The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. – Job 1:21
The biblical verse above may be an accurate metaphorical description of our relationship, as producers and consumers of journalism, with Facebook. The social network giant is benevolent – it gives us ways and means and sustenance. Conversely, it is aggravating and it is jealous – punishing those who engage with another. Most of all, it works in very, very mysterious ways.
Facebook’s news feed has essentially become the de facto daily devotional for its 1.5 billion users worldwide, and, as such, it has a huge influence on how those users view the world, from swimming bears to coup attempts, and not in insignificant ways. At its core, Facebook is, of course, a social sharing network. The users not only view content, they share it. Neither NBC nor CNN nor the New York Times have that mammoth distribution capability, therefore traditional media giants have become somewhat beholden to Facebook, working deals and hoping their news stories (and ads) spread to an exponentially larger number of consumers via mysterious algorithmic selection.
With its recent introduction of Instant Articles, Facebook has given news publishers a sexier display for their wares – instant-load, mobile-optimized stories which, over time, may subliminally entice users to habitually favor clicking on them.
Meaning, if a user notices that every time she clicks on a Washington Post article she gets a fast-loading, easy read, then future Post articles are more likely to get her to click on them. Good for WahPo, right? Maybe, but with a nod to Lee Corso, not so fast, my friend! Though Facebook giveth the fast loading and the algorithmic favor, it taketh away some of the control the news publisher previously had when the user engaged with the post via the publisher’s own website, including some important demographic/psychographic information about the readers. By encouraging news organizations to publish directly to the Instant Articles platform, Facebook is further inserting itself into the journalistic process. Many explanations and opinions have already been rendered on the technical workings and effects of Instant Articles. Not my purpose here. I am merely pointing out that Facebook is ever working on giving new-and-improved options for distributing content – contributing to that journalistic process – yet each new offering comes with a cost. Ultimately something is being lost.
As more news organizations sign on to cede some measure of control over their content, Facebook gains more power in the distribution of that content and, as with all things Facebook, the mysteries of its algorithms further cloud the transparency that is demanded by the original tenets of journalism. Admittedly, traditional news organizations have already been chipping away at that foundation for years, but Facebook-curated content, despite the company’s assurances otherwise, is just a whole new shade of opaque. And the network is apparently looking forward to a future of news content creation.
Why not? Just another step in the quest to influence the on-site time spent by users at the very least.
Facebook’s curation of news stories has already been both attacked for bias and lauded for non-bias, so who knows? The actual scary part is that most users do not recognize that their content is being curated at all. Whereas some traditional outlets have a decades-long track record of tipping their ideological hands and consumers have at least a general knowledge of what those leanings might be, Facebook, and other social giants, for that matter, are perceived by the average user to be neutral. Despite the massive trove of politically charged discourse or opinion-generating stories one might find on Facebook at any moment, users assume that content is unfiltered – offerings from other users made at their own discretion. They conceive of Facebook as a passive conduit, not as a gatekeeper. Most are oblivious to the subtle manipulation that Facebook’s filtering is capable of. And in that ignorance lies the danger.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, technical genius and storied entrepreneur, is head of a corporate behemoth whose service has become a seemingly indispensable part of human life today. As such, he can wield a great deal of power over what we see, hear, and share. More so than the heads of any traditional news network. As Facebook continues its very real transformation into a global news organization, we have to understand just how much more we are willingly handing over to an individual or very small group of individuals who are unelected and unaccountable. And whereas the heads of traditional news organizations so typically tip the social/political balance of their reporting in a visible manner, Zuckerberg is able to comfortably hide behind his own dynamic labyrinth of closely guarded algorithms which supply different content to unique users, leaving his influence virtually undetectable.
The future of news on Facebook is told by the present – the algorithmic present that is Facebook, that is Google, that is Twitter, and Instagram, and Snapchat. The content that rises to the top of the heap is not what’s necessarily what is important, it’s as or more likely to be what is popular.
In traditional news media, editors determine the most important stories, but today, social platforms are crowdsourcing feeds based on the numbers of clicks. This democratization of information can dramatically affect the overall quality of the news content being made available to most users.
The presence of ever more snackable nuggets of information and engaging visuals that Facebook drops into users’ news feeds will ensure that millions of people will know about the British couple whose cat adopts a baby squirrel, yet significantly fewer will know about the potential governmental policy change that could affect entire generations. And in that danger lies the ignorance.