×

Here’s the real reason Facebook agreed to meet with conservatives

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will meet with more than a dozen conservative leaders on Wednesday over allegations that the social media site's "trending" feeds suppressed conservative news.

Conservatives raised hackles over the issue and that's very easy to understand because here's the big story they buried in all this partisan finger pointing: Facebook is now the undisputed No. 1 news network of all time. And conservatives are very worried that the "new media" are already just as stacked against them as the "old media" have been for decades … if not more.


Mark Zuckerberg
Getty Images
Mark Zuckerberg

Daily users at Facebook are nearing 1.1 billion, (out of 1.6 billion total users), and have risen every quarter since the social network launched. You could combine the daily circulation of every newspaper in America with the daily viewer totals of every cable and broadcast newscast and not come close to that 1.1 billion number. And, just as importantly, Facebook users are much more likely to be more engaged with the stories they're seeing on the site. Even if only 5 percent to 10 percent of users bother to comment or share a story, that's still millions of people who are much more connected to that story than almost every reader or viewer of news on old media. And Facebook does this without creating any news content of its own.

This is why the presidential campaigns are no longer treating Facebook and Twitter as an addition to their public messaging, they seem to be treating social media as the primary source of their public messaging.

So, conservatives want to get some leverage with Facebook because there's no real debate anymore about its political and economic reach and influence. If there is something in the algorithms that's blocking a fair dissemination of their stories and views on the greatest promotional platform of all time, then that's a very frightening and understandable problem for the right wing.



That leaves a more important question: What's in this for Facebook? You could argue that the Gizmodo piece that started it all, in which several former Facebook employees alleged that the site suppressed conservative news, was damaging and Facebook wants to reverse some negative spin.

But it's not really about the politics for Facebook. Facebook is likely conducting this meeting, and enduring the negative publicity connected with giving the Gizmodo story new and extended life, because of something it fears far more than partisan political anger. It fears being designated legally as a news site, or even worse, designated by the FCC or other regulators in the same way as TV broadcasters, cable networks, and radio stations.



For the still rapidly growing social media giant, anything it does that invites that kind of regulatory scrutiny could be very dangerous — if not a death knell. So Zuckerberg's motives for this meeting are not so much to prove to conservatives that Facebook is or isn't staffed by partisans, but to show that it truly is just a public sounding board with no interest in generating any original content of its own. As long as enough politicians on both sides of the aisle in Congress buy that, Facebook will avoid the worst of the regulatory onslaught that could come from everything from "net neutrality" to legal challenges from the private sector over issues like cyberbullying. I don't envy Zuckerberg in trying to make that case, but perhaps giving his conservative guests the posh treatment will at least somewhat quiet his potentially loudest critics. Because what could start out as simply a partisan complaint could snowball into a serious business hurdle.

Even if Facebook is successful at avoiding the official "news site" label it fears so much, this election season is proving that social media is quickly replacing everything we've come to know as a news source for more than the last 100 years.





Zuckerberg should know that with great power comes great responsibility. What he doesn't seem to know yet is that one meeting, or even a few meetings, with some handpicked ideologues won't come close to fulfilling that responsibility.

The good news is that Facebook will probably have well over 2 billion users before this really comes back to bite it!


Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.