The irony of the online world: before the Internet, the public used to get relatively similar news from a plethora of different media outlets. Nowadays, one platform is acting as the curator of news for more and more of the population, and the man on the street would assume that with more people chiming in would come more perspectives on events, even (gasp) reasoned objectivity.
And yet the information it’s users receive from it could scarcely be less homogenous. Or, sometimes, strange. And if you’ve been caught in the news cycle (like most people not living under a rock right now) you might need to take a look at the role Facebook had in curating your news.
Facebook Changed Journalism
How did this happen? The problem is basically that social media platforms want you to have a good time. It’s in their interest to show you content that makes you more likely to come back for more. To this end, they developed algorithms to make sure that the content that each of their users is exposed to is optimized for that user. These content selection algorithms have changed the landscape of journalism. Social media sites are relied on by swathes people to provide them with kinds of news stories they like, all in the one place; bypassing the arduous task of visiting different websites, one after the other, websites like Facebook have become a one-stop-shop for news. It’s able to select the stories you’ll find most interesting for you, keep you up to date with the hottest news as it happens, and even show you what their friends are watching and reading. As such, many of Facebook’s 1.86 billion monthly users feel they need venture no further than the blue-bannered online empire for all their information needs.
The Newsfeed Algorithm
Log onto Facebook and you’ll be greeted with the newsfeed: a list of status updates, photos, links, and friends’ activity that is constantly updating itself. Facebook’s algorithm determines what appears here, plucking from the mountain of data available to it the first few dozen items that will appear at the top of your newsfeed on any given day.
In order to make the featured content as engaging and relevant as possible, each item that has the potential to appear on a newsfeed is ranked in order of importance. To determine an item’s importance, the algorithm weighs the type of content posted (whether it is photo, web links, status update, etc.), how recently it was posted, how close you are to the poster (whether they are a close friend or merely an a acquaintance), how much others have “engaged” with the post (the number of views, likes, and comments it has received) and whether it is similar with the kind of content that you normally engage with.
Facebook makes it money by matching users with the content they’re most likely to engage with, so its algorithm tends to show you the type of things that it has already figured out that you like. This leads to what is being called a “filter bubble”, a personalized stream of news, curated to appeal to pre-existing biases and preferences, that has little to no engagement with opposing views. In the wake of some of the seismic political upsets of the past year, it has come under increasing criticism form many quarters who allege that it has made meaningful political discourse impossible.
These criticisms further claim that filter bubbles are doubly damaging because of the rise of “fake news”, a disturbing cottage industry that has arisen in the last few years with worrying real world consequences. On December 4th 2016 a North Carolinian man broke stormed into a Washington pizzeria and opened fire after viewing several false news stories claiming said pizzeria’s basement was the headquarters of a child prostitution ring run by Hillary Clinton.
While the effect of most fake news tends not to be life threatening, its consequences are far from benign. People have to waste effort double-checking reports that they used to be able to take for granted. Respectable news media outlets have use airtime and column inches to correct fake news stories that could otherwise be used for more informative ends. Perhaps most worryingly, a misinformed electorate can vote in a manner that goes against their own interests.
Tackling the problem
Though everyone, not just image-conscious teenagers, now cringes to hear the Internet described as “the information super-highway”, the moniker is apt. The platforms it now contains give its users access to more data than was available to anyone at any point in history before its creation, a fact that snowballs in weight as its number of users continue to grow. However, than information is only worthwhile if it is useful to those who consume it, and usually in order to be useful, It would be pretty useful if that information were also true.
Facebook has begun to take steps to tackle this. It’s modifying it’s search algorithm to identify and flag fake news as well as working with third party fact-checkers such as Snopes and Politifact, as well as trying to make it easier for users to report fake news stories. Once a story is identified as fake, those clicking on it will me met with a notification point out that the veracity of its content has been disputed. Additionally it will take a hit, ratings-wise, in the algorithm’s prioritization, preventing it from going viral.
This can be seen as part of a wider trend of Facebook engaging, albeit at times reluctantly, with its new role as a provider of news. Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s assertion over the summer that Facebook is a technology, rather than a media company, Facebook has been taking step toward becoming both. On January the 11th Facebook unveiled its Facebook Journalism Project, which will include product development, journalistic training and promoting news literacy, among other such things.
Facebook is understandably reluctant to label itself a news company; that additional responsibilities and liabilities that come with such a declaration, that it’s inconvenient for the company’s vision of itself, the possible diversion of revenue that could accompany either of these things all make it in their interests to delay the issue. Reluctant or not, the site will likely sooner or later start taking a very active role in curating everything that appears on it, fake news and all.