Facebook News Won’t Fix the News
It’s a vegetable stand parked in a side corridor of Willy Wonka’s factory
Facebook’s news feed upended the news industry, mostly by accident. Originally designed to connect friends, it turned out to be a potent forum for sharing information, including articles and memes about politics, science, and other newsworthy topics.
As a way to keep users engaged, this worked wonders. As a way to keep them informed, it was largely a disaster. Facebook’s news feed algorithm, which boosts the posts that provoke the most reactions, established all the wrong incentives for publishers. It allowed cynical hoaxsters, ideologues, and clickbait artists to siphon the online audience from mainstream news organizations. The same journalistic standards that had helped newspapers and the like thrive in the print era crippled them in the Facebook era. As their homepage readerships disintegrated, even reputable outlets bent their ethics to try to reach Facebook’s vast audience.
This dynamic was not entirely lost on Facebook, although the company found it convenient to downplay or justify it. At various points along the way, Facebook has tried to correct some of its algorithms’ excesses and even partner with some reputable news organizations to try to boost their content. These efforts, such as Instant Articles, anti-clickbait measures, and an algorithmic tweak to favor “trusted sources,” mostly failed. Whatever Facebook executives like CEO Mark Zuckerberg professed to want, their own algorithm wanted something else — and the algorithm was stronger. And when they failed, it wasn’t Facebook that bore the cost. It was the news outlets that had been banking on it.
This dynamic, in turn, was not at all lost on the news industry, which became increasingly frustrated with Facebook as it saw firsthand how the social network was warping its priorities and desiccating its business model. After the 2016 election, which Facebook was widely blamed for helping to elect the worst of all possible candidates — one who benefited from the deluge of fake and slanted news circulated on the platform — the media turned its collective sights on all of the company’s failings. The result has been an endless cycle of scandal and increasing support for aggressive regulation, which now poses a…