In the INMA Webinar “Aftenposten’s Battle with Facebook,” Espen Egil Hansen, CEO and editor-in-chief of Aftenposten, detailed the concerns surrounding Facebook and other large platforms as the line between media and technology blurs — a line Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has clearly defined for the company. 

“The share size of Facebook has been concerning to me,” said Hansen, CEO and editor-in-chief of Aftenposten, during the special Webinar hosted by INMA on Thursday. 

Espen Egil Hansen was bold with Facebook — and it worked.
Espen Egil Hansen was bold with Facebook — and it worked.

Hansen played a clip in which Zuckerberg is asked about Facebook’s role in media. “We are a technology company. We’re not a media company,” Zuckerberg said to a crowd of students in late August. The company does not create or edit content, he added. It creates tools for individuals to curate their own experience. 

“But we all experience that Facebook is doing heavy editing,” Hansen said. He pointed to his own recent experience with Facebook censorship. 

When a Norwegian author posted photos illustrating the history of warfare to the social media giant, one picture was removed without warning. He posted it again, thinking its disappearance was a mistake. Facebook again removed the iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning photo by Nick Ut, featuring a naked child fleeing Napalm during the Vietnam War, and sent the author a warning: Post this again and you will be banned. 

“Then we, Aftenposten, wrote about this. Then we shared it on Facebook, because it’s about Facebook,” Hansen said. Facebook then e-mailed him, telling him to remove the post, citing the company’s standards policy. Before he could respond, the company deleted it. 

The email from Facebook was a breaking point for Hansen. “I got really mad then and there. In a few seconds, I decided to write a letter to Mark Zuckerberg.” 

At the encouragement of the news editor, Hansen wrote and published his letter immediately. What followed was a fast-paced media blitz that aimed attention at the social media company and raised questions about its position as what Hansen calls the global editor-in-chief. 

Other media companies picked up the story overnight. “All kinds of media covered this really well, not just social media,” Hansen said. Interviews, videos, and stories covered the situation, eventually leading to Facebook’s reconsideration of its stance on the photo. 

Though Zuckerberg never directly answered the letter, Hansen identified five outcomes from the attention he and his team drew to the editorial power of Facebook. 

  1. Facebook decided to allow this one picture: This is a symbolic victory, Hansen said. They also had a PR problem and this helped solve it.
  2. Facebook announced that there would be policy changes concerning what they called “newsworthy content”: These changes will have to work even if they conflict with the rules, but it is yet to be seen what those changes are.
  3. The campaign succeeded in establishing Facebook as the global editor-in-chief and as a media company: What is left to unpack is what kind of media company is Facebook? “It’s not a neutral technology company,” Hansen said.
  4. Facebook executives are now active in debating role and position: Before this letter, Facebook rarely took part in the public debate about itself. 
  5. We’ve started a worldwide debate on how Facebook is using its position as global editor: This is a debate that has exploded after the U.S. election, Hansen said. 

Hansen learned a few things from this experience, one being to speak out. He also learned another important lesson, this one about algorithms and their influence. “An algorithm is not neutral,” he said. “It’s not neutral.” Algorithms are tuned for engagement, and people are building biases into them. 

An algorithm strategy can be a powerful tool, one Hansen said he uses at Aftenposten. “I’m not against algorithms. On the contrary, I think we should learn from Facebook on how to use them.” But algorithms can run risk of creating an echo chamber for users, and may make it more difficult to combat fake news.

When asked if Facebook could completely eliminate fake news, Hansen said it would be impossible. “The whole idea of Facebook is that we can post in real time,” he said. 

Answering the same question, Grzegorz Piechota, a research associate at Harvard Business School and INMA blogger, said he does not believe Facebook can eliminate fake news by evaluating individual content. “I think they should focus on differentiating sources,” he said. Facebook should also incentivise creation of content that is not fake, he added. 

Piechota has been studying Facebook’s algorithms to learn more about how they work together to curate news feeds. His recent INMA report, “The Facebook-Media Relationship: It’s Complicated,” delves into some of this recent findings.

Piechota asked Hansen about the consequences of Facebook being a media company. “It’s not a neutral media company,” Hansen said, though he did say that it is a different kind of media company, because producing content is not at the core of Facebook’s business. Though, Hansen added, Facebook recently announced it is in talks to buy its own video shows

Aftenposten uses Facebook often, Hansen said: “I think Facebook brings value to us and our readers.” After 17 years of subscriber decline, Aftenposten has created a 13% growth this year in part due to its use of Facebook as a marketing tool.

A year from now, Hansen said, Facebook will have a much better policy. “Everyone is watching them now. Especially after the U.S. election,” he said. They must be cautious, he added. “If they do too much, that will hurt engagement and it will hurt advertising.”

INMA members can watch the Webinar for free here.