The work of journalists is taken for granted, both implicitly and explicitly. In August, the Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, took to his own platform to defend his company’s decision to keep Alex Jones online. “Accounts like Jones’ can often sensationalize issues and spread unsubstantiated rumors, so it’s critical journalists document, validate, and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions,” he said. “This is what serves the public conversation best.” But journalists and outside researchers do not have access to the wealth of data available internally to companies like Twitter and Facebook.
The companies have all the tools at their disposal and a profound responsibility to find exactly what journalists find — and yet, clearly, they don’t. The role that outsiders currently play, as consumer advocates and content screeners, can easily be filled in-house. And unlike journalists, companies have the power to change the very incentives that keep producing these troubling online phenomena.
The reliance on journalists’ time is particularly paradoxical given the damage that the tech companies are doing to the media industry. Small changes to how Facebook organizes its News Feed can radically change a news organization’s bottom line — layoffs and hiring sprees are spurred on by the whims of the algorithm. Even as the companies draw on journalistic resources to make their products better, the hegemony of Google and Facebook over digital advertising — estimated by some to be a combined 85 percent of the market — is strangling journalism.