A Thumb on the Scale or Adding Weight?

Facebook has once again publicly announced a change to it’s “News Feed” algorithm. The changes seem relatively minor as Facebook’s changes go.

However, the timing of the announcement is particularly awkward. Last week, Andy Mitchell, the director of news and media partnerships for Facebook, gave a keynote address at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. Journalists are increasingly concerned with the role Facebook plays in sending traffic to media organizations. (Every organization pays close attention to the other organizations they depend on.) Facebook may start hosting news content produced by large media organizations.

The problem is professional journalists, Facebook users, and Facebook executives looking to make a profit from their site may all have at least slightly different preferences for what kind of content they want emphasized on the social media platform. Journalists often separate stories in to categories of things people “need to know” and things people “want to know.” As someone who reported almost exclusively on the “need to know” side when I was in news, I sympathize with concerns that Facebook’s algorithms could punish these stories while emphasizing “want to know” links. George Brock, a journalism professor at City College in London, brought up this dilemma at the end of Mitchell’s talk last week

(Link should be queued to the question, otherwise go to 50:13)

Mitchell replied “We have to create a great experience for people on Facebook and give them the content they’re interested in. And like I said earlier, Facebook should be a complimentary news source.” Brock was not exactly thrilled with this short response, as he wrote on his own site:

For the senior news guy with such gatekeeper and distribution power to evade these questions is condescending and dishonest. Facebook is not, and knows quite well it is not, a neutral machine passing on news. Its algorithm chooses what people see, it has “community standards” that material must meet and it has to operate within the laws of many countries.

Brock’s post received more attention earlier today, when it was picked up by noted NYU professor and media critic Jay Rosen. Rosen, like many media scholars, is wary that Facebook’s interests may be different than ours. Rosen’s entire response is worth reading, but the core issue comes at the end:

We do want to know: what are you optimizing for, along with user interest? How do you see your role within a news ecosystem where you are more and more the dominant player? In news, you have power now. It is growing. Help us understand how you intend to use it. What kind of filter do you intend to be? What kind of player… playing for what?

Facebook’s official position has consistently been that they are only emphasizing user interest. Mitchell repeated this position last week. Critical media scholars like Brock and Rosen argue Facebook’s claims are deflections. They emphasize the “News Feed” algorithm is not neutral. Facebook just reminded us of that today with their latest tweak of the algorithm. Of course, as Rosen himself acknowledges in his post, true “neutrality” is impossible. There is too much news and information out there. News organizations hire professionals to sort through potential stories, while Facebook relies on its users.

Many critics of the News Feed algorithm seem to forget that Facebook, like all social network platforms, relies on users to create and share content. The range of posts I see on Facebook has a lot more to do with who I am friends with on Facebook than the algorithm. Yes, Facebook often has its thumb on the scale, but it is the users who add the weight every day.

Instead of focusing on Facebook as a big corporate bogeyman that needs to be held accountable, maybe it is more appropriate to hold people accountable for their own media consumption habits?


About Noah Grand

PhD in Sociology. I use statistics to predict news coverage. And home runs. View all posts by Noah Grand

2 responses to “A Thumb on the Scale or Adding Weight?

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