Facebook has launched tests of a “News” tab, which aims to limit the flow of phony stories populating the platform, declaring the ambitious initiative an effort to “strengthen democracy.”
The tab will not disrupt the normal functioning of the News Feed or items that appear therein, but it will aim to give users more tools that control the news items they view. Based on a survey of more than 100,000 users earlier this year, Facebook decided to manually override the artificial intelligence and algorithmic tools that serve up certain items to users. The computerized methods will still be in play, but will be supplemented by selections by a team of professional journalists.
The survey determined that the social network was under-serving stories on health, business, entertainment and sports. It will source items from four categories of publishers: general, topical, diverse and local news, implementing new methods of verifying the legitimacy of the publishers. In a significant shift, publishers will be paid by Facebook for becoming suppliers of news content. There has long been tension between news companies — both traditional and digital — and Facebook given the fact that it and Google control 80 cents of every dollar spent on online advertising. That duopoly has punished not only old-line print publishers trying to expand online but also digital natives like BuzzFeed, which have implemented layoffs and sought consolidation as their advertising efforts have been squeezed.
Political news has proven the most problematic frontier for Facebook, with propaganda campaigns altering the outcome of elections, not only in the U.S. but around the world. Shadowy operations based in Macedonia and elsewhere can quickly and efficiently spread demonstrably false stories that rack up thousands or even millions of shares and likes across Facebook.
Campbell Brown, VP, Global News Partnerships and Mona Sarantakos, Product Manager, News, explained the News tab in a blog post Friday, saying the company’s goal was to launch the initiative in a “consultative” way with publishers. CEO Mark Zuckerberg was scheduled to appear today at New York’s Paley Center with News Corp. CEO Robert Thompson to discuss the initiative and what it will mean for publishers.
“Facebook News was built to bring people closer to the stories that affect their lives,” Brown and Sarantakos wrote. “We’ll continue to learn, listen and improve News as it rolls out more broadly. We hope this work aids in our effort to sustain great journalism and strengthen democracy.”
There will also be an effort to re-balance the overall news portfolio so that it is not weighted toward major publishers at the expense of local ones. Reams of studies have identified dire consequences for the death of local journalism — particularly the “news deserts” created by the failure of hundreds of papers in recent years — a secular change exacerbated by social media.
The News tab is a response to longtime criticism of Facebook by a host of media stakeholders for growing rapidly through serving users a steady stream of news but not imposing standards on what appears in users’ feeds. Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has generally taken a laissez-faire stance toward policing what happens on Facebook and has faced frequent backlash over everything from bullying and harassment to elections to fake news.
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