley’s best and brightest ought to be smart enough to figure out a way to screen their own advertisers. At least, that’s what a lot of Senators seem to think.

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“My goal is for you to think through this stuff a little better,” Senator Al Franken said grumpily to a Facebook lawyer at one point.

In truth, we all need to think through this stuff a little better.

“We are handing the controls of important parts of our public and private lives to a very small number of people, who are unelected and unaccountable,” wrote persistent Facebook critic Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, in a 2016 essay, “Facebook is eating the world.”

As of this year, Google and Facebook take roughly 50 percent of all advertising revenue. Together, they are currently raking in more than $117 billion a year — about as much as every single print and radio news outlet combined.

It’s a lot of money. For all the hand-wringing about the decline of print journalism, the news business hasn’t disappeared. It has simply been turned over to Facebook and Google. Increasingly, they own everything about news — ad revenue, distribution channels, communities of readers. It seems the only thing they don’t want to own is the editorial decisions they make about what we should be reading.

As the latest Congressional hearings have made all too clear, Russian outlets pumping ads and content into social media may well have tipped the balance in the 2016 presidential election. When a social media company can be played like a fiddle to make our democratic system dance at the highest levels, worries about its influence on local journalism may seem piddling by comparison. But for me, that’s what hits home the hardest.

I recently turned off my Facebook account. It’s not gone, of course. On Facebook, nothing is ever gone. All I have to do is log into my account again, and it will spring back to life, full of chatter. Even if I had never created an account on the site, Facebook would have a detailed map of most of the relationships in my life, filled in by friends and colleagues who have shared their address books with the company’s vast database.

It’s not the first time I’ve tuned out of Facebook. I keep leaving and coming back. There are real costs associated with not being plugged into my community’s most ubiquitous form of social media. I am drifting out of touch with friends and family. I am missing out on one of the only reliable ways I have of sharing my work with the people likely to care most about it. Most disturbingly of all, whenever I cut the cord, I am forced to face the fact that there are people I care intensely about who are so far removed from my daily life that if I leave Facebook for good, I might never talk to them again.

What I’m missing most, on a day-to-day basis, is local news. It is relatively easy to stay on top of the big national and international stories of the day by checking in with a few large media outlets regularly. That’s just not the case with local news.

Most local stories in the Catskills region are scattered across a dozen little weekly newspapers, each struggling to cover its rural territory with shrinking resources. A story might take a week to make the paper, or it might not be covered at all. Public meetings in the smallest towns, and hearings on important community issues, regularly take place without a reporter to witness them. Many papers are growing thin.

By contrast, Facebook is alive with a constant thrum of local news. Fires and disasters appear in close to real time, shared by witnesses and scanner-watchers. New business in town? You’ll probably see it here first, maybe in a promoted post. Contentious issues in the community often get hashed out on Facebook long before the newspaper covers them. Most of the local information is skewed in one way or another, reflecting the allegiances of the people posting it as well as the inscrutable editorial priorities of Facebook’s algorithm, but it’s rarely flat-out wrong.

As imperfect as it is, Facebook is increasingly filling the gaps left by a shrinking local press corps. In my former life as a digital news editor with a territory far too big for me, I relied on it constantly. It was a useful barometer for community sentiment on an issue, and a reliable source of tips on stories worth covering. It was also a source of traffic I couldn’t afford to ignore, accounting for as much as a third of our readership.

Facebook is already well on its way to replacing — one might even say, becoming — the local newspaper, especially in news deserts like the Catskills. It has already taken over much of the distribution of content for our local newspapers, and is well on its way to ingesting their local ad revenue as well. It will conquer the rural outposts of America long before it takes down the much more robust information networks of our glittering cities.

Me quitting won’t make a dent in that. But I’m going to try to stick to it anyway. The cost of not participating is high, but the price we’re already paying is higher.

Lissa Harris is the former editor of the Watershed Post. She lives in Margaretville with her wife and daughter. Send her Catskills news tips at lissa.e.harris@gmail.com.

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