Facebook touches the third rail by mentioning accreditation of journalists

Not surprisingly, the issue of “fake news” and the role that the giant web platforms play in spreading misinformation was a big topic of conversation at the Financial Times “Future of News” conference held this week in New York. But things started to get a little heated when Campbell Brown — Facebook’s head of news partnerships — was asked by moderator Matthew Garrahan if the social network might consider “some sort of accreditation system” as part of its attempts to solve the disinformation problem.

“I think we are moving in that direction,” Brown said, at which point she was interrupted by Google’s VP of News, Richard Gingras, who was also part of the panel discussion (along with Emily Bell, director of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism). Gingras echoed what many journalists were probably thinking when he protested that “from a First Amendment perspective, we don’t want anyone accrediting who a journalist is.”

In tweets sent later to some journalists who made similar criticisms, Brown clarified that what she meant was not accreditation per se, but that in order to stamp out fake news, Facebook might have to verify trusted news organizations “through quality signals or other means.”

Giving what seems like approval to the idea of accreditation might be horrifying for some, since it brings up unpleasant images of countries where the government or dictator in power decides who qualifies as a journalist. But at the same time, Brown’s gaffe is somewhat understandable, because Facebook is currently trapped between a rock and a hard place when it comes to taking action on fake news and misinformation.

On the one hand, the company is being pressed by governments both in the US and elsewhere to do more to remove or de-emphasize fake news, not to mention hate speech, harassment and other negative content. But the more it does that, the more it gets accused of infringing on free speech. And every attempt to rank news outlets on vague concepts such as “quality” or “trust” looks a lot like Facebook deciding who is a journalist and who isn’t.

Until the whole Russian troll fiasco broke out into the open, Facebook could plausibly maintain the fiction that it is just a platform, and that it doesn’t play favorites when it comes to sources of news or any other content (which has never really been the case, of course). But now it is having to grapple with the realities of being a media entity and making editorial decisions about what to include and who to highlight, and that is a completely different ball game.

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