When Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was developing a section for news, he said it would be devoted to curating “high quality” information from “trustworthy” sources. That was back in April.
On Friday, as Facebook began rolling out the product for testing to users in the United States, the company revealed a baffling decision: Among reputable partners like CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post, it had decided to include Breitbart in its list of sources for Facebook News. (A Facebook spokesperson said Breitbart will not be paid, and that it’s the site’s current content on the platform that made the outlet eligible.)
For those in need of a reminder, Breitbart is a far-right website with a history of publishing misleading stories about Democrats and critics of President Donald Trump. The site also has close ties to the Trump administration, and many of its employees have gone on to work in the White House.
Former Breitbart chairman Steve Bannon once described the site as a “f***ing machine” that he could use to “crush the opposition.” Bannon had previously called the website a “platform for the alt-right.” That doesn’t sound like a “trustworthy” source one would rely on for “high quality” news. But, according to Facebook, it is.
Experts assail: If Breitbart is “high quality” news, what’s low?
CNN Business reached out to some experts in the journalism field to ask them what they thought of Facebook’s decision. None were supportive. Columbia Journalism School Ph.D. chair Todd Gitlin, also a longtime progressive, asked, “If Breitbart.com, which under Steve Bannon’s tutelage devoted itself to fraudulent inflammatory immigrant-hating claims, is ‘high quality,’ what’s low? Including Breitbart on [Zuckerberg’s] ‘news tab’ disgraces the name of news.”
WaPo media critic Erik Wemple commented: “Breitbart, a ‘trusted’ news outlet? Trusted, indeed – to attack the female accusers of Breitbart buddy Roy Moore. That episode alone should be enough to actuate Facebook to reconsider this call.” And conservative commentator and Bulwark Editor-In-Chief Charlie Sykes told me, “Facebook’s choice is worse than embarrassing; it’s inexplicable. Breitbart is a poster child for disinformation and hackery.”
Back in 2017, BuzzFeed’s Joe Bernstein published a blockbuster story that relied on a cache of documents he obtained and documented on how Breitbart “smuggled white nationalism into the mainstream.”
On Friday, Bernstein tweeted, “One way to think about Facebook naming Breitbart a ‘trusted news source’: my investigation two years ago contained revelations so damning Breitbart funder Robert Mercer stepped down as CEO of his hedge fund. But it’s good enough for Zuck & co.”
The New York Times’ Charlie Warzel wrote in a tweet that Breitbart “being in Facebook’s trusted partners is clarifying.” Why? Well, he pointed out “it’s the same principle as dinner” with people like Fox host Tucker Carlson. Which is to say, “FB’s perspective seems to be that if you achieve a certain [amount] of scale and influence, the company will engage earnestly with you.” Warzel said “it’s an outdated idea of media power.”
At Friday’s Paley Center event, the New York Times’ Marc Tracy asked Zuckerberg about the decision to include Breitbart. Zuckerberg said he believes “you want to have content that represents different perspectives.”
Zuckerberg noted that all of the outlets will have to comply with a common set of standards. He added that being eligible for the News tab’s algorithmic selections is “different from what the curators and the journalists who are picking the top stories necessarily choose as the most relevant thing to surface.”
Other than Breitbart, it’s not clear what other websites or organizations known for misinformation, if any, Facebook might be partnering with. A spokesperson declined to provide the full list of partners to CNN Business. “We are not sharing a full list of outlets,” the spokesperson said. So if Facebook is confident in the partners it has chosen, why isn’t it making the full list public?