How Facebook and Google Buy Off the Press

The tech giants compromise media independence with their corporate donations.

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You may have heard that Big Tech has damaged journalism. Google and Facebook siphon off ad dollars needed to finance independent reporting while also inserting themselves as profit-maximizing middlemen between news organizations and news consumers. By now, many news organizations see no way forward except to depend on charitable donations from corporations and philanthropies. 

What you may not know, though, is that Google and Facebook are becoming the two largest sources of such donations to for-profit and nonprofit journalism in the United States. 

Prior to the conclusion of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Google and Facebook’s financial contributions to American media organizations were modest. This changed in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. Facebook received deep public scrutiny over its role as a vector for foreign interference that had benefited Trump. As the “techlash” spread, Google also began facing heat for its anticompetitive practices, its misuse of user data, and its discriminatory search results. 

Soon after, big promises of financial support for journalism came from both Google and Facebook. By 2018, these two corporations were already among the largest funders of journalism in the world. Since then, they have gone on to promise a total of $700 million in funding for journalism, not counting other “undisclosed” funds and in-kind contributions. 

Just who is receiving exactly how much from Google and Facebook remains hard to establish, however. Both corporations distribute most of these funds through their marketing and public relations budgets rather than through charitable foundations, which makes the flow of money as much of a black box as any search or newsfeed algorithms. Even the flows to nonprofit media entities do not necessarily become public record, because since 2018 the Internal Revenue Service has no longer required nonprofits to disclose their donors. Investigative journalists who want to follow the money need to rely on intensive gumshoe reporting of the kind few publications can afford anymore, thanks in large measure to the predations of Google and Facebook. 

But at least in broad outline, much of the money flow can be established from other sources. In 2018, Google announced the Google News Initiative. Launched in New York, the GNI promised $300 million in support for journalism to be distributed across the globe over three years, although the emphasis appeared to be on local news in the United States. Facebook, meanwhile, pledged an undisclosed portion of a pot of $14 million to the City University of New York’s News Integrity Initiative in 2018 with the goal of fighting misinformation. In 2019, Facebook upped the ante with a $300 million pledge over three years, matching Google’s promised giving.

Facebook has provided a bit more detail about specific grants. In 2019, it gave 46 grants of between $5,000 and $25,000 to small, local news organizations through the Facebook Journalism Project, which were administered by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Of Facebook’s funding, only $36 million was specified, and went to recipients like the Pulitzer Center ($5 mil), the American Journalism Project ($1 mil), and Report for America ($2 mil), among others.

Facebook also gains influence over the press (while also scoring public relations points) by financing fact-checking initiatives. In 2019, Facebook’s Third-Party Fact-Checking Program was the largest source of revenue for the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network, making up roughly 43 percent of the members’ total revenue. According to the investigative journalist Judd Legum, most fact-checking organizations don’t disclose the amounts they are receiving from Facebook, but two that have are LeadStories, which received $359,000 in 2019, and FactCheck.org, which received $229,600. These are trivial amounts to Facebook, and they pay for only a trivial amount of fact-checking—especially when compared to the unmet need for correcting false and fake news created by Facebook itself. But they are comparatively large sums to many of the fact-checking organizations receiving the money. Google also finances fact-checking organizations (many of the same ones as Facebook), but is even vaguer than Facebook about the amount it gives and to whom.

Facebook and Google also provide ample funding to journalists’ professional associations. According to the Tech Transparency Project, a foundation-supported research group, Google gave the Center for Investigative Reporting 26 grants and Investigative Reporters and Editors 23 grants. The Society for Professional Journalists received $1 million between 2013 and 2017 to support the training of more than 21,000 journalists at over 550 locations in the U.S. and Canada. The Online News Association also reports receiving money from both Google and Facebook, though it does not disclose how much or where exactly it goes. Google and Facebook also sponsor internships, fellowships, and scholarships for journalists, while also underwriting major journalism convenings, including the International Journalism Festival, which meets each spring in Perugia, Italy. Dave Cohn, a former board member of the Online News Association, notes that the conference itself would likely not be able to exist without support from Google and Facebook.

Journalists routinely pounce on similar conflicts of interest when they occur in government or science or in virtually any other institution, and for good reason. When we need critical reporting about Big Tech more than ever, we should all be concerned that Facebook and Google are funding the news.  

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Nikki Usher

Nikki Usher is an associate professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s College of Media. This paper is adapted from a longer paper written for the Center for Liberty and Journalism at the Open Markets Institute, where she is a fellow.