Facebook’s News Feed changes won’t solve its fake news problem

facebook news feed
Image credit: Rose Carson / Shutterstock.com

Last Friday, Facebook announced changes to its News Feed that will essentially prioritize posts from friends and family that “spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people” over non-paid posts from publishers and brands.

It’s a fairly big deal on several fronts, starting of course with the investors who are now very, very sad that Facebook will not make as much money as a result of the decision, while the changes will likely result in higher ad prices, reports Reuters.

Then there are media companies that have been using Facebook to reach readers and drive traffic. Whether it’s a good or bad thing for them depends who you ask. According to Vox, CUNY professor Jeff Jarvis, who worked with Facebook on its News Integrity Initiative, says media companies will shy away from Facebook because there’s no money to be made from it, while advertisers are more likely to buy ads on Facebook directly than with the media companies.

On the other hand, Franklin Foer at The Atlantic said while the media business will certainly go through a pain phase, they’re ultimately better off for it:

Facebook has just done media the biggest favor of them all. It has forced media to face the fact that digital advertising and ever-growing web traffic will never sustain the industry, especially if that traffic comes from monopolies like Facebook hoping to claim the entirety of digital advertising dollars for themselves. Media can’t deny this, but it doesn’t want to sustain the pain and heartbreak that comes with transition; and it’s reluctant to let go of the notion that it might exploit Facebook to achieve global scale. Now, Zuckerberg has broken that too—and freed media from a delusion that it should have discarded long ago.

Naturally that wasn’t Mark Zuckerberg’s intention. The changes to News Feed are ostensibly his “fix” to the problems that have been plaguing Facebook and its overall user experience in recent times – namely the deluge of fake news, hoaxes and misinformation that have dominated News Feed and the apparent fact that Russian operatives and other groups were able to manipulate the feed, quite likely to the point of affecting the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election.

Zuckerberg has struggled to come to grips with the fact that is social media platform had become the equivalent of a major media publisher to the point that he could no longer avoid the gatekeeping responsibilities that come with such a role – it was no longer enough to say, “Hey, we’re just a neutral software tool, it’s not up to us to pass judgment on our users’ opinions.” And it’s become increasingly clear that the problem isn’t something that can be fixed simply with machine-learning algorithms – at least not for some time yet.

Consequently, the real question is: will the News Feed changes help diminish (if not entirely eliminate) the problem of viral fake news, memes and political manipulation?

I don’t think it will, for a reason I’ve touched on before –Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms are only part of the problem. The other part of the problem is the purveyors of such content and users gullible enough to take it at face value because it slots in perfectly with whatever echo chamber/reality bubble they already inhabit. Like it or not, there is an audience for this stuff, and the audience believes this stuff is real (just as they often believe anything from outside the chamber is fake).

I don’t see how pushing third-party content down to the bottom of the News Feed will help. What’s stopping users from getting such content from Twitter or media sites directly (or from their Pages that host all those political memes that are often inaccurate, if not insane) and sharing it as a personal post? It’s as if Facebook is banking on users being too lazy to go to the trouble of getting news from somewhere else and posting a link on Facebook.

Also, as Vox points out, it’s not like the creators of such content (and the political groups relaying their content to their audience) don’t know how to game the engagement-driven system Facebook will be relying on to make this work:

Above all, Facebook’s reversion to reliance on individual users to drive content does nothing to address longstanding concerns about echo chambers and “filter bubbles” on the site. Without the ostensibly neutral tone of third-party media outlets on your feeds, these information silos may only get worse.

On the bright side, it’s a milestone of sorts that Facebook – and Zuckerberg in particular – has finally admitted that it has big problems that are making Facebook a worse experience for many users. Clearly Facebook couldn’t address the problem until it admitted the problem existed and that it was Facebook’s responsibility to deal with it. And it’s perhaps a show of good faith that Zuckerberg is willing to endure some short-term financial pain as a starting point.

But it’s just that: a starting point. Facebook has a lot of work ahead to make social media a positive experience again. And the human condition being what it is, there’s arguably only so much Facebook can do without making investors even more sad.

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