Facebook senior executive Patrick Walker delivered what amounted a high-level briefing today at the INMA 2017 World Congress about the social media giant’s newest initiatives and a just-launched online resource — all aimed at helping the company work better with publishers and journalists. 

As director of media partnerships for Europe, the Middle East and Asia, Walker is one of the architects of the Facebook Journalism Project. And details of that programme are definitely of interest (see below). 

Patrick Walker, director of media partnerships for Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, discusses the changes Facebook has made in the past year with delegates at the INMA World Congress.
Patrick Walker, director of media partnerships for Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, discusses the changes Facebook has made in the past year with delegates at the INMA World Congress.

However that was not necessarily the most shareworthy (in FB parlance) moment this Monday afternoon in the TimesCenter auditorium.  

More fascinating perhaps was the role reversal that happened at the end of Walker’s presentation. In a room full of news industry leaders, it was Walker who ironically wound up defending free speech and access to expression in response to challenges concerning things such as which news companies should be considered real news organisations deserving access to Facebook distribution, and what constitutes dangerous content such as pictures of abortions or violent acts that Facebook should be expected to censor. 

“One of the workstreams we have for the Facebook Journalism Project is: How do we elevate good journalism? How do we elevate legitimate news sources?” Walker responded. “But when you start to peal it back, you realise it’s actually quite tricky. What do you do in Turkey, for example? Whose list is that?

So we’re doing things instead of ring fencing a certain number of news organisations, because that becomes its own challenge. Where do you draw the line? And do you want to quash independent voices, and stand-alone journalists, and people like Dan Rather, who has his own blog and ... a very important voice.” 

In response to a leak this weekend in British media of some apparently internal Facebook memos concerning how the social platform handles controversial content, Walker didn’t completely disavow the documents. But he pushed back on any idea that the material embarrassed Facebook. 

“You know, there are some really hard questions that come up sometimes when you are trying to balance expression in all its different forms, and people’s intent — people that are looking to harm, versus people that are looking to share things for other reasons,” he said. “There are a lot of gray areas there.” 

“If you are to look through some of that documentation, I think you’d appreciate how hard some of these choices are. You may agree or disagree. But it’s the kind of thing we debate every day. It’s super important. … We’re trying to get it right.” 

Those interactions came after Walker strove to walk a fine line in his prepared remarks between owning up to Facebook’s controversial relationship with the media, and asking publishers to understand the difficulties Facebook faces in pursuing its mission to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. 

“We came to a realisation this year,” Walker said, “that making the world more open and connected doesnt necessarily mean it becomes a better place. Because there are lots of different forces at work. There are lots of different ways in which technology can be used of course for good and for bad.

“It’s not that we didn’t know that before. But I think that we found, through some of the experiences we lived through, there were things that we need to address better: We need to be more transparent. We needed to show up more often. We needed engage. We needed to debate. We needed to hire people to be in markets, to speak different languages and help share a little bit more about how we work and the products we’re building. And most importantly, to get feedback.

“Because there are some big questions that are being asked. What is our place in the media ecosystem? What does this mean for democracy? What’s our accountability? And how are we influencing people, and how should we be influenced.” 

Walker related one of his own experiences, as a foreign news journalist with the BBC based in Southeast Asia, during the political and economic uprising in 1998. He described the type of bulky technology he and his cameraman had to use back then to produce just one four-minute broadcast piece. 

“Today, if that same event were to occur, there would be hundreds if not thousands of accounts” because of the development of mobile phones and social platforms. “There’s been a massive transformation with technology,” he said. 

The flipside, however, is trying to deal with all those accounts, all that content people are posting, and some of it that some people contend should not be on Facebook at all. 

“The point here is that this stuff is hard and we have a million reports every day. And even if we get just one wrong, there’s hell to pay,” Walker said. As a result, Facebook has announced it will hire 3,000 more people to complement the 4,500 already working on its community operations team. 

Similarly, Walker listed efforts to mitigate false news — Facebook prefers that term to the now-politicized name “fake news.” It turns out that most of it is financially motivated, he said, which makes it easier to decentivize. That is on top of new tools to let people more easily challenge such material. 

As for the Facebook Journalism Project launched this past January, Walker explained it’s three main pillars: 

  • Collaboratively developing products for publishers.
  • Developing and launching more tools and trainings for newsrooms and journalists.
  • Building tools for the regular folks who use the platform every day. 

Facebook provided this link to extensive information about all the different aspects of its initiatives.

“The Facebook Journalism Project is just one example of how we’re trying to reach out to the industry to do more, better,” Walker offered. “It doesn’t mean we have all the answers. But it means that through this collaboration we can both support each other’s businesses. Because the one thing we have learned is that our futures are very much intertwined.”