Facebook Brushes Aside Proposal Over Labeling of Political News

(Bloomberg) -- While Facebook Inc. has said that it wants to draw the line between news and misinformation, the company turned down an offer to work with a news media trade group to help resolve a conflict, emails show.

News Media Alliance Chief Executive Officer David Chavern on Monday offered a plan that would relieve some news organizations of a new Facebook requirement for any ads they buy that promote their articles about politics placed in a public database alongside the ad information of political candidates and groups.

His proposal would involve creating a list of media organizations that are deemed credible and would be exempt from the requirement.

In an email obtained by Bloomberg News, Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of news partnerships, responded by saying the company would "take your suggestions to heart" but said the company planned to negotiate with publishers directly.

"We are working directly with publishers and have been having a lot of conversations with them about the best approach," she added. "We all agree that more transparency is important, so any solution must meet those goals. We will share our plans soon. Thanks again for your input."

Brown and a representative for Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Chavern said in a statement that Facebook was attempting to "splinter the news industry by silencing the squeakiest wheel and leave the rest of the industry screaming." The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal are among the members of the News Media Alliance.

News Masquerade 

While Facebook wants to move forward with plans to label election advertising as political, some of the most politicized content comes from websites masquerading as news publishers.

To regular news publishers, any broad labeling of the news as political content would imply bias. But a solution that exempted certain publishers would put Facebook in the position of deciding outright what the real news is, and therefore not appearing neutral with content.

Facebook first announced it was starting a political advertisement archive last year as it was facing criticism over Russian operatives’ use of the site to influence the 2016 presidential election.

The Menlo Park, California, company later came up with a plan to disclose when news organizations pay to increase exposure of articles on politics, and store details about the demographics of who saw their ads and how much was spent in an archive that includes ads for politicians and political groups. The articles news organizations promoted would include labels specifying “paid for by,” just like the political ads.

Platform Lumping

The News Media Alliance argued that if Facebook lumps the promotion of news stories with political advocacy on its platform, it will be elevating less-credible news sources and erode the public’s trust in the media.

“Your plan to group quality publishers alongside political advocacy, which the ad archive will do, dangerously blurs the lines between real reporting and propaganda,” Chavern said in a letter last Friday to Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg. “This treatment of quality news as political, even in the context of marketing, is deeply problematic.”

“We’re making changes that impact political and issue ads with new labels and a searchable archive,” Brown said in a statement on Friday. “We recognize the news content about politics is different and we are working with publishers to develop the right approach.”

The News Media Alliance’s proposal calls for the establishment of a "white list" of news organizations that would automatically be exempt from the new disclosure rules.

Publishers would be eligible to join the list if they have an editorial staff dedicated to producing news coverage on local, national, or international matters on at least a weekly basis. Media organizations that are members of "respected industry associations" such as the American Society of News Editors, the Online News Association and the News Media Alliance would also be eligible.

The social-media giant sent notifications last week to publishers outlining new rules that were scheduled to take effect this week. Within hours of a Bloomberg News report on the initiative and the criticism from news organizations, Facebook decided to rethink its plan.

Separately, the issue of political ads on social media has caught the attention of Congress. Senators Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, and Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, introduced the Honest Ads Act, which would subject online political ads to similar disclosure rules that now govern advertising content in other media such as TV and radio. The measure has the support of Facebook and Twitter.

The Federal Election Commission is also considering new regulations that would require disclaimers identifying the sponsors of online, mobile and other forms of digital ads, offering alternative rules.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.