Facebook recently announced the launch of Facebook News, the latest attempt by the social media juggernaut to support journalism on its site.
This move, in theory, adds much-needed credibility to the platform, while offering Facebook the opportunity to curb the spread of fake news by building a trusted news stream. The launch also feeds into Facebook’s current narrative with advertisers and clients as it actively works to reduce the spread of fake news and misinformation on its platform, by highlighting reputable, fact-checked, accurate news content instead.
But will it work? In my opinion, it raises more questions than it answers in a time where the company continues to battle privacy issues in the global spotlight.
Who will oversee recommending stories for people to read?
Facebook has hired journalists and editors to curate stories shown on Facebook News who are said to work independently and “free from editorial intervention by anyone at the company.” On paper, this sounds credible but raises questions as to how Facebook can avoid any unconscious bias when they recruit and hire these ‘independent’ journalists. If the journalists are working independently, how does Facebook ensure a variety of news is sourced from a variety of viewpoints while remaining unbiased?
It also raises the question as to who decides what's true these days. What's fake news and what isn't? To combat fake news, publishers must abide by Facebook guidelines that address hate speech, clickbait and other violations. However, the list of ‘trusted’ news sources includes Breitbart, a far-right website that featured a section on “black crime” and makes a point of highlighting crimes by immigrants. Breitbart and other “trusted” news sources in the same sentence feel like an oxymoron.
Aside from the independent journalists and editors, most of the content featured in the News tab is chosen by an algorithm with a personalised section that should theoretically improve the more you use it. This could be problematic, as users may resultantly fall into an echo chamber of news and categories based on what’s most relevant to them as opposed to gaining an understanding of the full spectrum of news reporting.
The impact Facebook News will have on media outlets
There are implications for publications who may struggle to monetise their traffic, either through referrals back to their websites (where they can serve ads) or subscriptions. It’s being reported that some, but not all outlets will be paid licensing fees to participate, but regional publications will only see a fraction of what their national counterparts will earn, despite arguably being the ones who need funding the most.
Facebook and news outlets have historically had a precarious relationship; Facebook’s rollout of News Feed in 2006, as well as algorithm changes such as the shift in 2018 to “meaningful content”, have changed the number of readers visiting publishers’ websites. Outlets have had no choice but to succumb to the hand that feeds them.
Finally, the rollout also resurfaces the topic of regulation to ensure there is less dominance by one company that makes decisions globally about who reads what. If the News tab rolls out beyond the US, Facebook cannot implement and monitor a global set of publisher and article vetting standards in different countries and territories that may have different tolerances and views about the news.
Facebook will benefit the most from News
The winning party from the News tab rollout is not the user, nor is it publishers. Facebook will reap the benefits. There’s likely to be more user time spent on site which is important as markets such as the US and UK reach a point of user saturation. It has ticked the box in its narrative around combating fake news and misinformation on the platform and has the power to amplify certain outlets over others to skew public opinion; this may be viewed as a strategic move in the run-up to the US 2020 Presidential race.
Time will tell whether audiences interact with the News tab. Crucially, advertisers and Facebook must work together to ensure the brand isn’t an afterthought.
Amie Lever is head of paid social at MediaCom UK