Who is more powerful? Donald Trump or Mark Zuckerberg?
It’s not an easy question. Obviously, President Trump has the ability to start wars, push the nuclear button, issue executive orders and mandate changes in regulations.
But, as president, Trump has many checks and balances. He may want health care reform, but Congress can stop him. He may want to limit people from certain countries from entering this country, but the courts can stop him.
Mark Zuckerberg as the head of Facebook has no such checks and balances. His company has two billion active users. He’s worth a reported $75 billion (Trump is worth a reported $3 billion). His company controls what we know, through the use of mysterious algorithms.
In the 2016 presidential election, his company provided 126 million of us with illegal ads from a Russian troll farm. The company even took some of that ad money in Russian rubles, according to testimony Tuesday before a Senate subcommittee. The company provides us with “fake” news and until recently took no responsibility for that action.
We need investigators
So, if you thought with all of these problems and threats to our democracy, there’d be scores of investigative reporters exposing Facebook and the other big tech companies, you’d be wrong.
There are 350 reporters who are members of the White House Press Corps and investigative teams are assigned to delve into every detail of the presidency. Teams are (rightfully) focused on the Trump campaign’s connection to Russia during the election. But while all sorts of news organizations have teams digging into the White House role of Russian interference in our election, how many are digging into Facebook’s, Twitter’s and other’s culpability?
Where are those Pulitzer Prize-winning investigations about Facebook and big tech? What teams have disclosed the secret algorithms that control our lives and our news feeds? What teams have dug into the cult-like, heavily male culture that perpetuates the Silicon Valley world? What teams have exposed the impact of the phalanx of lobbyists that Facebook, Google, Amazon and other tech firms have hired in recent years to blunt any government interference in their business?
Facebook and other big tech companies are a threat to our democracy and our way of life. Nonetheless, the energized national press corps has been more lapdog than watchdog.
Two notable exceptions
Two news organizations have done strong investigative work into Facebook: ProPublica and BuzzFeed. ProPublica exposed how easy it is to place discriminatory ads on Facebook. BuzzFeed measured the amount of fake news on Facebook. BuzzFeed was founded in 2006, ProPublica a year later. Both are digital-only news organizations working to prove their mettle in investigative reporting. Keep it up and double down.
The traditional media – New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the TV networks, have been quiet. Many have built close business relationships with big tech, and the Washington Post is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
But there’s another reason for the muted coverage. I call it “dinosaur shaming.” Traditional media – newspapers and long-time broadcast organizations – have been maligned anytime they criticize tech. They’re told they’re out of touch and don’t understand the new ways. This criticism certainly has a basis in fact. But instead of asking “What would Google do?” the media needs to be asking “What DID Google do, why did they do it and what does it mean to society?”
One notable exception to the often-fawning coverage of big tech was a scathing piece in the New York Times by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld in 2015 about the Amazon culture. It depicts a world where employees can hardly sleep because of the work demands.
More often, we’re left with basic reporting of news (like the Congressional hearings this week where Facebook, Google and Twitter appeared), business writers reporting on the business aspects, tech reporters reviewing gadgets and occasional columns like this warning about the power and danger of big-tech. That’s all good, but the “dinosaurs” need to go on the attack.
Way back in 1902, a muckraking journalist named Ida Tarbell took on one of the most powerful institutions of that time. She produced article after article for McClure’s magazine about the Standard Oil Company. She showed how the company’s practices were limiting competition and destroying communities.
There was an uproar after her stories came out. Her work led to a federal investigation and gets some of the credit for the Supreme Court ruling that broke up Standard Oil.
Where is today’s Tarbell?
Julia Wallace is the Frank Russell Chair and Professor of Practice at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.