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Facebook is the unwilling king of the news

Facebook says it's a tech firm, not a media company. But as it continues to grow, so too does its media might, bringing along conflicts.

Claudia Cruz/CNET

This is the first story in a two-part series about the complications of Facebook's unique media impact.

Facebook has titanic media power. The only thing that matches that influence may be the company's denial it exists.

The US election crystallized the stakes. There are a myriad of reasons behind the voting decisions of millions of people, and the world's biggest social network says its role is getting overblown.

"The idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way, I think is a pretty crazy idea," Mark Zuckerberg said last month. He's moderated his comments since then, but Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg this week reiterated that Facebook didn't sway the election.

Facebook's media headaches don't start or end with fake news: With 1.8 billion monthly visitors, Facebook is a media-sharing powerhouse. But unlike the search giant Google or other big networks such as Twitter, Facebook exerts more control over what you see. Those News Feed algorithms are really, really good at getting you to click your way down a comfy rabbit hole. The election exposed how your own personal Facebook burrow -- with its echo chambers, fake news and entry points for abuse -- may not be a safest place to live.

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Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg is among the company executives who've said it's a tech firm, not a media outfit.

James Martin/CNET

The bigger it has grown, the more Facebook has struggled with challenges typically faced by media and news organizations. Even as Facebook has become the primary vehicle for media critical to public debate, like live videos in July that further ignited the Black Lives Matter movement, the company has continued to insist it is a tech platform, not a media company.

The wrinkle is that Facebook users may not draw so clear a distinction.

"Most people don't differentiate," said Rachel Davis Mersey, an associate professor at Northwestern University who specializes in audience reception to news. "Consumers of media see Facebook as a media company."

Facebook declined to comment for this story.

Fake news

The pope endorses Donald Trump. An FBI agent investigating Hillary Clinton kills himself in a murder-suicide. A man gets paid $3,500 to protest a Trump rally.

All those stories are false -- "fake news." They also sunk into the brains of Facebook users better than real news. When people complain that Facebook is failing to honor its obligations as a news outlet, though, they're only getting it half right.

Facebook is a major news source, and a growing one. Nearly half of US adults get news from Facebook, according to a Pew Research Center study this year. In 2013, 47 percent of all US Facebook users said they got news on Facebook; this year, it was 66 percent.

But criticizing Facebook's news judgment typically holds the company to editorial standards from a different age, like trying to nail horseshoes to the tires of a car.

"Your friends have the right to embellish and lie about their own lives," said Karen North, a professor of digital social media at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. "What if Facebook said everything on there had to be true? There would be nothing left."

Facebook is stuck in a seemingly lose-lose scenario with news. The hands-off approach lets misinformation thrive, especially since false reports tend to play well with News Feed algorithms. Facebook sets up the News Feed to prioritize postings by your own friends and stories you're most likely to engage with: "liking," sharing, clicking a link and so on. Those items are also most likely to be ones that affirm your current point of view.

Facebook's News Feed prioritizes posts by your friends and those you're most likely to engage with.

Photo by Jason Cipriani/CNET

"We love to find evidence that supports the opinions we already have," North said.

But a hands-on approach landed the company in hot water. Facebook faced an outcry in May after a report that the editorial team managing its "Trending Topics" section was instructed to suppress conservative news sources.

Facebook denied the claims, but it changed Trending Topics to be more software-based and held an olive-branch meeting with conservative press leaders.

Takedowns

Criticism about Facebook's media shortcomings don't stop with news. As a publishing forum for all kinds of media, Facebook drew criticism that it fumbled sensitive subjects by removing materials that deserve to be seen.

When Illma Gore painted a nude portrait of Trump with a tiny penis, her posting of the work went viral on Facebook. Someone, presumably a critic, filed what's known as a DMCA takedown request, accusing her of illegally posting media that belongs to somebody else.

As the creator and owner of the painting, she holds the copyright. Yet the request led Facebook to remove her posting and temporarily ban her from the site. That shut down her access to the network where the greatest amount of discussion about her was taking place.

"It felt like I couldn't speak," she said.

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Los Angeles-based artist Illma Gore's portrait of Trump went viral on Facebook.

Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty Images

As a company, Facebook isn't legally obligated to protect anyone's speech, but its community standards say the site should "give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected." Copyright complaints offer a tool with which postings can be removed almost immediately with little review, according to Corynne McSherry, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to digital civil liberties.

Abuse of copyright takedowns may be significant. WordPress, an online service that lets anyone set up and publish a blog, rejected 9 percent of its takedown requests as abusive in the most recent six-month period.

Facebook doesn't provide numbers about takedowns, but it boasts a monthly audience quadruple the size of WordPress'.

Confusion

Takedowns aren't limited to copyright violations. Facebook also removes media and bans users over violations of its community standards, sometimes provoking outcries of censorship.

That was Tom Egeland's experience, when the Norwegian writer in August posted an iconic photo from the Vietnam War. Facebook removed the picture depicting a Vietnamese girl fleeing naked from her napalmed village, citing child nudity.

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Phan Thi Kim Phuc was photographed as a child during the Vietnam war in the Pulitzer-winning photo projected behind her.

Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images

Others posted the photo in solidarity, including the prime minister of Norway, only to see the image deleted again and, sometimes, their account banned as well. Facebook eventually recognized that a historically pivotal photograph isn't the same as child pornography, and it restored some of the posts (but not Egeland's).

"Facebook's primary problem and challenge is to separate valid breaches of their community standards -- like porn -- from a post that should not be removed," Egeland said in an email interview. "Facebook's second problem is that nobody listens to you."

McSherry at the EFF said Egeland isn't alone in his frustration. Her organization has noticed two recurrent shortcomings in Facebook's community standards. One is a lack of clarity about how standards are applied. The other is recourse.

"We hear over and over again, people don't know how to appeal...It can be days or weeks to get any kind of person to go back and say, 'Wait a minute; did we make a mistake?'" she said. "To have one company have so much power to decide what is and is not indecent is troubling."

Part two in this series addresses solutions Facebook could explore.