“People want to see more local news,” Mark Zuckerberg explained today in his announcement of Facebook’s latest change to their algorithms. If a Facebook friend shares a local story on their timeline, it’s now more likely to show up on your timeline. Facebook is doing this, Zuckerberg explains, because local news helps people to understand the issues in our communities, and knowing more helps people to get engaged in addressing those issues. In other words, according to Facebook, the corporation is once again seeking to give us what we want, and moreover, according to Zuckerberg, this is going to be good for our society and probably even for our democracy. But this announcement leaves at least two important questions unanswered.
First, what will happen once Facebook and my local news sources find that I’m less likely to click on a story about the mayor’s budget report than on a story about my neighbor’s cute cats? Well, here’s what could happen. Local news will need to maximize their reach on Facebook, so they will offer us more clickbait: more local cats, all the time.
Second: who gave Facebook the authority to decide what local news we’ll see in our feeds, anyway? You could argue that we grant them that authority every time we log on to the site. And Facebook itself has said that they’re leaving it up to us to decide which sources are trustworthy or not. But I don’t think you or I ever consciously decided to grant Facebook the right to make decisions about our news landscape. We didn’t elect officers to Facebook, or set up a commission to decide which algorithms will best serve the public interest, or ask our government officials to appoint a board that could hold Facebook accountable if they don’t deliver news that will improve the quality of our communities.
Facebook didn’t set out to be a news distributor, let alone a vetter of news. Zuckerberg has repeatedly denied that Facebook is a media corporation or a news outlet. But when 67% of U.S. adults say that we get most of our news from Facebook, it’s time for us to deal with the fact that Facebook is, indeed, a major news distribution system. We may not have granted them the authority to make decisions about our news landscape but they are in a position to exercise that authority. Facebook has effectively replaced the distribution system of local news that preceded it. And as ad money that once supported local news now goes to Google and Facebook, who shift the cost of content creation elsewhere while reaping the benefits that come with distributing that content, we shift even more authority to Facebook to shape our news ecosystem.
This isn’t the first time that Facebook has adjusted its algorithms in a way that affects the news you see. Last October, Facebook conducted an experiment in six countries, moving publishers’ posts to a secondary feed and leaving you with more content from friends. Overnight, engagement with Slovakia’s media Facebook pages fell by 60%. What’s more, we know that Facebook’s data science team, when faced with evidence that the news feed curation algorithm modestly accelerates the polarization that makes it less likely for us to encounter diverse news sources, framed its findings as what Christian Sandvig has termed the “it’s not our fault” study. So we can guess what they’ll say about what happens when our access to quality local news is negatively affected by their algorithms.
Maybe our expectations regarding our social media are finally changing. According to a report on CBS News, the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer survey found that trust in social media platforms is down, but trust in journalism has risen. Maybe regulators in Brussels and London will figure out a way to hold Facebook accountable for its role in undermining national elections, as some are hoping. Following a suggestion from the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Dean Baker, we could find ways to fine Facebook and require them to notify all affected users who might have seen unverified news. Or maybe we in the U.S. will finally have the political will to demand that our platforms become more transparent and governed by public rather than private entities. If not, I have some great photos of cats that I know one of my local news organizations would love for you to see.