David Pemsel: Facebook Prioritises Virality Over Quality

David Pemsel has accused Facebook of “peddling virality over quality” and highlighted the urgent need for a reciprocal business model for publishers and social media platforms and aggregators. 

In a wide-ranging interview with Paul Blanchard on the Media Masters podcast, Guardian Media Group chief executive Mr Pemsel noted that “the need for quality, independent news is more needed than ever before, post-Brexit, Trump and all that.”

Mr Pemsel said: “While Facebook exists and is as prominent as it is today, fake news is here to stay. It is the perfect platform of which to peddle virality over quality. And we talk about this a lot. I think that Facebook is responsible, needs to take far more responsibility, in understanding how they are negatively adding to the ecosystem of fake news. It is not acceptable, and it’s not good enough to say that we are literally a platform and we’re here just to host whatever works.

“I’ve sat and listened to some of the most senior people, face to face, talk about an algorithm, which is built to drive virality over quality. Let’s just think about that for a minute. There’s an algorithm that supports the virality of whatever works within that environment over authenticity, factual, correct, truthful – and I just don’t know how anyone can rationalise that to be a good thing.

“If you’re an employee of an organisation like Facebook and say we don’t have responsibility for what actually has been played out across the platform, I find that very confusing. Of course you have a responsibility. Of course you’re curating. Of course you have an absolute proper responsibility to ensure what’s right and is safe and truthful.”

He continued: “If you’re in a meeting and you meet someone from Facebook and they turn around and say, “It’s great to be a business partner with you,” I would say, “Look, just for the avoidance of doubt, what tends to be a business partnership is reciprocal value. We give you some of the best journalism in the world that that plays out across all of the platform and in return we get nothing.

“It is not a reciprocal business relationship. They know that, we remind them of that most days, we obviously get a huge amount of referral traffic, it’s very much part of our audience ecosystem, of which we appreciate and we’re thankful for – that’s our quality that’s doing that, nothing else – but at the same time I think over time we’re going to have to work out a reciprocal business model that works for everybody.”

In March this year the Guardian pulled out of Facebook Instant Articles after being one of the first UK news publishers to adopt the format. A Guardian spokesperson at the time stated: “Our primary objective is to bring audiences to the trusted environment of the Guardian to support building deeper relationships with our readers, and growing membership and contributions to fund our world-class journalism.”

Mr Pemsel went on to discuss the tension between the distribution and destination of content, and the importance of returning visits to newspaper websites.

He said: “Now, I would argue that we are much more focused now, because we’ve got the big reach number, we’re never complacent about it but it’s a big number and we benefit from those platforms and their distribution. But the success criteria for us is regularity, is data, and is the number of people are contributing to the site. And as much as we love the big browser number, that’s not the definition of success for us right now.

“I think that investing in our own platforms, making sure that user experience is right, making sure we were very conscious of the new ways of telling stories, virtual reality, video, voice and whatever else is around the corner, podcasts, all of that is essentially to create loyalty and regularity to our own platforms and you’ve just got to be mindful that your business model is not predicated on off-platform reach because then you’ve simply lost control.”