This past summer, Facebook faced criticism for its trending news section being biased towards liberal sites, routinely ignoring or suppressing conservative news outlets like Breitbart. In response to these accusations, first revealed through documents obtained by the technology blog Gizmodo, Facebook fired the human editors whose job it was to both weed out fake news and write objective summaries of trending topics and issues. Facebook’s trending platform then switched to an algorithm that aggregated popular shared news items that would later be edited and made presentable by human editors.
Yet following the departure of the human overseers, the aggregator began highlighting fake news, starting with a post claiming Fox News host Megyn Kelly had been fired, which was false, as well as stories claiming 9/11 was not a terrorist attack. A piece also emerged under the trending feed that criticized conservative commentator Ann Coulter for statements she had never made, but also directed vulgar and lascivious language against her.
Facebook serves over 1.5 billion users and in recent years has become increasingly essential to the dispensing of news to that global audience. For students, Facebook undeniably serves as a platform to view and experience content not only shared by our friends but also favorite websites and sources for news. Yet if the company continues to position itself as a source for aggregated news content, it must revisit the methodology and algorithms that determine trending topics and stories. If Facebook cannot change its policies and practices, it cannot truly call itself a distributor of objective and accurate journalism.
Social media has become the most direct way for many individuals to access journalism and news sources. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, 62 percent of adult Americans receive news and articles from social media platforms, and 66 percent of Facebook users report reading news and journalism content through the site first. Ninety-two percent of individuals between the ages of 17 and 25 also claimed to have a Facebook account. Aside from engagement with news through Facebook, the company recently made commitments to become a more trusted platform in delivering direct articles to consumers, namely in partnering with brands like The New York Times, Vox Media and The Guardian.
News aggregation popularized by sites like Drudge Report and The Huffington Post carry the same journalistic obligations and ethics; they serve as arbiters of news and reporting for consumers, which means they are held to the same level of authenticity and correctness as other news sources. Such responsbilities should be objective and “help people discover interesting and relevant conversations happening about breaking news and events from around the world,” as Facebook’s mission statement suggests.
Facebook could solve this problem by applying more funds and capital to better algorithms and software that could weed out poor news and pieces while raising greater ones. At the same time, it may be easier for Facebook to return to its original model of having humans manually check the validity and truthfulness of content to avoid technical mistakes.
Perhaps Facebook can benefit from partnering with more journalism platforms from across the ideological spectrum to ensure only effective filtering is conducted. Conservative sources like the National Review and Breitbart and more liberal sources like The Huffington Post could be partners in helping check and balance the steady stream of news that makes its way to the front pages of users, and in providing a wider range of more reliable and trustworthy reporting to the digital, social media-engaged audience.
Facebook has the power to expose its users to content intended to educate and inform. This becomes a responsibility that, with a reach over a billion people, is not one to be taken lightly. As a platform that has already drastically shifted the way our society communicates and understands the world, Facebook’s next step should be to improve efforts in acting as a news aggregator and source of authentic, relevant news content.