Press Rogue — April 25, 2019, 2:00 pm

Too Big to Cover

Finally, after months of speculation, Facebook announced on Wednesday that it is prepared to pay up to $5 billion to the Federal Trade Commission for violating an agreement to protect user data. Wired wrote that such a fine would be “big enough to hurt,” but The Verge was dismissive, arguing that the company is “too rich for it to matter.” Investors, it seems, agreed with the latter view: in after-hours trading on Wednesday, the company’s stock rose some 8 percent. That Facebook can treat a ten-figure fine as a slap on the wrist may explain why, when the Wall Street Journal recapped the five hundred or so articles it had run on the company in the year since Channel 4’s Cambridge Analytica exposé, it noted that this waterfall of content about the firm had “apparently exhausted the interest of investors. While news on data flubs continues to flow readily, Facebook’s stock is up 37% so far this year.”

Facebook may be undergoing “the most contentious period in its history,” as The Verge put it, but the company continues to expand dramatically. Setting aside its half-trillion-dollar market capitalization, the platform has 2.3 billion active users—1.5 billion of whom access it daily. These numbers represent an incredible concentration of power. Yet they have not transformed how Facebook is treated by the press. Most coverage of the company falls into one of two categories: business stories detailing share prices or technology dispatches exploring new features. Political reporting on the company is no better, focusing almost exclusively on founder Mark Zuckerberg or relitigating the 2016 election.

While coverage of Facebook and other tech mammoths remains fractured along decades-old lines, the companies keep growing. To understand that growth, one might first look to the business press. But though the Journal and the Financial Times have been diligent in their reporting on Facebook’s privacy crises, both papers have done little to ensure readers understand why people actually use the service. In a report last month laying out how “Facebook grew too big to handle,” FT charted the company’s explosion in users, but mentioned only the “People You May Know” widget and the “like” button as having driven that growth. Both features are now more than a decade old.

Such oversights would be grounds for mockery over on the tech sites. Not that their close tracking of every new feature is particularly rigorous, as such coverage often includes fawning verbiage that could easily double as advertising copy. After last year’s F8 conference, Facebook’s de facto State of the Union, Wired wrote that the company remained “focused on bringing people together.” When the company introduced a dating service, CNET crooned, “Facebook wants to help people change their relationship status.”

Events with more obvious gravity, like Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony last April, have hardly been treated with more equanimity by technology reporters. Recode reported that Zuckerberg handled himself well, writing, “He was poised, respectful, and didn’t appear to be caught off guard or flustered.” Other outlets were more overtly sympathetic when they mocked lawmakers for their poor comprehension of the platform. Mashable cut together a video of the most embarrassing questions, captioned, “Mark Zuckerberg ended up explaining the internet to a bunch of old (school) senators who were there to grill him about digital privacy but who barely got beyond Facebook’s own FAQ.” Orrin Hatch took a particular beating when he asked, “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” “Senator,” Zuckerberg replied with a grin, “we run ads.”

It’s possible Hatch had only been reading the business pages. But the truth is most coverage struggles to communicate Facebook’s full scope. When the Journal reported on a Facebook scheme to cultivate more African users by lassoing the continent with a new data cable, the move was framed as typical corporate expansion, rather than  a geopolitical power grab. Given how embedded Facebook has become across Asia (its growth in the region has outpaced its growth in the United States and Europe by a factor of five since 2016), it’s easy to imagine a future where nearly all of the developing world depends on Facebook for the bulk of its communications infrastructure.

Facebook—like Google, Apple, and Amazon—sits at the center of the modern world. Last August, when Apple became the world’s first trillion-dollar company, the Times produced an infographic that sought to articulate the firm’s scale. “Add Disney to Bank of America,” the headline ran, “and… You’re Halfway There.” Not only does Apple dwarf the entire American media industry and rival the country’s four largest banks, it is worth more than every major automaker in the world combined.

Wall Street may believe Facebook is only half as valuable as Apple, but the nature of its business makes it a global institution; coverage should reflect the unprecedented cultural reach the company has accumulated. To that end, yesterday’s Politico report about how Facebook and other tech giants have managed to dodge EU regulations was a breath of fresh air. The reporter, Nicholas Vinocur, explains that though the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) may be the most restrictive in the world, giving Ireland “lead supervisory authority” over corporations with headquarters in Dublin has effectively defanged the program, as the country hosts enormous Facebook and Google campuses that its economy depends on.

As Vinocur reveals, Irish authorities discovered the loophole Cambridge Analytica exploited in the 2016 election as early as 2011, but their findings were dismissed by higher-ups anxious about remaining in the company’s good graces. Three years later, when an official who had helped squash the earlier report was being replaced, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg threatened that if they did not find a similarly-minded replacement, the company would be forced to revisit its “investment strategies for the EU market.” She got her wish. Since the GDPR went into effect last year, the Irish agency tasked with enforcing it has received close to two thousand privacy complaints. So far, it has not taken a single action against Facebook, or anyone else.

Rather than getting bogged down in stock prices or nifty features, this Politico report focuses on one thing: power. The company is exposed as a hulking apparatus capable of swatting aside any regulatory gnats that might impede its growth. What would it look like if more outlets took this approach—or better yet, covered tech giants as if they were foreign countries, with dedicated, multidisciplinary teams capable of leveraging expertise in tech, politics, finance, and regulatory minutiae? Imagine if every major publication had a Facebook desk that stretched across several different beats. What else would they find?

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