Why the French media ban on Facebook and Twitter is just plain silly

Have you ever wondered why media businesses across the world advertise that blue Facebook “F” and the turquoise Twitter “T” and demand nothing in return? These are businesses that make their money from advertising other company’s brands, and here they are prominently advertising Facebook and Twitter, for free.

Maybe there is a tacit understanding of a certain quid pro quo, because these very social networks pass back a tremendous amount of traffic to news sites as users relentlessly share and tweet articles? It’s all rather fuzzy and unmeasurable and one gets the feeling we’re still trying to define what it all means.

Not in France, however. The French have actually banned the mention of Twitter and Facebook from TV and radio broadcasts. As has been reported a ruling by the French broadcasting authority, Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA), local broadcasters are no longer allowed to mention “Facebook” and “Twitter” on air.

It’s a ruling driven by a 1992 law banning “clandestine advertising”. Of course “clandestine advertising” on social networks has been an issue before. In the UK celebrities who advertise — or “plug” as it is commonly referred to — products on social networks have also come under the spotlight. The failure not to disclose that a product mention on social media is actually a “plug”, will now lead to legal action. Fair enough. But the French ruling that the mere mention of the social networks themselves constitutes advertising is something entirely new.

The logical thinking behind the ruling is that the mention of a popular social network on air may constitute advertising to the detriment of other, less popular social networks. US news magazine, The Atlantic Wire, quoted a CSA statement which said:

Why give preference to Facebook, which is worth billions of dollars, when there are many other social networks struggling for recognition. This would be a distortion of competition. If we allow Facebook and Twitter to be cited on air, it’s opening a Pandora’s box — other will complain to us saying, “why not us?”

The ruling seems to be targeting the mention of Twitter and Facebook accounts of broadcasters rather than a blanket mention of these social networks per se. This means that the French will no longer hear “For more on this story, follow us on Twitter @…,” or “find us on Facebook at…” at the end of their news broadcasts.

The goal — to foster other social networks — is an admirable one no doubt. Why should Twitter and Facebook receive any more mention than the dwindling MySpace, FaceSpace, CatBook or any of the other countless social networks out there?

But in many respects the ruling is ridiculous. One could argue that sites like Facebook and Twitter are more than just sites, but have become platforms in themselves. It’s absurd to ban them in the name of trying to foster competition.

Social networks today are global public squares. Any new organisation or broadcaster of any worth has to be on these networks. Not only do the networks themselves have to be part of them, the journalists themselves have to be part of them — and a key part of a journalist’s being able to make the best use of these tools is to have as wide a network as possible. To deny journalists the chance of widening their social networks cripples French journalism.

Also, how do you measure whether a social network is too big for a mention? What possible objective measure is there for this? It’s also somewhat of an insult to smaller, aspirational social network startups that they too may not get there one day.

Beyond that, as New York Times columnist and prodigious tweeter, Nick Kristof pointed out on an episode of CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight, social networks nowadays constitute an extension of traditional news media. Breaking news will generally start on these social networks and make its way back to the traditional news arenas. Well, maybe not in France anymore.

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