FAKE NEWS’S NOT-SO-REAL ANTITRUST PROBLEM: CONTENT REMAINS KING
Concern about both fake news and the size of Internet mega-platforms like Facebook is popular these days. In each case the concern is intuitively obvious yet the pathway by which it manifests into tangible harm ambiguous. There are clear examples of “fake news” being used for illegitimate purposes, as well as examples of platforms engaging in (or facilitating) alarming behavior – but it is challenging to draw a clean line between such problematic conduct and other non-problematic or even desirable conduct. Better understanding these delineations is a pressing task.
Fake news is largely distributed via social media platforms like Facebook. Indeed, the more malicious of such news is often designed specifically to take advantage of these platforms. It is reasonable to think that the concerns that we have about each may therefore be related – that fake news is a Facebook problem. This is the approach put forth in recent work by Sally Hubbard, who argues that fake news is an antitrust problem. Her basic thesis is that platforms with substantial market-share, such as Facebook, have pushed quality news organizations out of the market and that those news organizations would be better able to compete for consumer attention if there were more competition between platforms like Facebook.
It is a clever and provocative argument. But it is ultimately not a compelling one. Facebook isn’t what’s killing quality news – the Internet did that, and Facebook (and other social media) are merely the deformed phoenices that arose from the traditional media’s online ashes. Facebook and its ilk may be “killing news,” but it is not because these mega-platforms are harming competition – rather, the problem is that traditional media simply cannot effectively compete with social media in the winner-take-all marketplace for consumer attention. This may be a problem – it is certainly an issue that we as a society are and will continue to consider from law and policy perspectives – but it is not an antitrust problem.
I address these issues in more depth in the following three parts. I start by reviewing the evidence about what is killing the news (it’s not Facebook!). I then look at competition in the information economy and at the horizontal and vertical relationships between Facebook and the news media. I then turn the argument on its head, looking at how the problem we face – both with too little quality news and too much fake news – may be better addressed with less competition rather than more.
Throughout this discussion I will treat two recent articles as urtext: Hubbard’s piece in Forbes in which she explains “Why Fake news Is An Antitrust Problem,”2 and a follow-up interview on the topic that she did with Vox.3 I also note that throughout I will follow Hubbard’s lead and use Facebook as the poster-example of a significant social-media platform – though both she and I recognize that other tech platforms operate in this space. Indeed, the fact that Facebook, Twitter, and Google are all important platform-sources of news (fake and otherwise) demonstrates the most basic concern with the argument, that there is no lack of competition for information, true or otherwise.