At Facebook, news to take backseat

At Facebook, news to take backseat

At Facebook, news to take backseat
Facebook is tweaking News Feed ranking system to increase prominence of content from friends and family over posts by news companies, says Farhad ManjooWhen allegations surfaced last month that Facebook routinely suppressed conservative points of view in its Trending Topics news section, the company worked aggressively to convince the public that it wasn’t intentionally tilting to the left of the political spectrum.

Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s co-founder and chief executive, invited conservative luminaries to Facebook’s Silicon Valley headquarters, and over some fancy snacks, they seemed to make peace. The issue blew over. Yet it also seemed to raise deeper questions about Facebook’s power to influence how we understand what’s going on in the world.

Measured by web traffic, ad revenue and influence over the way the rest of the media makes money, Facebook has grown into the most powerful force in the news industry. But the social network has never quite labelled itself as something analogous to a news organisation, and it has been both uncomfortable with and unprepared to answer questions about whether it strives to adhere to journalistic ethics.

Should we be thinking of Facebook as a news site? Is that how Facebook thinks of itself?

No, not primarily, Facebook now says. In a document posted recently, the company explained, for the first time, the “values” that govern its news feed, the scrolling list of posts that Facebook presents to its 1.65 billion users every time they log on.

Though it is couched in the anodyne language of a corporate news release, the document’s message should come as a shock to everyone in the media business. According to these values, Facebook has a single overriding purpose, and it isn’t news. Facebook is mainly for telling you what’s up with your friends and family.

Adam Mosseri, the Facebook manager in charge of the news feed, said in a recent interview that informing and entertaining users was also part of the company’s mission. But he made it clear that news and entertainment were secondary pursuits.
“We think more, spend more time and work on more projects that try to help people express themselves with their friends or learn about their friends or have conversations with their friends,” he said.

As if to underscore the point, the company is making a tweak to its news feed ranking system to increase the prominence of content from your friends and family over posts by news companies and other organizations. It is also warning news companies that their traffic might decline as a result of the change.

These moves highlight a truth that tends to get lost in commentary about the social network’s influence over the news: At Facebook, informing users about the world will always take a back seat to cute pictures of babies (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Because Facebook does not think of itself primarily as a news company, it seems to want us to stop expecting it to act like one. Whether we should, though, is a more complicated matter.

The company has long been hounded by journalists and activists over its power to shape the news through its algorithms, or the code that determines which stories you see, in the news feed.

The question of how to think about Facebook’s role in the news — and whether we should demand the same standards of accuracy, objectivity, transparency and fairness that we expect from traditional outlets — may be the primary puzzle of our new media age.

According to Facebook, the values outlined in the document have been the informal governing philosophy of its news feed since it was started a decade ago, and Zuckerberg and Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, were deeply involved in drafting the new document.

Mosseri says Facebook uses a variety of tools to make sure that the feed is delivering what users want. One of the main ones, he said, is user surveys, which give Facebook a rich trove of data. These surveys, and the fact that about 200 people are involved in building the news feed, act as a bulwark against any one person’s bias infecting it, Mosseri said. People’s preferences, and how Facebook adjusts to them, also mean that the feature will constantly change. “We view our work as only 1 percent finished,” the post says.

But in another way, Facebook’s values only further complicate our picture of the network. If Facebook does not think of its main mission as news, what should we make of all its recent overtures to news companies?

Last year it started Instant Articles, a feature that allows news companies, including The New York Times, to host their stories on Facebook. More recently, it signed contracts with lots of news companies to produce live-streaming videos. The Times is among the companies that are receiving payments from Facebook to create live videos.

Also, how should we react to the fact that for millions of Americans, Facebook has become the most important source of news about the world? The Pew Research Center found that for adults in their 20s and 30s, Facebook is far and away the most popular source of news about government and politics.

And how should news companies think about ever deeper partnerships with Facebook, in some instances relying on the company as a primary part of their business models, if Facebook is disclaiming news as its main mission — and is also promising to keep changing the news feed as it sees fit?

“This is a funny kind of transparency,” said Robyn Caplan, an analyst at the research group Data & Society. “Even though they appear to have been making a bet that news is where they want their business to go, they’re now indicating that their first priority is to maintain that environment that they’ve been known for, which is information from friends and family.”

Caplan pointed out that even when Facebook’s values do superficially align with those of the news business, at a deeper level the two sides seem to see things in very different ways.

For instance, Facebook’s document takes no stand on what kind of content it considers “informative.” Instead, informative content is in the eye of the user.

“Something that one person finds informative or interesting may be different from what another person finds informative or interesting — this could be a post about a current event, a story about your favourite celebrity, a piece of local news or a recipe,” the document says.

Facebook also steps back from any responsibility for choosing certain ideas over others. Its news feed, it says, is instead about giving you more of what you want: “Our aim is to deliver the types of stories we’ve gotten feedback that an individual person most wants to see.”

That kind of relativism is likely to strike an odd chord among old-schoolers in the media, many of whom have worried about the possibility that algorithmic news selection could reinforce people’s long-held beliefs.

In a newsroom, news isn’t just what people want to see, and ideas worth promoting aren’t just those that people click on. News is supposed to exist outside those desires; it’s supposed to be an objective good.

So while it’s good that Facebook is telling us how it thinks about the news, it’s hard not to see a turbulent future as the views of Facebook and the news industry collide.

Facebook isn’t primarily a news site, and it doesn’t see itself as a news site, except that for many users, it functions as the world’s biggest news site — and its sway, partnerships and money are now consuming the news industry. Uh-oh.

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