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Publishers come to terms with being Facebook’s enablers

“We need to learn from the mistakes *we made* and collectively build better guardrails for the industry, ensuring that we don’t make these mistakes with large platform partners again.”

For years, I’ve been a Facebook apologist and enabler. I’ve gone to newsroom meetings, conferences, industry talks, and after hours meet-ups, to strategize with others on how news organizations could make the most of Facebook. While the goal of these discussions was almost always to figure out how publishers could increase the reach of their journalism, the undeniable side effect is that while doing this, we helped Facebook build their platform.

Back in the early 2010s, this didn’t seem like such a bad thing. Facebook’s stated mission was to “connect the world”, and newsrooms wanted to inform the world. On the surface, it seemed like a wonderful symbiotic relationship, Facebook gave massive reach to the world’s best newsrooms on the cheap. The dream, of course, being that the world would become a better, more informed, insightful and empathetic place.

Of course, this hasn’t happened. We are living in a perverse and bizarro version of what we had hoped for.

When news organizations sat down and broke bread with Facebook reps, we were pitched on all the brilliant ways Facebook could help us inform readers. Unfortunately, every time a publisher went along with these suggestions, such as implementing a Facebook pixel, uploading a native video, incorporating a Facebook comment box, publishing to Instant Articles, encouraging their readers to share stories on Facebook, or writing intentionally polarizing headlines, it gave Facebook an opportunity to build a higher resolution picture of who that reader was.

This high-resolution picture was then used to drive polarizing content into our readers’ newsfeeds, increase a drug-like addiction to the platform, and potentially change the course of the 2016 election.

The warning signs were always there and we ignored them. I ignored them. It was impossible for newsroom technologists and strategists not to get an inkling that we were contributing to a system that ultimately would end up where it is today. If you played it out in your head, you knew where this could go. We went along with it anyway, because it was good for business, and business was good.

For what it’s worth, I think most, if not all, of Facebookers on the news team truly thought they were doing good, just like us on the publishing side of the equation. I’ve gotten to know a number of these people and can vouch for them being good people caught up in the same mess that we all find ourselves in. They too got caught up in the excitement of building a connected platform like the world had never known and didn’t sufficiently pause to ponder the consequences. To quote Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Over the next 12 months, publishers must come to terms with the fact that we bear a non-trivial level of responsibility in enabling Facebook become what it has. We need to learn from the mistakes *we made* and collectively build better guardrails for the industry, ensuring that we don’t make these mistakes with large platform partners again.

Matt Karolian is director of new initiatives at The Boston Globe.

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