The year 2016 was when social media giant Facebook faced heightened scrutiny regarding the role it plays within the media landscape.
It was the year that saw founder Mark Zuckerberg deny that Facebook was a media company – to howls of objection and derision from many commentators around the world.
One critic described Facebook as “Fox News on steroids”. The critics essentially argued that the only reason Zuckerberg would not admit that Facebook is a media company, is that it would be bad for business.
Venture capitalists speculated that Facebook had a lot to lose and nothing to gain from declaring itself a media company.
If Facebook was considered a media company, it would be forced to pay more attention to issues of free speech and censorship, never mind journalistic integrity and ethics.
But the facts speak for themselves.
In 2015, Facebook was ranked number five in the ZenithOptimedia’s 2016 Top Thirty Global Media Owners report. Its media revenue grew 63% year-on-year.
The report says that Facebook’s $11.49bn in revenue placed it behind Google holding company Alphabet, The Walt Disney Company, Comcast and 21st Century Fox.
Meanwhile, Facebook is spending $50m commissioning companies and individuals to create videos for its platform.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s shock election win in the US, the criticism of Facebook intensified.
It was accused of spreading fake news and misinformation to its almost 1.8bn users and that this had had an effect on the election result. A recent study by the Pew Research Centre found that half of all Americans rely on Facebook for news. A few days after the election, Zuckerberg published an essay, reacting to the criticism.
“After the election, many people are asking whether fake news contributed to the result, and what our responsibility is to prevent fake news from spreading,” he wrote.
“These are very important questions and I care deeply about getting them right.”
Zuckerberg argued only a small percentage of content that is shared was fake news, but admitted there is more the social media giant can do.
A few days after the essay was released, The New York Times published an account of a private chat that had taken place the night of the election between various Facebook executives.
The issue they were debating was the role that Facebook had played in the election result.
According to the newspaper, many Facebook staffers were concerned about the spread of racist content across the network, while others are concerned with the idea that the network creates “filter bubbles”, cycles that reinforce the views of the user and never challenge them.
The social media company was accused of political bias and censorship in May during the run-up to the US election, and in September came under fire for removing a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a naked girl fleeing napalm bombs during the Vietnam War because it violated Facebook’s nudity policy.
It’s clear that walking this tightrope between being a technology company and a media company will plague Facebook for its immediate future.
Facebook in SA
In June 2015, Facebook opened its first African office, headquartered at upmarket development Melrose Arch in Johannesburg.
Advertising veteran Nunu Ntshingila was named as the new head of Facebook’s African office. She helped drive the creation of Ogilvy’s network in sub-Saharan Africa.
The social media giant said it had plans to use the Johannesburg office to grow its business in Africa, with an initial focus on Kenya and Nigeria, alongside South Africa.
However, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, Mozambique and Ethiopia were also included in its plans.
The company said it would partner with governments, telecoms operators, agencies and other stakeholders to “deliver localised solutions to advertisers and users across the continent”.
In SA, Facebook has already partnered with Cell C to zero rate access to its network.
Facebook had about 120m active users a month in Africa in 2015, Reuters reported.
In SA, a quarter of all citizens are users, with a total of 14m people using the platform monthly, according to the South African Social Media Landscape 2017 study, which was released in September.
This presents growth of 7.7% in its South African user base from 13m in 2015. Nearly 86% of them access the social media platform via their mobile phones, up from 71% in 2015, the study found.
This article originally appeared in the 15 December edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.