Ben Smith's take on Facebook's 'gatekeeping' of the NY Post is a bit strange

I’ve liked some of Ben Smith’s writing at the NY Times but the piece he wrote yesterday about Facebook’s decision to block a story from the NY Post is a bit strange. The story in question is the one Ed wrote about here. Basically, BLM co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors, who describes herself as a Marxist, has bought at least four homes in recent years worth several million dollars. But Facebook prevented that story from being shared on its site. Why? Because as Smith explains, Facebook has a rule that allows a homeowner to complain about a story featuring their home.

If the article shows your home or apartment, says what city you’re in and you don’t like it, you can complain to Facebook. Facebook will then ensure that nobody can share the article on its giant platform and, as a bonus, block you from sending it to anyone in Facebook Messenger.

Smith is quick to point out that allowing people to block this sort of story could potentially impact a lot of similar stories about real estate deals of the rich and famous.

…it could apply to dozens, if not hundreds, of news articles every day — indeed, to a staple of reporting for generations that has included Michael Bloomberg’s expansion of his townhouse in 2009 and the comings and goings of the Hamptons elites…

…you’ve probably hate-read a story about a person you disliked buying an expensive house. When Lachlan Murdoch, the co-chairman of The Post’s parent company, bought the most expensive house in Los Angeles, for instance, it received wide and occasionally sneering coverage. Maybe Mr. Murdoch didn’t know he could get the stories deleted by Facebook.

For its part, the NY Post wrote an editorial 10 days ago complaining about the policy and noting that their story didn’t use any addresses or even mention specific cities in some cases:

The $3.2 million real estate spending spree of BLM co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors is newsworthy for two reasons. One, she’s an avowed Marxist, and as a public figure, it’s legitimate to question whether she’s practicing what she preaches…

We reached out to Khan-Cullors for comment before publication; she didn’t respond. After it was posted, her organization put out a statement saying yes, she used to take a salary from BLM but doesn’t anymore, and the money she used to buy property came from her private income for book and development deals. Take the organization’s word for it. We added the response in full to our online article post-publication.

Then she accused us of being “abusive” and putting her at risk.

Our article features some pictures of the properties she bought, but includes no addresses, in fact doesn’t even say the city in some cases.

It seems pretty clear that the NY Post wrote a piece which was standard fare for newspapers and that Facebook’s decision to prevent it from being shared is something novel. But here’s the strange part. Smith claims we’re left with a choice between two billionaire gatekeepers, Mark Zuckerberg and Rupert Murdoch. He says this twice in the piece:

…in the standoff with The Post this month, all you can do is choose your fighter: Mark Zuckerberg or Rupert Murdoch.

There’s something depressing about an internet in which you’re left choosing between Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Murdoch, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s director of strategy, Danny O’Brien, pointed out to me. It didn’t have to be that way.

“We’ve been thrown into a situation where all you can do is pick your billionaire monopolist,” Mr. O’Brien said, lamenting “a world in which you get to pick your gatekeeper, rather than the world we were promised — and which technology offers — of not picking a gatekeeper at all.”

The EFF director laments we can’t have a world in which there are no gatekeepers at all. I guess you could say the Post’s decision to publish the story was “gatekeeping” in the sense that they decided it was newsworthy, but I don’t see how the two things are remotely equivalent. If you have two gatekeepers and one is publishing things and the other is silencing what has already been published, maybe the NY Times’ media columnist shouldn’t be suggesting this is a tough call.

To his credit, Smith does eventually side with the Post’s editors over Facebook’s “quasi-legal code that reduces journalists to mall cops.” But the reference to this being a choice between two gatekeepers (and the Mortal Kombat inspired graphic which focuses on that claim) takes a clear choice and makes it into more of a muddle than is necessary. Some of the Post’s commenters were more on target than Smith:

This article fails to note that the activist mentioned is the co-head of Black Lives Matter and has somehow amassed a real estate portfolio of multiple homes valued at a total of a few million dollars.

How about some of the NYT’s famous investigative reporting looking into how this could happen, and how the many millions of dollars donated to BLM have been spent? And just how much do the heads of BLM earn, anyway?

And another good point:

The Post piece was truthful, not “meanspirited”. From Jim Bakker and Joel Osteen to the United Way and the Red Cross, extravagant purchases and outsized compensation for those professing to do “God’s work”, either literally or figuratively, have always been subject to media scrutiny and public backlash.

The Post piece noted that another BLM leader himself had questioned these real estate acquisitions and requested an independent audit. So it wasn’t even the Post questioning whether “her wealth was ill-gotten”, it was a colleague!

And one more:

The story in the post reads far more objectively than what I expected, given FB’s actions.

It’s a reasonable topic for a story.

The NYT could actually do an investigative piece on this as a counter. I had no idea that some parts of the BLM umbrella are for profit entities. That, in itself, is news.

Again, there’s really not much of a choice here if you support a free press. The NY Post published a legitimate story and Facebook is trying to make the online world a safe space for Marxist agitators. It’s not a tough call.