Sheryl Sandberg got everything wrong about Facebook’s role as a media company

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

caption
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.
source
Ruben Sprich/Reuters

How would you classify a company that:

Most would call that a media company. And most would expect that company to adhere to the standards, safeguards, and rules that all media companies do.

But Facebook, which does all of the above, will not concede it’s in the media business. Indeed that’s a classification the company has avoided for years.

On Thursday, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, issued the latest such denial of the obvious, telling Axios editor Mike Allen that the social networking giant is not a media company. To make her case, Sandberg pointed to the fact that Facebook is run by technical workers and engineers. In her view, because the company itself doesn’t produce news content, it can’t be a media company.

“At our heart we’re a tech company,” Sandberg said. “We hire engineers. We don’t hire reporters. No one is a journalist. We don’t cover the news. But when we say that, we’re not saying we don’t have a responsibility. In fact we’re a new kind of platform … as our size grows, we think we have more responsibility.”

But that’s an incredibly narrow view of what a media company is. Sandberg’s definition of a media business seems to be a organization that hires journalists and producers to make news content. But media companies are broader than that. They curate content. They distribute it. The generate ad revenue from it.

A company such as Facebook, which distributes media and makes money off it by selling ads is, by definition, in the media business. Sandberg is right to point out that Facebook’s size means it has a massive responsibility to distribute accurate information. But she’s wrong to deny it serves many of the same functions of a media company.

It doesn’t matter that computers or algorithms or engineering geeks are making editorial decisions. They’re still serving the editorial functions of a media company. In fact, Sandberg said earlier in the interview that Facebook was serving an editorial role by showing users related articles to news stories they see their News Feed and hiring fact-checking organizations to vet some content.

The renewed questions about the company’s role in the intersection of tech and media come as the debate around fake news and fake Russian ads on the platform are heating up. The United Kingdom is already considering regulations that would treat Facebook more like a media company, for example.

Sandberg’s also wrong to say Facebook doesn’t hire journalists. The company hired former NBC anchor Campbell Brown in January to head up the company’s news division and work with other journalists to maximize their use of Facebook’s platform.

There are numerous reasons why Facebook would be reticent to admit it’s a media company. It could harm its sky-high valuation, which is currently at about $500 billion. That’s a tech company valuation, not a media company valuation. It would also open Facebook up to regulatory rules in the US and other countries that it would rather avoid.

But the abuse on Facebook’s platform, from fake Russian ads to fake news spreading as recently as last week’s Las Vegas shooting, show a greater need for Facebook to start acting like the media organization that it is. The sooner Facebook admits that, the better.