A Balance of Giving and Taking?

The Relationship between the Media and Facebook in the Middle East
Opinion14.12.2017C. Jancke
facebook mada
FNF MENA

A review of Fares Akkad’s ‘The Facebook Journalism Project’ presentation at the 2017 Conference of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ)  

Excited chatter spreads through the room as more and more people are forcing their way into the crowded Ballroom at this years’ Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) Conference at the Dead Sea in Jordan. While some have managed to squeeze into the few bits of spaces left on the floor and around the already taken seats, Fares Akkad is getting ready. The Head of media partnerships for Facebook and Instagram in the Middle East is testing his videos, of course all in the iconic Facebook format of a newsfeed framed by a smartphone on the power point, and flips through his slides. He takes a deep breath and begins the presentation that could reconcile journalists with the social media platform that has been threatening their livelihoods, or drive them even further apart.

The Facebook Journalism Project is the social networks’ attempt of “being more proactive in working with journalists”, explains Fares Akkad. Through the creation of new tools, story-telling formats, and training opportunities for journalists, he believes that journalists can take advantage of Facebook. Nonetheless, the advance of Facebook has created difficulties for journalists and outlets across the world because of collapsing business models, and the chances of the project to overcome this central issue remain narrow.

But why is Facebook interested in collaborating with Journalists and creating tools for them?

Showing journalists how they can benefit from the social network is necessary because of the impact that the rise of Facebook has had on newspapers and journalism across the world. The traditional business model the media has relied on for decades has collapsed. The data that Facebook has gathered, combined with its effective algorithms and ad-targeting strategies, have resulted in most businesses turning towards the company rather than the media when placing advertisements. In 2015, of the $59 billion spent on digital advertisement, $36 billion ended in Facebook’s and Google’s pockets (New York Times). In the words of NBC’s Andrew Lehren at ARIJ, traditional journalism has lost its main source of funding, and “this loss of revenue is taking away its life blood”.

But the social network’s impact does not end here. The platform has changed the nature of the very product of journalism too: news. At the ARIJ Forum, Aidan White from the Ethical Journalism Network points out that through Facebook there has been a democratization, but that the media has lost its traditional function as a gate-keeper that decides what news actually is. This means that newspapers must redefine their roles in the new pool of vast and rapid information.

Opportunities for Middle Eastern journalists created by Facebook

Needless to say, today the media is not in its best shape and Facebook has not been so innocent in this development. Nevertheless, especially on the regional level of the Middle East and North Africa, Facebook can also provide a lot of opportunities. In the conference’s plenum Survival of Independent Media in the Era of Post-Truth Politics, it becomes clear that outlets that face censorship from their respective governments often switch onto the social media platform to publish and reach out to readers. Lina Attalah, editor-in-chief of Mada Masr in Egypt, explains how she “continued the battle against censorship” through publishing on social-media after her platform was blocked. And this is not a problem that only Mada Masr faces. Since May 2017, 21 sites were blocked in Egypt because they were supposedly engaged in “terrorist activity” and “spreading lies” (The Guardian).  The situation does not look any better for journalists in other countries of the region. According to the Freedom House Index 2017 on Internet Freedom, the majority of countries in the Middle East are not free, while only Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Turkey, Kuwait and Israel are classified as partly free. In this respect, Facebook provides opportunities for many sites to bypass censorship.

This however often comes at a price. Zahraa Mortada, editor-in-chief of the Lebanese online platform Raseef22 talks about the challenges of publishing on Facebook in the plenum. Her question of how to publish content on Facebook but avoid being under the control of its algorithm is essential for news outlets across the world. Akkad explains in his presentation that multiple factors like users’ likes and prior interactions determine what ends up at the top of a users’ newsfeed. “Facebook is not looking for passive viewing” he further reveals, highlighting that the social network pushes content to the top of the newsfeed that the user is the most likely to actively engage with. This often results in quality journalism being buried in newsfeeds.

The Facebook Journalism Project and its impact

What follows, is that even though Facebook provides some opportunities for journalists in the region, continuing dialogue is absolutely essential. In Building Global Community,  Mark Zuckerberg says that a “strong news industry is also critical to building informed community” and that “reading local news is directly correlated with local civic engagement”. The Facebook Journalism Project acknowledges this and tells the media “Hey, look, we hear you and you can have a piece of the pie”.

Through the project, Facebook wants to focus on news integrity and increase publishers’ value with new story telling formats through, for example, Instant Articles, new monetarization opportunities, training, and deeper understanding of publishers’ audiences and performances. Fact checking, flagging fake news and marking it with question marks is meant to reduce fake news and inform readers before sharing content. According to Akkad though, especially Instant Articles are useful for publishers in the Middle East because they load ten times faster than regular websites and are easier to access in areas with poor internet. To then “deepen the relationship” (Akkad) with the reader, these articles are recirculated and can be paired with mandatory subscriptions or apps in order to continue reading. To furthermore understand the performance of, for example, an article, publishers can see how it is trending on the platform Crowdtangle that monitors Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit.

Even though this new project may be innovative in its approach to include journalists in the design of Facebook, the real question remains if this will be enough to solve Journalisms’ funding issues. The New York Times says that “while training, technology and innovation are critical, what journalism needs most now is money, and lots of it”. Ensuring journalism’s sustainability has to be the priority even if other important questions about the future and the collaboration with Facebook persist.

Towards the end of Akkad’s presentation several hands shoot up. “Whose intellectual property becomes an article that is published on Facebook?” asks one man in the audience. Akkad’s reply is vague; “Let me get back to you”, he says and scratches the surface of the other issues that will most likely arise between journalists and Facebook as their relationship continues. Until then, we will be waiting until they get back to us!

C. Jancke

Researcher in Middle Eastern Affairs