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Why the Facebook trending news controversy is a tipping point

If you keep up with the news you’ll already know all about Facebook’s biggest PR fiasco in recent history: the “trending news” controversy. In a story broken by tech blog Gizmodo, one anonymous Facebook-contracted ex-curator claimed to reveal a bias. The curators in charge of determining the trending news column nestled on the right-hand side of one billion Facebook news feeds were reputedly ignoring popular news from conservative sources while “injecting” topics that weren’t actually trending as significantly.

Suppression of conservative news itself isn’t the big story here, as even Glenn Beck himself freely admits. If Facebook’s Millennial-skewing employee base is in charge of curating what topics are seen, they’ll naturally pick ones they perceive as legitimate.

The larger PR problem was that Facebook insinuated its trending service was algorithmic rather than human-staffed (it mitigated this by releasing their editorial guidelines followed by tweaking its approach). Of course, a typical algorithm is biased towards what it already knows a user likes, often leading to a “filter bubble,” as entrepreneur Eli Pariser termed it. This is also editorialising, even if computer-driven. Any form of math-driven service, like the process by which Facebook turns up media posts on its main feed, is a biased editorial service.

The larger concern is the effect of “having a news ecosystem now which is effectively dictated by the behaviours of these very big platform companies,” as Columbia Journalism School professor Emily Bell said in a recent interview.

So what is the effect? Unsurprisingly, massive platforms aren’t great at delivering news.

 

Why Facebook isn’t a great news service

Ideally, Facebook should only report trends with no editorialising, but strictly speaking, this is impossible. Something, human or algorithm, must pick what rises to the top from a massive global user base. Even if liberal minds aren’t picking and choosing, tough choices abound. Someone needs to weigh the majority opinion on one side of the world against that on the other and must figure out what news to prioritise, should, say, Coca-Cola release a new flavour on the same day that civil unrest escalates in South Sudan. Tweaking the feed to display the most clicked posts may seem obvious, but it’s an editorial move that ensures the top content will be the most easily digestible.

Sometimes the Trending feature appears to display an incredibly dry sense of humour, as when it reminded users that the game Half-Life 3 was never released with the statement “1st-Person Shooter's 3rd Episode Announced 10 Years Ago This Week”. But any humour is usually a function of the news being reported, as Facebook intentionally phrases every alert with rigor that borders on rigor mortis. It’s a small matter, sure, but the personal touch that humour adds goes a long way for many news consumers.

In one of the highest compliments Facebook will ever pay to its competitor Twitter, the Trending section refuses to even mention the word, replacing any use of “Twitter” with “social media”. Can we trust Facebook to remain an unbiased news source when it edits the English language to its advantage?

Perhaps the worst offense that Facebook commits as a news service is the breadth of its news: Those who don’t consider a Dancing With the Stars contestant’s pelvic injury essential to their life must simply wait until the algorithm can figure out how to tell them what they want to hear. Then, it’s an echo chamber that won’t let users grow beyond their algorithmic boundaries. As Facebook’s product manager once put it: “Fundamentally, our role is to help the people who use news feed get what they want”.

 

The news service we need: Personal, editorialised curation

In a platform age, people get more news than ever from fewer pipelines than ever. 63% of the users on both Facebook and Twitter treat it as a news source.

The amount of news is increasing, too, alongside the amount of media in general. Digital news requires no physical constraints, and the internet produces more photos, video, and writing each day than anyone could hope to consume in a lifetime.

Together, the explosion of content and the power of platforms are shifting the media industry's biggest bottleneck from publishers to consumers. We don’t need cheap journalism at scale. We need in-depth journalism for a niche market. Or, since we have plenty of journalism to choose from, perhaps we need a curator who can trim and tweak an appropriate amount of the most in-depth media for a niche audience.

Niche media is taking off: People already pick and choose TV shows to enjoy online without committing to an entire network brand name. It’s time for niche news services that curate a feed of articles and in-depth long-reads from across the internet, designed for a specific personality or industry.

Plenty of media sites act like curators now: Gawker and Buzzfeed commonly repost or link to entertaining content from across the internet. A random Tumblr post spawned viral hit “The Dress,” for instance. But a more focused, serious, tasteful approach could be the bedrock of a new curating wave. Decentralised curation by “tastemaker curators” has been suggested in a prescient MediaREDEF article last January: Personal, authentic voices can serve as trustworthy gatekeepers to audiences of millions, Tal Shachar and Matthew Ball argued. They cite the pre-digital mavens Martha Stewart and Oprah as early curators, but hold that a sharp uptick is coming.

Plenty of celebrities and influencers are already curating media reflective of their persona and interests to multi-millions of followers. Ironically, the same platforms that fail as curators themselves provide a space for decentralised curators to reach their audiences, though the best format by far is the email newsletter: Audiences might never see a Facebook post in their feed, but an email is a consistent point of contact.

Once established, curators can even try their hand at writing their own articles. Here the MediaREDEF article shows its hand, as the company is primarily a curator.

These tastemakers might never boost their profiles above those who share their interests, but their model for connecting with audiences—and profiting off the enterprise—shares many parallels with the perks bloggers once enjoyed, though a subscription model may work even better for curators. (The Browser seems to think so.) The era of the amateur blogger is gone, but the amateur curator is just getting started.

Curators could be the future

Facebook’s news service has its uses: It signals cultural trends and it delivers breaking news that’s relevant to everyone. But the social network is simply too massive and ubiquitous to provide news or media that can enlighten individual users on a deeper level.

Platforms rush towards the lowest common denominator; Tastemaking curators flee it. More culturally limited curators will be the spicy three-star meal to Facebook’s bland Quarter Pounder with cheese.

Just as search engines have given way to platforms, platforms will give way to in-depth curation. Facebook’s PR problems are the first sign of the crack in the platform’s bulwark.

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Adam Rowe

Adam Rowe is a freelance science and technology writer. He splits his freelance research time between finding bizarre science facts and bizarre science fiction, documenting it all @AdamRRowe.

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