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Facebook’s Coronavirus Grift

I visited my sister in San Francisco for her birthday two years ago. It was June, and she had moved there two months before to work at a very fancy hotel chain (from which she was recently furloughed).

We were touristing around the city with the help of her very gracious concierge benefits — restaurants and attractions offer concierges free meals or tickets, because they want you to recommend them to your guests (we tipped heavy, of course) — and I kept seeing them, everywhere. Ads for Facebook and how much they were doing to be better at keeping people safe, or some vague language of the sort. This was 2018, so a few months after Mark Zuckerberg’s robotic performance in front of Congress, apologizing for letting Cambridge Analytica use user data without user consent.

Of course these ads seemed to conveniently omit that Facebook was the company that allowed “data misuse” in the first place. But as long as some kind of bogeyman could be blamed, Facebook and Zuckerberg could position themselves as the people stopping this breach of trust, not the people who enabled it. The ads, sprawling the city around every turn and comical from my understanding as a reporter, seemed pathetic, as if begging the city to take Facebook back.

One night, while walking back to my sister’s car from the now-defunct Beach Blanket Babylon, I finally took a picture. It seemed like something to laugh at:

“Data misuse is not your friend.”

This seems to be Facebook’s favorite strategy. A problem was started — we don’t know by who, but we’re going to fix it. Right-wing conspiracy theorists went willy nilly on our platform, so we’re going to create a fact-checker coalition (that also includes right-wing conspiracy theorist platforms) to tell users when things aren’t true. Your grandma seems to think that Breitbart is better than CNN (we don’t know why!!) so we’re going to make sure that all posts with links go virtually unseen. Yes, these are fantastic blanket solutions. We are very smart.

I use these examples because, once again, Facebook seems to be positioning itself as the hero in another media-related scenario: as the novel coronavirus pandemic tanks business in the hospitality, retail, and entertainment industries, the media industry, always precariously dangling from the cliff of financial stability, has also ruptured. This is easy for us to see nationally: last week BuzzFeed cut salaries, followed by Vice on Monday, along with substantial layoffs at Sports Illustrated.

And we are the lucky ones (I say this as someone who has also been laid off from a national digital publication, and I empathize deeply). Local newsrooms notoriously don’t (or can’t) pay their staffers well and rely on local advertising from many businesses that have, yes, shuttered during stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders. Amid this crisis, local reporters are essential staff. Maybe not frontline workers, if you want to get technical about who is and isn’t providing life-saving services, but I would argue that amid this federal fuckup, local reporters are scrambling to get vital information to people who may be too afraid, or sick, to ask for help, or too confident to stay home.

A few more notes on this, from actual reports:

Anyway, back to the bastard at hand: Facebook.

From NPR on Monday, an article with the stupidly audacious SEO headline, “Facebook Offers $100 Million Lifeline To News Outlets Hit During Coronavirus Crisis,” emphasis mine throughout:

Facebook says it’s dedicating $100 million to prop up news organizations pummeled by the financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Just two weeks ago, the company announced it would devote $1 million to aid local newsrooms in the U.S. and Canada covering the crisis. It turns out, Facebook was already thinking about giving far more.

You don’t say! How kind 🙂 Let’s read on…

[Facebook Vice President for Global News Partnerships Campbell] Brown said a quarter of the new Facebook money — $25 million — is to help smaller U.S. newsrooms cover the pandemic. Papers receiving grants so far are adding reporters, dropping paywalls or acquiring new equipment for working remotely. The grants have typically been in the relatively low thousands of dollars.

Oh? A grant of low thousands? This is what small newsrooms are receiving. That’s like… what does that cover??? Like half of one reporter’s salary? Or one reporter’s salary? What does low thousands even mean!! Wait, wasn’t this story about $100 million??? Where is the other $75 million, Mark?!!

Facebook will pour another $75 million into ads in publications in the U.S. and pandemic hot spots in Europe, including Italy and Spain, in an effort to give a quick infusion of cash to news publications. […]

“What we need … is Facebook to be a better partner to news for the long term, to [develop] those sustainable business models that keep news organizations in a place where they’re not trying to figure out, you know, what their future looks like,” Brown says. “If they have a future. There are a lot of existential questions facing this industry right now.”

Bitch?? “Facebook to buy $75 million in media ads” is a hell of a lot different than pledging $100 million to save newsrooms — newsrooms that your own platform has helped gut by “pivoting to video,” stealing ad revenue, and profiting off user engagement stemming from local news coverage without giving a cent back to the news producers themselves.

Local newsrooms have bled because of Facebook, and it is evil for them to act as heroes defeating the cruel abuse of the pandemic when they’ve struck the industry harder and more often. I wonder how many publications acquired by McClatchy and Gannett in the last few years would have had a fighting chance without Facebook’s blood-sucking strategy. But why worry about how you’ve affected these publications’s pasts when you’re too concerned about their imminent future (that you contributed to) to make a sizable, meaningful, no-strings-attached donation?

This is a bullshit empty gesture, same as the rest of them, and one that is surely meant to convince people that Facebook is fine to use because it is good and kind and cares.

What do you think these $75 million in ads will say?

“Your community, powered by Facebook.”

“We hate the novel coronavirus, but we love your local paper.”

“Economic collapse because of the novel coronavirus — and not because we leeched revenue from clicks on this magazine’s Facebook page — is not your friend.”

Featured image via Anthony Quintano/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) edited by Samantha Grasso