For the past few years, the debate over whether Facebook is a "platform" or a "publisher" has been far more than a mere question of semantics.
Publicly, the social network has positioned itself as a platform, one that hosts and moderates the content of others but does not publish its own. Facebook has argued that it is a publisher in court, however, claiming that it makes editorial decisions and should be protected by the first amendment.
Putting Facebook's problems with inconsistent messaging aside, the "platform vs. publisher" debate has considerable relevance for PR pros, whose success in media relations largely depends on building out some variation of a PESO strategy that involves a traditional ad spend, an an earned media component, solid SEO and robust owned content delivery channels.
Communicators are in a position to become influencers of Facebook's policy, not just through their partnerships with marketing and ad spends, but by treating the ubiquitous social network as a "publication" and not a "platform." Here's why.
The word 'platform' obscures and muddles its values
A great read in The Atlantic earlier this month, "The 'Platform' Excuse is Dying" makes the case for why the core concept of a "platform" is detrimental to a healthy and robust media ecosystem by outlining the history of the term, and its slide from a technical definition to a colloquial phrase.
"If the concept of a platform sounds confused, that’s actually the power of the metaphor," wrote author Alexis C. Madrigal. "In a brilliant, prescient 2010 paper, a Cornell University and Microsoft communications researcher, Tarleton Gillespie, tore open the emerging rhetoric of the platform, showing how useful and slippery this new invention could be. Platform could mean one thing to advertisers, another to professional content creators, and yet another to everyday users."
Throw "communicators" into that mix, for whom Facebook's "platform" is a place to showcase earned media efforts, and a community hub wherein a brand's content creators can interact with customers. It may not feel like a publication just yet (unless you're using Facebook Watch), as organic social on the platform only even has a shot at floating to the top if the comments and engagements on a given post are already taking off. But that doesn't mean it can't.
The benefit of 'publication' status—consistency, transparency and accountability
In a courtroom last year, Facebook lawyer Sonal Mehta defended the social network as a "publication" around its decision of what to publish and what not to publish—what that Guardian piece calls "a complete 180" after years of Facebook saying it was not a media company.
“The publisher discretion is a free speech right irrespective of what technological means is used," Mehta told the court. "A newspaper has a publisher function whether they are doing it on their website, in a printed copy or through the news alerts.”
"To defend themselves, the so-called platforms have developed byzantine sets of rules," wrote Madrigal in The Atlantic. "If they follow the guidelines they make up, they say, they are fulfilling their obligations to their various kinds of users...[o]f course, the policies are always changing and can be revisited at any time, and yet these inconsistent rules will be enforced consistently. It’s a mess."
By this logic, if Facebook decided to become a publication, communicators (and the promotional strategies that they oversee) would be in a prime position to hold them accountable to a set of standards. For starters, we can pressure the social network to establish clearly written editorial content submission guidelines. Moreover, Facebook would have to share with content producers, brands and other publications a clear and consistent path to organic traffic success for editorial content on the site.
This would barely make a dent in Facebook's proprietary, micro-targeting ad product—that would still thrive around product posts—while highlighting a profound distinction between ads or posts with brand copy and longer, more substantive editorial deep dives into a story or issue of the day.
Why we're ultimately talking about media relations
The consequences of this would not just be huge for publishers, but brands, too. Imagine an integration with your online newsroom that was built into Facebook's Application Programming Interface (API), allowing for your earned coverage to be searchable and easily indexable on Facebook. Imagine a Facebook community page that liberated your brand's blog from living solely in an easy-to-miss tab on your homepage, and instead showcased the content produced by your employees and customers right in their newsfeeds.
In an age when both journalism and Facebook is being attacked writ large in the political arena, remembering that publications have concrete sets of guidelines around what constitutes a legitimate story, a legitimate source and a reporter's legitimate monetary spend is important. Were a similar of standards established for Facebook's content moderation, and then enforced, your brand's content could have a shot at reaching audiences without you having to spend an arm and a leg on paid. That wouldn't just be good for organic traffic, but the health of your PESO strategy on the whole.
Good PR acknowledges there's sometimes a difference between what is legal and what is right
Once critic of Madrigal's Atlantic piece, Mike Masnick, wrote that Madrigal toes the line of being untrue by suggesting there is a concrete legal distinction between operating as a "platform" or "publisher."
"So, let's be clear, once again and state that there is no special legal distinction for 'platforms,' and it makes no difference in the world if an internet company refers to itself as a platform, or a publisher (or, for that matter, an instigator, an enabler, a middleman, a gatekeeper, a forum, or anything)," wrote Masnick.
"All that matters is do they meet the legal definition of an interactive computer service (which, if they're online, the answer is generally 'yes'), and (to be protected under CDA 230) whether there's a legal question about whether or not they're to be held liable for third party content."
As Facebook's content policies currently stand, questionable material that doesn't violate its terms of service or get flagged for removal by one of its overworked, underpaid content moderators still coexists on the network alongside your fantastic deep dive into the forward-thinking workplace culture. That enough should be enough of a motivation for PR pros to encourage Facebook to standardize its policies by way of content guidelines—and improve our Media Relations game as a result.