Facebook News Won’t Fix the News

It’s a vegetable stand parked in a side corridor of Willy Wonka’s factory

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks about the new Facebook News feature at the Paley Center for Media on October 25, 2019.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks about the new Facebook News feature at the Paley Center for Media on October 25, 2019. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty

FFacebook’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 greater threat to Facebook than any rival or business headwind.

So this week Facebook announced another new approach to news, one that finally decouples the goal of informing people from the goal of keeping them engaged and active in the news feed. It’s called Facebook News, and it will live in a separate tab from the main feed. It will be curated by both machine learning and a team of human editors whom Facebook says will have editorial independence. It will draw from a list of professional news organizations that will be subjected to some standards of quality control — albeit not particularly stringent ones, judging from the inclusion of the right-wing rag Breitbart News. (“You want to have content that represents different perspectives,” Zuckerberg explained, rather weakly, when pressed on Breitbart’s presence.) Reportedly, Facebook will directly pay some news outlets millions of dollars to run their content; others will just get links and referral traffic, with Facebook taking no cut of the resulting ad money.

Facebook News is actually designed with the goal of delivering reliable information, rather than one optimized for virality.

In other words, Facebook News will be a place for news that is actually designed with the goal of delivering reliable information, rather than one optimized for virality. And it will start by showing users news from local outlets, which are the ones that have been hit hardest by the shift of eyeballs and ad dollars, first from print to the internet, and then from newspapers’ homepages to social platforms.

It is, in many ways, the most sensible approach Facebook has taken yet. Unfortunately, it is also unlikely to make much of a difference at this point, either to the consumption habits of the average Facebook user or to the fortunes of the news publishers that buy into it. What Zuckerberg is offering is both too little and too late.

Facebook News is too little because it doesn’t change the information equation within the platform’s news feed, which will remain the dominant platform by orders of magnitude. Only a fraction of users who spend hours on Facebook every day will even bother to open the news tab, and of those who do, few are likely to check it as regularly as they do their feed. Just as news sites have been outcompeted for readers’ attention by their friends’ photos, videos, life updates, and memes, so too will be Facebook’s own dedicated news product.

In the United States, where Facebook News is starting, it is unlikely to be as influential even as Apple News, which at least has its own app and a direct line to the push notifications of iOS users. As for the rest of the world — and the vast majority of Facebook’s 1.6 billion users — it will have no impact at all, at least for now.

And Facebook News is too late because damage to American journalism and the electorate has already been done. It’s nice that the tab will start by showcasing local news organizations, whose daily coverage used to be the shared factual fiber that held together communities across divides of class and partisanship. But the local news industry has already been gutted, its carcass feasted upon by corporate conglomerates and private equity vultures with no more concern for informing the public than Facebook itself has.

As for the big national outlets, they’ve mostly given up on Facebook already and found other ways to sustain themselves, mostly by moving their content behind paywalls. Facebook News might help or distract them at the margins, but it won’t save or ruin them because they’ve already saved themselves — no thanks to Zuckerberg.

What, then, is the point? Some observers understandably assumed that Facebook has some master plan to turn Facebook News into a profit center, or at least another tool for engaging its users. Perhaps it will, to some small degree. In general, it’s true that Facebook doesn’t introduce products unless it thinks it can capitalize on them.

But serious journalism has never been a big part of Facebook’s appeal, and it’s hard to imagine that changing with the introduction of a new subsection inside the app. It’s true that Facebook has recently figured out that tabs can be valuable even if most people never use them. After all, a small fraction of 1.6 billion people can still be a huge number. Its video tab, Facebook Watch, is one that the company seems intent on significantly monetizing. If Facebook News manages to regularly reach, say, 5% of U.S. users on a daily basis, that would be 10 million adults. That’s a big number.

Yet Facebook News’ separation from the main feed ensures that its audience will consist only of the sort of people who take the trouble to seek out higher-quality information, at the expense of online socializing or entertainment. In other words, it will reach the same sort of people who were probably already seeking out real news beyond Facebook, while going unused by the vast majority who prefer the main feed.

The same silo that could make Facebook News conducive to real news will likely prevent it from affecting the information diet of the average user.

For Facebook News to have a real impact, the company would need to find ways to weave the content that it promotes back into the news feed. It could be like a little laboratory in which Facebook can study what professional journalism looks like and how it travels, and apply those insights to improving the quality of information in the news feed.

But Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear he’s no longer interested in influencing the quality of information in the news feed, except to purge it of a few toxic categories, such as terrorist propaganda, pornography, or state-sponsored disinformation campaigns. And so the same silo that could make Facebook News conducive to real news will likely prevent it from affecting the information diet of the average user. Facebook News is a vegetable stand parked in a side corridor of Willy Wonka’s factory.

What Facebook News is really about, it seems, is mollifying the critics and media moguls that the company has alienated over the years. For once, the company appears to have actually consulted news organizations on what they wanted to see in a news tab before creating it. And it’s no accident that the company marked its launch Friday with a summit between Zuckerberg and Robert Thomson, chief executive of the Murdoch family’s News Corp. In recent years, founder Rupert Murdoch had become one of the social network’s most influential critics, calling on Facebook to pay publishers for their content, even as Fox News became the site’s most popular news source. On Friday, Thomson heaped praise on Facebook for creating Facebook News and called on publishers to join it.

Facebook News won’t save the news industry. But it just might help Facebook to salvage its relationship with the news industry. At a time when leading politicians from both parties are hinting at antitrust action, some positive headlines in mainstream outlets could be much more valuable to Facebook than the sensational ones that crowd its news feed.

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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