BBC Panorama: What Facebook Knows About You – a lesson in how news documentaries shouldn’t be done

Maurice May, “BBC Panorama: What Facebook Knows About You” (2017)

Half an hour for a documentary simply doesn’t do justice to the topic of what social media giant Facebook mines from its nearly two billion users who have accounts with this US company. The overall result feels rushed and superficial, and in some parts heavily edited. Reporter and narrator Darragh MacIntyre runs between the UK and the US – and other points outside the two – to interview a number of people including among others UK Facebook policy director Simon Milner, ex-Facebook employee Antonio Garcia Martinez and former Ofcom director of technology Chi Onwurah. The stony-faced Milner puts up a barrier of repetition and indifference when MacIntyre quizzes him on how what percentage of the massive amounts of income Facebook makes comes from fake news or plain outright lies and propaganda. Onwurah worries about the consequences and implications of Facebook having too much data from its users and Garcia Martinez speaks of his experiences with Facebook as though it were a cult and he a defector and whistleblower (well, almost) as he pursues a life chopping wood away from the closed circles of Facebook high-priest management and acolyte employees. The topics covered include the role that fake news might play in Facebook’s pursuit of its audiences, current and potential alike, and how the company would be unlikely to give up fake news completely; the role that Facebook played in the 2016 US Presidential elections as a bridge bringing together the Democrats and Republicans and their respective voter bases plus new voters, and might play in the 2017 UK general election (the program having been made just before the election took place); and the company’s hypocrisy in the way it determines what its users can post to their accounts and what they can’t.

Unfortunately as the issues brought up are dealt with in a shallow way, the program comes off as rushed and sensationalist, even a bit hysterical. The idea of regulating Facebook is broached but nothing is said about how regulating such a giant corporation might work at a time when most Western governments are disinclined to allocate money, staff and other resources to monitoring and regulating most areas of the economy or of society that people think they should regulate. Nationalising Facebook would be a big taboo when Western societies are committed to privatisation and neoliberal economics. The real pity is that the program never comes near what should have been obvious: that Facebook is a private corporation beholden to its shareholders to deliver profits and may have an agenda that reflects the expectations and values of its shareholders. MacIntyre should have been asking how a privately owned for-profit organisation translates its profit-maximisation objective into its core function as a social media forum. Might one suggest that Facebook uses the social media forum as a marketing forum to bring advertisers (its main source of revenue) and the public together? In this scenario, the product that Facebook sells is the Facebook user and everything about that user that can be mined and turned into commodities. Needless to say, Facebook’s policies as regards how it regulates the content posted by Facebook users to their accounts and the principles those policies are based – and perhaps how it hires the people to police the content, where they are hired, how much they are paid and how well they are treated – remain untouched.

As a documentary, this BBC Panorama program is an object lesson in how TV news documentaries shouldn’t be done.

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