Mark Zuckerberg Faces Hostility Over Facebook Plan to Rank News Orgs

“I’m not sure that makes sense,” exec says of paying publishers

Mark Zuckerberg is courting major media outlets, but he isn’t telling them everything they want to hear.

The Facebook chief executive, while meeting with several top publishers on Tuesday after the F8 developer conference, outlined his company’s plan to rank news organizations by trust. The gathering was coordinated by BuzzFeed, Quartz and The Information. Here’s how it works: Facebook will be leaning on user surveys to determine which outlets are “broadly trusted,” according to the Huffington Post. Zuckerberg didn’t say whether the rankings will be made public.

This strategy didn’t sit well with everyone at the meeting. “Deciding what to believe based on other people’s opinions is not only not journalistic, it’s arguably hostile to the press as a democratic institution,” argued The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFranc.

The nascent media-ranking system is something we’ve known about for a while. Zuckerberg said back in January the social network would pull back on publisher content, going from about 5 percent to 4 percent of posts in the News Feed. At the same time, it would start boosting news that performs well based on its new user-influenced trust rating.

“We could try to make that decision ourselves, but that’s not something we’re comfortable with. We considered asking outside experts, which would take the decision out of our hands but would likely not solve the objectivity problem,” said Zuckerberg at the time. “Or we could ask you — the community — and have your feedback determine the ranking. We decided that having the community determine which sources are broadly trusted would be most objective.”

If Zuckerberg cares about journalism, as he says he does, this is a cop out move, according to some of the invitees. On the one hand, Zuckerberg told the media execs he wants to “bridge common ground,” which isn’t possible without a “common set of facts.” But ranking outlets based on the opinions of its massive user base isn’t the best way to do it, as LaFrance argued.

Joseph Kahn, managing editor of The New York Times, also pushed back on Zuckerberg’s proposal. “The institutional values of most really good media companies should transcend any individual opinion,” said Kahn, according to The Atlantic. “And to say that journalism can be categorized the way Zuckerberg suggests is “part and parcel of the polarization of society.”

The meeting comes at a time when outlets are especially dependent on Facebook for traffic. Zuckerberg understands Facebook has soaked up — along with Google — the vast majority of digital ad dollars, taking a hammer to the journalism industry’s business model in the process. And while Zuckerberg said Facebook can help by “making sure that we contribute to a business model that is profitable and sustainable for news organizations,” he scoffed at the idea of actually paying outlets — something Rupert Murdoch has argued for.

“I’m not sure that makes sense,” Zuckerberg told the assembled outlets. The same could be said for the social network’s master and servant relationship with news organizations.