No One Platform Should Have All That Power: The Ascendancy of Social Media and the Struggles of Independent Publications
By Kevin Pollack
In 1959, American Heritage — a magazine first published just ten years earlier covering American history, politics, and culture — was already boasting approximately 300,000 subscribers. In addition to publishing articles from former President Herbert Hoover in 1958 and then-President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the magazine also served as the home of acclaimed author and historian David McCullough — who referred to the magazine as his “graduate school.” With such illustrious contributors, American Heritage quickly became one of the most renowned magazines in the country, ultimately receiving 13 nominations for National Magazine Awards. Such good fortune, though, did not last.
In May 2007, circumstances at American Heritage first began to deteriorate as Forbes — which had bought the magazine in 1986 — announced it was ending its publication. To preserve the magazine’s legacy, current Editor-in-Chief Edwin S. Grosvenor purchased it, along with a number of partners, but by the summer of 2012, printing cost $170,000, according to Grosvenor. Amid a recession, this prohibitive expense was becoming unsustainable. The magazine eventually suspended its print operations in 2013. However, Grosvenor soon organized a Kickstarter campaign, supported by 587 backers, that allowed the magazine to begin republishing online in 2017.
After moving to become entirely digital, the magazine has continued to navigate rough waters. With, as of December 2020, 7,000 followers on Facebook, where the bulk of the publication’s advertising takes place, Grosvenor is struggling to achieve even a fraction of the readership that the magazine enjoyed in the late 1950s and 1960s. Additionally, because Facebook’s content regulation policies often privilege hyperpartisan pages rather than reliable, mainstream publishers, American Heritage has been left behind on the platform, and Grosvenor laments the almost complete reliance on Facebook for marketing.
In an unfortunate twist that has been especially evident since 2016, Facebook has morphed into an anti-democratic megaphone, amplifying voices on the right or far-right that tout misinformation and disinformation. As a result, smaller, reputable news sources are forced to fend for themselves in a post-truth online environment that rewards sensationalism over honesty and clicks over quality.
In the case of American Heritage, Grosvenor noted that he has repeatedly had his requests for articles to be boosted — a form of paid advertising that promotes a specific post rather than an entire page or group — rejected since 2019 without any explanation, considerably hampering his ability to reach potential readers. (A representative of Facebook declined to comment.)
Boosting has particular advantages over other types of advertising on the platform. A boosted post can reach very specific audiences based on information as generic as gender, location, income, or on more telling indicators like political affiliation, current events, and behavior, such as whether a user prefers high-value goods or owns a small business. When I looked at the boosting process on an old, entirely apolitical Facebook group for which I was still an administrator, I was able to use detailed targeting to aim a post at users with activity described by a “likely engagement with US political content (conservative)” — but, curiously enough, not with those interested in liberal content.
The benefits of boosting notwithstanding, Grosvenor argues that the process’s lack of transparency and human touch — owing to its dependency on algorithms that appear to be fundamentally at odds with promoting responsible content — only harms American Heritage and similarly reputable sources. Without any ability to get feedback from Facebook on why his particular articles were rejected for boosting, Grosvenor noted that he feels abandoned by the platform, specifically because of its lack of straightforward protocols. “There is nobody there. You cannot talk to anyone,” he said in an interview with The Free Speech Project, referring to the absence of any explanation given for the rejection of his boosts.
For example, Grosvenor submitted an article on the Cuban missile crisis to be boosted five separate times; it was written by Sergei Khrushchev, son of the late Nikita Khrushchev, first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964. Despite its topical urgency and the pedigree of its author, the story was rejected in all five instances, each time without any explanation. Another article on Nixon Chief of Staff Alexander Haig, written by journalist and historian Ray Locker, was similarly barred from boosting. And a third article about President Eisenhower’s attitudes toward and nominations of justices for the Supreme Court, written by his granddaughter and political consultant Susan Eisenhower, was similarly rejected, despite its historical accuracy and political relevance.
“Here is a case where presidents used to put country above party not that long ago,” Grosvenor said of the Eisenhower article. “I thought it was very pertinent to the Supreme Court during the voting on Amy Coney Barrett” (whom President Donald Trump had nominated to succeed the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg). Facebook’s algorithm apparently disagreed.
Despite the overwhelming lack of transparency surrounding many of Facebook’s practices, the platform has instituted some recent changes to its content moderation processes. In September 2020, Facebook announced it would block new political ads beginning in late October leading up to the Nov. 3 presidential election, a regulation it extended indefinitely in early October.
In addition, in October, Facebook launched its Oversight Board, an independent body backed by a $130 million trust. The board was singularly established to respond to users’ appeals of content removed from the platform. In the future, users will also be able to appeal content they believe has been wrongfully allowed to remain available. The Verge described the board as an “unprecedented move to devolve some of a tech giant’s power back to the people that, on some level, it represents.” The impact of these developments is yet to be determined, however.
The case of American Heritage demonstrates the dangers of allowing a social media empire to determine the content made available to its users. Not only does Facebook have massive power, but its algorithms are clearly ill-equipped to distinguish between mischievous and mainstream material. They enable the spread of misinformation and apparently prevent the promotion of sensible, factual information.
Given that likes, comments, and shares of articles from news outlets that regularly publish falsehoods roughly tripled from the third quarter of 2016 to the third quarter of 2020 on Facebook, the platform’s responsibility to ensure its users have access to accurate news is more important now than ever. Research shows that 55% of U.S. adults get their news from social media either often or sometimes; according to the Pew Research Center, Americans who primarily turn to social media for news are both less knowledgeable about current events and more likely to hear false and unproven claims. Consequently, Facebook’s inability to vet rigorously the content it promotes or neglects to promote inherently threatens American democracy by creating an uninformed and a malinformed public.
Furthermore, as Facebook introduces new features, such as text posts — status updates posted to a colorful background rather than simply as text — which have been weaponized by users peddling misinformation and disinformation, the possibility of the platform becoming an even greater source of damaging inaccuracies and conspiracy theories only increases. Compounded by the closing of local newspapers, a well-established national trend that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the absence of reliable news on Facebook could continue to test the resilience of an already weakened democracy.
“There is a real problem in our country with people not knowing about American history. It is what unites us. It is what gives us our identity. People need to be informed about our history,” Grosvenor said. As it currently stands, Grosvenor is finding it increasingly difficult — both via Facebook’s strict yet ambiguous boosting policies and the unfavorable atmosphere for independent publications — to educate the magazine’s followers about American history. Facebook’s power is unprecedented; it must act responsibly and democratically by enhancing its transparency, rooting out misinformation, and amplifying honest journalism.
Kevin Pollack ’21 is a senior in the School of Foreign Service majoring in international politics and minoring in music. Originally from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Kevin is interested in race relations, foreign policy, and the intersection of culture and politics.