The rapidly evolving media world continues to undergo an unprecedented amount of upheaval, with mega-continents slamming into each other, vast chasms suddenly appearing under our feet, and glaciers melting at hyperspeed. But one thing remains largely unchanged, and that is the 800-pound gorilla whose shadow continues to loom over the landscape — a gorilla named Facebook.
The social network’s dominant position at the top of the media food chain is something most publishers have already become accustomed to, whether they like it or not. But that dominance was reinforced with the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States, an outcome that many believe Facebook played a role in, thanks to its distribution of so-called fake news.
This phenomenon was like a one-two punch to the solar plexus of the media industry. On the one hand, it drove home just how big a role Facebook plays in the news consumption of large numbers of people. But at the same time, it also made it abundantly clear how little the social network really cares about the news it distributes. So much power, and yet so little responsibility.
As one former Facebook staffer described it, all the network really cares about is whether users find the content in their feeds engaging or not, and “bullshit is highly engaging.” The question of whether or not the stories those users share are accurate or not is largely irrelevant.
Some sociologists argue that the way that Facebook is designed exacerbates the problem, because stories are shared by people we know or are connected with socially, and so they come with a veneer of trust. The site encourages people to share news stories because they make them feel a strong emotion, not because they are true or false. It’s like a giant machine for confirmation bias.
And so, media companies have to confront the reality that their fortunes — and in some cases, possibly even their survival — depend on a giant corporation whose interests may or may not even align with theirs.
This is the classic Faustian bargain, retold as a modern-media morality play. Like the original Faust, news publishers have been offered a deal by a charming stranger who promises he has their best interests at heart and that he’ll give them untold riches, in return for something they aren’t really using and probably won’t even miss when it’s gone. Who could say no?
In fact, it’s actually even worse than Faust’s deal. Faust chose to sign on the dotted line because he wanted extra features like wealth and power — but many media companies feel as though they have no choice but to cut a deal with Facebook, because they need the network’s reach and advertising revenue to survive.
What they are giving up in return may not be their souls, but it’s close enough. They’re trading their brand value and expertise for the pennies in advertising revenue that Facebook chooses to share with them, an arrangement that the social network can change at any moment. And what they could wind up losing is the trust of their readers — a currency that is already debased, but still arguably has some value left. For now.
My prediction is that this Faustian dance will continue in 2017, even as the downsides or holes in the deal start to become increasingly obvious. Some publishers will find that they’re spending lots of time and resources creating video for Facebook and not getting nearly enough in return. Some will have the terms of their deal renegotiated and will be powerless to stop it.
Unfortunately, for some, by the time this happens, it’ll already be too late. They will have become so dependent on Facebook that they will be trapped in a symbiotic relationship, and trying to remove the parasite will risk killing the host. And so they will continue, with Facebook gradually becoming stronger, as the news outlet becomes just another commodity provider of free content.
Is there a way of escaping this fate? Perhaps. Some media outlets are trying hard to make Facebook just one of many platforms and networks they take advantage of, while others are pursuing alternate ways of connecting with their audiences, rather than sacrificing everything they have in pursuit of reach. Maybe they will show the rest of the industry that it can be done, and that you can find a way to win even when you are trapped in a Faustian bargain.
Mathew Ingram is a senior writer at Fortune.